In today’s competitive job market, many people consider distance learning as an obvious way to upskill without having to leave their employment and lose their paycheque in the process. Additionally, it is viewed as an option that provides more flexibility and control over time and pace than full-time study.

But while these perceptions are relatively accurate, going the distance study route should only be tackled in partnership with an effective strategy, since there are many challenges associated with this mode of study, an expert warns.

“Distance study provides the ideal opportunity in certain circumstances; however students should know what they are letting themselves in for and how to handle any issues that might arise, if they do not want to join the ranks of those who threw in the towel after discovering it is not the walk in the park some perceive it to be,” says Dr Felicity Coughlan, Director of The Independent Institute of Education, SA’s largest and most accredited private higher education institution.

“Regrettably, many people who register for a full qualification in the distance mode do not succeed, chiefly because these students do not have access to the critical success factors enjoyed by contact students,” she says, adding that to be successful, both institutions and students must remove the ‘distance’-elements from distance study by leveraging all the tools available.

Coughlan says the most important thing distance students have to do to ensure success, is to structure their time and be clear about the workload they are taking on.

“In most cases, students underestimate the work they have to get through, and as a consequence they don’t make adequate provision to accommodate these demands in their normal routine.

“Higher education institutions should therefore provide detailed information about the time required, as well as proposals on how to pace the learning to achieve best outcomes.  Students should make extensive use of electronic diaries and alerts and ensure that they set up reminders for the various milestones on the way to deadlines.”

Successful distance students should also ensure that they are connected to other students doing the same work, says Coughlan.

“Many institutions have learning management systems with virtual classrooms enabling students to collaborate. Students who take that further, by collaborating beyond the required activities, also do not feel as isolated, while receiving the support that contact students take for granted.”

Coughlan says a third indicator for successful distance study is when the student is not just a number, but has an identity.

“These students fully engage with the available support systems, including tutors and lecturers, and make sure that they are known for being active and involved.  As a result, they get the attention of those who are available to support them. Interestingly, distance educators often experience the same frustration over the lack of feedback that their students feel, so they instinctively gravitate towards engaged students.”

And finally, when the going gets tough, successful distance students don’t just give up and disappear.

“You have to ask for help as soon as things start to go wrong. Because at any reputable distance institution, help should be available to support you through the challenging times to get you back on the road again,” Coughlan says.

She says institutions can greatly improve their distance learning success rates if they:

  • Have early warning systems such as monitoring online activity, and reach out to students as soon as a student seems to have gone quiet;
  • Make full use of the functionality of learning management systems and include activities that elicit responses and collaboration;
  • Recognise that access to bandwidth is not a given, and thus have mechanisms other than the learning management system to enable students to engage;
  • Have used appropriate learning theory in setting up the coursework in recognition of the challenges of independent learning by adults;
  • Give feedback efficiently and at a level of detail that enables students to implement required remedial action, and
  • Allocate sufficient resources to student support.

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