How to Succeed in Distance Learning

 
Taking a distance learning course is much different from traditional college courses.  
Statistically, virtual courses (via computer or television) have a higher drop rate than do courses that meet one to three times per week.
 
Be open to change
Studying for a virtual course is different than studying for a traditional (on-campus) course.

Set time aside for study for your distance course
Organize your time. Use a planning calendar (separated into hour or half-hour increments).  Mark out fixed responsibilities such as work, on-campus classes, religious obligations, etc.  Enter study time of at least 10-12 hours per week, per class.

Don't over-schedule your time. Be realistic. Allow for "time crashers," (appointments that take longer than expected, computer program malfunction, ISP service not connecting, emergencies, etc.)  Schedule breaks and free time. You need these so don't feel guilty for taking a well-deserved respite.

The best time of day to do virtual coursework is when you have the most energy.  Distance learning is difficult enough without trying to accomplish it while not at your peak performance level.    

Find a quiet study area
S
tudy in a quiet area without distractions. Turn off telephones, cell phones, pagers, and televisions (unless studying televised educational programming). If using your computer while connected online, turn off email and IM programs.

If you don't have a quiet place to study at home, consider the College or public libraries. 

Always have a current, updated, printed copy of the assignment sheet with your study materials (books. CDs etc.) Don't rely on the program platform (Blackboard, WebCT, Etudes, etc.) to be available at all times. There are many reasons that might prevent your from connecting to the Web site.


You may encounter problems or have questions with your assignments. Some careful planning early in the semester will help avert problems later.  Always have your instructor's phone number and office hours available. Never rely merely on email as the only form of communication between you and your instructor and classmates.  Having the phone numbers and email addresses of a few classmates is a good idea, too.

Your instructor may advise you to periodically check the course's FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) page for answers to questions asked in student emails.  Chances are, if one student has a question or a problem, others will too. It is much easier for the instructor to provide answers once than to answer each student's emails individually.

When emailing your instructor or classmates, please allow sufficient time for a response before re-submitting your question or request. Your instructor will provide you with instructions on the electronic submission of assignments. Please follow these instructions. Many times the instructor will stipulate the exact information to appear in the subject line of an email. This usually includes the student's name and the title of the assignment. Remember, your instructor will receive 20-50 emails per assignment per class. The closer you adhere to the instructor's instructions, the better the chance for a timely response.

Write the URL of your course's homepage somewhere handy for easy reference. Some suggestions: inside the textbook, the inner cover of your class notebook, inside your date book/planner.  Always bookmark the page or add the page to your list of favorites on your home or base computer.


Do not fall into the pit of procrastination
Even students with the best intentions may lose inspiration and motivation at some time during the semester. It is common for a student to experience a period of ennui, or weariness, at some point. This often occurs during the seventh week of a 10-week quarter, or the 12th week of a 17-week semester.  Sometimes the most intrepid, independent, and motivated student experiences a period of self-doubt and/or isolation. The following paragraphs offer you, the student, some words of motivation and guidance.

Remember your goal. Whether it is a class grade, a necessary course for a job promotion, or a degree. Maybe you are taking a course for the self-satisfaction of learning. (In the last few years many grandparents enrolled in courses just to learn to email letters and photos to family members and friends.)

Most distance learning students at College of the Canyons live within ten miles of the main campus. Consider forming a study partnership with one or two students who are similar to you (interests, employment, study availability, etc.)  These relationships with other learners allow for the encouragement of one another. One feels more motivated if one feels that he or she is part of a community. One caution:  Study groups of more than two or three people may work against distance learners, as scheduling conflicts tend to occur. Remember, one of the main reasons one takes a distance learning course is the flexibility it affords. 

One motivational technique used by distance learners is to meet briefly, periodically, (every week or two), at a small cafe or coffee house.  The informal dialogue between students may provide the motivation necessary for continued success in your class.


When distance learning feels too distant
Distance learners often balance many major responsibilities (family, job, second job, on-campus courses, etc.) Distance learners may feel isolated at some point. They don't meet physically with classmates, and oftentimes are alone at their home with their computer (online courses). 

If the feeling of isolation occurs, the best medicine is to go online and see if other classmates are online at that time.  Many courses make use of a synchronous chat program (AOL's AIM, Yahoo Instant Messenger, MSN Messenger, ICQ.)  If such a program isn't in use within the class, you might want to exchange personal addresses for the purpose of informal chat.  Arranging to meet briefly can be a great "pick-me-up."

 

Don't sweat the small stuff
Life, like an emergency, happens.  We schedule too many things into our busy lives.  Whereas, flexibility is a positive factor of distance learning, it is also easy to mismanage, and you may find yourself falling behind in your studies.

Review time management and study skills to keep from falling perilously behind.  If you know about some potential "time crashers" looming in your future, consider completing your assignments ahead of time.  Many instructors do not want individual students to advance ahead of the rest of the class, but will sometimes allow students to work ahead, with prior permission and a valid reason. If you do fall behind, don't panic! Contact your instructor ASAP, and notify them of your situation. Most will attempt to accommodate you.

Don't be shy! If you are having a problem, or have a question, contact your instructor or the teaching assistant.  You will waste valuable time floundering without a clear notion of what is going on in class.


Be prepared! The best defense is a good offense!
Okay, enough with the clichés. Its important to note that the distance learner requires additional skills for success in the educational arena. A 
technological assessment survey page is there for your help. A low score on this assessment may indicate the need for supplemental skills required for distance learning.

Online students must be capable of basic computer skills: sending, receiving, and managing email; communicating online; and creating and formatting documents, to name a few.  A complete list of related
 mini tutorials are available for your assistance.

It's beneficial to know these basic skills before attempting an online course, or any course containing a sizeable Web requirement.

Familiarize yourself with any online tools provided. Read assignments and instructions carefully.  Become comfortable with course navigation. If taking a course with a platform unknown to you, take the orientation that accompanies it.  Keep the tech support number nearby.  Most platforms have a 24-hour help desk.  (At this time the College does not have a student help desk).

Take time to review the computer and its functions. Browse the Internet. Use a search engine to look up key words and phrases that pertain to your course.  Bookmark sites that may be of use to you during the course of the semester.  This will save time for you later.

Forget how to set the margin? Remember, there is a help menu available on your word processing program.  The word "Help" usually appears on the line of menu items at the top of your screen; or you may hit the "F1" key for assistance.  A "?" will appear on the standard toolbar if you have this displayed.
 
 
Stay in touch
Check into your class regularly even if you don't have anything specific to add to a discussion. Sometimes it's good to enter the class discussion area just to offer some constructive advice or provide brief responses to the postings of others. In many courses, class participation is a substantial portion of your grade.

While your content should be structured and organized, feel free to speak informally.  When in class discussions, specifically synchronous, type as you would speak. Don't fret about commas and excessive grammar.  Try to do your best, but feel free to
use electronic shorthand or "emoticons," 
sparingly.


Be a responsible learner
Distance learners are responsible for their learning and must take the responsibility for being active learners, rather than passive learners.  The student does not sit passively, ready to be filled with information, but must discover the information by doing his/her own research.


Know your limitations
Students have an array of learning styles, goals and objectives.  Understand why it is you are taking a particular course. Are you fulfilling units for a degree? Learning skills for a possible job promotion or to get a new job? Just learning for the sake of learning? Understanding why you are taking a course will help you to stay motivated during the late nights of study.

Many students find that they are not cut out for distance learning.  Their educational goals may not be immediately apparent; they may be unclear as to why they enrolled in an online class; they can't seem to set aside enough quality study time; they do not work well independently, and constantly find themselves falling behind; or they just feel lost without the physical "bricks & mortar" of a classroom.

Distance learning may not be for you. This does not mean that you are a bad student!  It may be that your individual learning style is not conducive to distance learning. To discern your
 learning style, links on this page will direct you to several learning styles inventories.
 

Technology issues
Students should be comfortable using a computer for completing their assignments, doing research on the World Wide Web, synchronous and asynchronous communication.  Although owning a personal computer is not mandatory, it is a good idea.  If a student does not own his/her own computer, it is advantageous to have access to one several times per week.  Several courses require material that is distributed on CD-ROMs, therefore a CD-ROM (internal or external) may be required.

High-speed access is not necessary, but the faster the connection speed, the faster material will download, and the less you will have to wait to continue with your assignment.

Students should have the following word processing skills:
  • Create and save a document in different formats
  • Copy-and-paste or cut-and-paste from one source to another
  • Change size, style and color of font
  • Set margins and page orientation
  • Use spelling, grammar and thesaurus functions
  • Add page numbers, headers and footers in a document
  • Create and/or import tables
  • Use a printer
Students should have an email address dedicated only to coursework and have the following email skills:
  • Send and receive emails with attachments
  • Forward and reply to emails (There is a difference!)
  • Create an email group and send messages to it
Online students should have the following discussion skills:
  • Post messages to a discussion board
  • Post messages with attachments to a discussion board
  • Log onto and participate in a synchronous chat room
Online students should have the following Internet skills:
  • Visit sites by use of hyperlink or URL
  • Move forward and backward through sites
  • Create and use bookmarks or "favorites"
  • Use a search engine
  • Download files from the Web
  • Install plug-ins