Distance Learning Programs
Mark Gueffroy lives off campus. Way off campus. About an hour’s drive, actually.
Gueffroy’s books, class materials, a packet of assignments and phone numbers of faculty come in the mail at each semester’s start. He will contact his professors through e-mail and phone calls, but will never see them face to face.
Gueffroy, 17, is taking online college classes through the Athabasca University distance learning programs in Alberta. Distance learning programs are nothing new—pioneers in the States received educational materials via the Pony Express, and some universities have programs already decades old.
“What’s new is not so much learning without a professor present, but rather learning online,” says Bettina Brockerhoff-Macdonald, manager of Laurentian University’s distance learning programs in Sudbury, Ontario.
Online College Classes -An alternative answer
Gaining strength is the concept of online learning programs as a viable way to earn an entire degree. It’s a concept being recognized by universities, students and governments as one solution to the growing number of students applying for higher education.
Many distance learners are full-time workers looking to upgrade their education, stay-at-home parents or senior citizens. The others are college students complementing their on-campus workload with online college classes. About 60 percent of Athabasca University’s 25,583 students enrolled in distance learning programs are full-time students elsewhere who either can’t find time for another on-campus course or who need to take more credit hours in one semester than their home school will allow. They’ll fill the requirement with an online college classes instead. These students are required to get an in-depth permission letter from their home campuses so they can be assured the online credit will transfer.
Jackie Rowsell is using distance-education classes to complement her course load at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Rowsell became a distance learner last year. Memorial didn’t offer some classes she wanted to take, so she enrolled in online courses for credit towards her Memorial degree. “I prefer online,” she says. “You have your own pace. And with the Internet, you can still contact your profs and other students.”
What makes a good program?
Access, for one. Students should have access to their professors, to support services and to other students in the class. The programs should also be open to all types of learners.
Envy of the world? Well, Gueffroy’s college experience might be the envy of some traditional-campus students: no 8 a.m. lectures, no squeezing classes into an already-tight schedule, no dressing to impress.
“It’s flexible,” he says. “It’s a lot easier to schedule online college classes than going to a traditional university. The best benefit of distance education is having the flexible schedule so you can take part in other activities in your life.”
For Gueffroy, that flexibility means time to volunteer, to participate in AU’s student government and to work. That’s one of the often-cited benefits of distance learning: You can work a regular job during the day and work on your classes whenever you want.
Distance-education students can earn degrees in many of the same concentrations as on-campuses students. You can earn a bachelor’s degree in Native studies, women’s studies or even an MBA without ever attending a formal class.
“The only thing that’s really missing is in-class interaction and that personal touch,” Brockerhoff-Macdonald says. “You can’t ask a professor (a question) the regular way.”
The challenges of distance learning programs
The professors at Athabasca—there are 90 full-time faculty members—work on a campus without classrooms. The university’s Alberta location is two buildings of offices, storage and meeting rooms. In Edmonton and Calgary, there are learning centers in which some evening and weekend classes are taught on-site. But those sites aren’t close enough for Gueffroy to ever meet his professors. In the distance- learning programs model, classroom participation isn’t included.
“I’m missing out on interaction with other students and a lot of the activities that are available at a traditional university,” Gueffroy says.
To lessen that sense of isolation, Bob Brandes, president elect of the Association for Media and Technology in Education in Canada (AMTEC) and a professor at Windsor, Ontario's, St. Clair College, tries to meet with students who live nearby. He also posts his students’ pictures on the Web. The challenge, Brandes says, is to provide interaction that’s as meaningful to online students as it is to those in the classroom. That means heavy use of e-mail, phones, listservs, chat rooms, academic advisors and even Internet cameras.
Keeping in touch with your professors and support staff, however, depends on your own self-motivation. “When you have a stack of textbooks on your kitchen counter, it’s kind of easy to let it slide. Your studies become part of and not the centre of your life,” says AU communications officer Pam Patten.
Also a challenge: making sure no one cheats. In a traditional classroom, a professor can keep an eagle’s-eye view on test takers. “If I see them every week, I get to know their faces,” Brandes says. “Online, there’s more of a concern because you never really see a person.”
That’s why essay- and project-based classes instead of multiple-choice tests, for example, are popular features of distance courses. Students may also be required to have exams proctored by universities near their homes.
There’s still homework
Even though you don’t see your professors on a daily basis (if ever), distance education still demands time and cost commitments comparable to on-campus classes. Plan to work 10 to 15 hours a week on each 3-credit class you take. Your program’s timeline may be extensive, too. A bachelor’s program for which you take classes off and on can average five or six years to complete.
Distance learning programs have come miles since the days of the Pony Express. And it’s an alternative that is here to stay as universities and colleges develop online campuses with opportunities similar to their traditional offerings.
After all, Brandes says, “we haven’t even seen the end of what technology can do.”
Considering online college classes? Here’s some advice from the experts:
- Be disciplined and motivated enough to make time for your schoolwork.
- Encourage family and friends to support you. Remind them that you’re not free to go out just because you’re studying at home. Help them understand your time commitment.
- Take advantage of your program’s student services, such as academic advisors and tutors. - Open the box of class materials the day it arrives. Start your work immediately.
- Keep in touch with your tutor, even if it’s just to tell her you read the section or ask him about a chapter. The support of your tutor can help you succeed.
- Plan to spend an average of 10 to 15 hours per week on each three-credit class.