New Opportunities for Distance Learners

Every fall millions of students across the country go back to school. Armed with lunchboxes, backpacks, and even laptops, students fill classrooms in elementary and high schools as well as colleges and technical schools. But other students are also going back to school, just not to a classroom. Through distance education programs that have blossomed in the last few years, students are earning GEDs, completing college degrees, changing career directions and enriching creative outlets.

Dr. Tim Tomlinson, director of the Center for Distance Education at Northwestern College in Saint Paul, Minn., explains that initially distance education was developed with the non-traditional student in mind. “The non-traditional student is a natural for a online learning program. They use online learning for professional development, personal enrichment, degree completion, job advancement, home-schooling, even career changes,” he says.

But in the last couple of years it’s traditional students, those 18 to 24, who are also seeing the benefits of online learning. “For some it’s convenience and flexibility,” Tomlinson says. “While they work during the summer to earn money for college, they can complete courses without having to be on the campus and in the classroom. We have one traditional student who had to return to his home in North Dakota due to his father’s illness. Through online learning, he’ll be able to complete his degree.”

Traditional students have also discovered the financial benefit of distance education. Online education usually costs less, Tomlinson points out. “In some cases a student can cut 20 to 25 percent off the total cost of a four-year program by incorporating just one year of distance learning.”

In its simplest form, distance learning takes place whenever a student and instructor are separated by physical distance. One hundred years ago, the concept was known as “Correspondence School.” Today distance education uses textbooks, audio and video cassettes, fax, interactive television, audio conferencing and computer technologies such as CD-ROM, e-mail and the Internet.

Success in distance learning is neither automatic nor guaranteed, Tomlinson stresses. The challenge of introducing online education into the already precarious balance of work, family, recreation and civic/church activities is sometimes more than many are able to accomplish. Tomlinson pinpoints several factors that can steer the student to Success.

o Vision – A vision for the future will get students through times of doubt and discouragement and allow them to see beyond today’s sacrifice and effort.

o Discipline – Because most distance education students are already busy balancing work and family, discipline is necessary to successfully complete a course. Students need to acknowledge the forces, which might compete for the time, money and resources required for distance education, then focus on order and control.

o Accountability – By design, distance education usually lacks a high level of accountability. Some students welcome this while others find it difficult to motivate themselves. For those who need accountability, a teacher, friend, family member, mentor or pastor can direct accountability and keep students “on their toes” academically.

o Planning – Planning for distance education courses involves at least three elements:

1) Time – Determine how much time is required for each course and where to fit that time into a schedule.

2) Space – Choose a study area that is comfortable, not too hot or too cold and with adequate lighting with a minimum of distractions.

3) Resources – The basic resources include workbooks, textbooks, paper, dictionary, pencil or pen, paper clips. Additionally, courses may require a tape player, VCR, computer or online service.

o Perseverance – Thomas Edison said, “Inspiration is 99 percent perspiration.” In other words, succeeding at anything worthy–even online education – requires plain hard work. Beware of that first sign of waning perseverance, “I just don’t have the time. right now.” Don’t be tempted to put aside the course until things are less busy. Just as things move from order to chaos, they also move from busy to busier.


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