Distance Learning: The Student Perspective
Students today are entering, through online education, into a new type of university. With the advent of affordable and accessible college courses offered over the Internet, there are more opportunities than ever to complete a course or a degree program without leaving home.
When you decide to enroll in a distance education program, a number of items are important in making the experience positive and meaningful. The checklist should include:
Access. Make sure you can access all academic and support areas through email, phone, or fax. You should be required to visit locations in person either seldom or not at all. Many students report that they are drawn to colleges with distance education programs that have few entrance requirements–or those that at least eliminate those entrance requirements aimed at traditional residential students.
Flexibility in Program Design. The program should be flexible in enabling you to utilize transfer credits; in obtaining college credit for successful outcomes on national examinations such as CLEP, DANTES, etc.; in having workplace training and education assessed for college credit; and in offering a specialization within a degree program designed to build on your educational objectives. Look for a program that allows you to complete course work through a variety of distance education methodologies rather than relying on one method for the entire degree program, especially at the undergraduate level. Completing all 40 courses for a baccalaureate degree solely through your PC could be a recipe for burnout.
Academic Advisor. Inquire as to whether there is someone available to work with you from start to finish-someone who can answer any questions that arise regarding the course or degree program in a timely manner and who will serve as a positive influence throughout your online education.
Financial Aid Assistance. Confirm that you will have access to all applicable financial aid information regarding available programs and student eligibility, and that financial aid staff are available to help you complete and process the required paperwork. Information on loans, college scholarships, and grant programs as well as on eligibility for federal, state, and private financial aid are all important to anyone seeking financial assistance. You should be given a clear understanding of what they are required to do if granted financial aid and have a source of information if any questions arise.
Registration Process. There should be clear instructions regarding the registration process, with staff available to assist you in completing this process quickly and easily from a distance. Look for programs that offer online registration and/or toll-free registration numbers rather than on-site, arena-style registration.
Tuition and Fees. Clearly defined tuition and fees, as well as any other expenses you will incur, are instrumental in determining the total cost of your education. Be aware of hidden costs that many times are not reimbursed by employers who pay only tuition. There are many institutions that have dramatically increased various fees while maintaining low annual tuition rates.
Library, Computer, and Other Support Structures. Check into what kind of support structure is offered to complete the required course work, such as library access, Internet sites to obtain materials, and access to textbook providers via email, phone, and fax. Make sure you know the exact computer specifications, both hardware and software, required for completion of the course work. A technical help desk should also be provided.
Sympathetic Faculty. In most cases, students completing courses from a distance have professional and personal priorities that can get in front of their educational priorities. It is important, from a student standpoint, that faculty have experience mentoring students from a distance and realizing the full-time work responsibilities that many students have while engaged in such programs. Because of the demands on students, faculty may need to be flexible regarding assignment deadlines and requirements. If you’re employed full-time, seek out classes that allow you to apply your work experience to class assignments.
Advice from Those Who Have Been There
Tina Greco, a New Jersey resident, received a Master of Science in management through Thomas Edison State College, located in Trenton, New Jersey. This program is aimed at mid-level managers who entered the management field without an undergraduate major in business. The program is offered almost entirely online. Tina outlines for us her motivation and experience in completing her graduate degree:
“Once I determined that a traditional classroom education was too disruptive to my lifestyle and that of my family, I began to explore distance education as an option. Obtaining a degree online afforded the option of completing assignments around the schedule of my commitments. Weekly assignments did not have to compete with my employers’ expectations of me, the family dinner hour, or social commitments.
“There are many distance education programs to choose from, and it became important to list the factors that would determine a selection. I did not want my degree to be perceived as a correspondence degree without rigor or credibility. What was the point of obtaining a degree that would not be respected? The yardstick that traditional institutions of higher education use to determine value is accreditation. The same is true for distance learning education programs. The primary question to ask is whether the institution delivering the education is accredited by a recognized accrediting body. In addition, one should ask whether the program of study has a discipline-specific accreditation. The answers I received to these questions addressed the issues of credibility, rigor, and respectability that I felt were crucial to my decision-making process.
“The next issue became the choice of discipline and whether a program offered a degree that was obtainable completely online or a hybrid that would require a brief ‘residency’ during the course of study. I knew that I wanted the vast majority of my study to be online and I was not interested in weekend or monthly residencies. I also knew that I wanted to complete the degree in a condensed period of time–my family could only be patient so long. Therefore, I sought out programs that would award my degree in less than three years. I also worried that I might feel disconnected from the process if I were too isolated. I was concerned that working alone on a laptop-in a distance learning environment-could somehow transverse the space/time continuum and create a cyber-learning classroom. By addressing these issues and making inquiries of several programs, I began to narrow the field of likely institutions.
“My next considerations were school ranking and familiarity with delivering distance education. Many institutions were just beginning their distance learning education delivery systems and had only a few years of experience. I wanted a program that had worked out the ‘bugs,’ had a proven track record of accreditation, and was well-established in the distance learning environment. In addition I had day-to-day student questions: How would I access a library? Where would I purchase my textbooks? Would I have technical support from the institution when it came to using my personal computer?
“My exploration ended with the selection of Thomas Edison State College. Forbes Magazine had recently ranked it ‘one of the top 20 cyber-universities,’ and it has been delivering distance education since the early 1970s. It is fully accredited, has an established reputation of rigor and excellence, and offered me a master’s degree in the field of management that I could complete in two years or less. The College also has an affiliation with the state library for borrowing and research privileges and a bookstore that would deliver books to my doorstep.
Linda Brown Holt completed a Master of Arts in humanities through California State University at Dominguez Hills in 1993. Below, she describes her experiences with completing a degree, without campus attendance, through the use of correspondence study:
“On several occasions in my thirties, I attempted to earn a graduate degree by commuting to a campus and taking classes. However, with a career, family responsibilities, and volunteer activities, I could not manage the long commutes and late hours. I knew distance education offered the solution I needed, but like many adults, I wanted to make sure the program I chose was of the highest quality and met my own academic, personal, and professional goals.
“In the early 1990s, I was very happy to discover the Master of Arts in Humanities External Degree Program at California State University-Dominguez Hills (CSU-HUX). The CSU-HUX program was exactly what I was looking for: a well-rounded, academically impeccable program that allowed me to expand on my knowledge of the humanities while focusing in on an area of special interest (in my case, philosophy). The program was flexible, but I was never coddled or spoon-fed education. In fact, I worked harder and had more direction and guidance from faculty than I did in some of my more traditional undergraduate classes many years before. At the end of each class, which followed the traditional college semester model, I had a sense of accomplishment and mastery. Several of the final papers I wrote for courses were subsequently published in a journal.
“At the time, CSU-HUX offered what it termed ‘parallel instruction.’ While my professor was teaching graduate students in a classroom in California, I sat in my living room in New Jersey following a detailed syllabus, critical readings, and assigned texts. I was able to communicate frequently with my professor by phone or mail (today, it would be email) and had numerous written assignments, which were always returned with instructive and sometimes motivational comments to help me stay on course. And because I chose a public university, the cost of my education was very affordable.
“In about two and a half years of part-time study, I graduated with an MA from California State. The CSU-HUX program stimulated my mind, put me in touch with exciting faculty who challenged me and helped me think in new ways, and gave me an unmatched sense of achievement. Today, while continuing to work full-time, I am also a doctoral student in a classroom-based program at Drew University, one of the finest private liberal arts colleges in the Northeast. Using the knowledge I gained at CSU-Dominguez Hills and Drew, I am developing expertise that I can apply in a second career.
“Clearly, there is a place for both distance and classroom-based education in our lives. Thanks to CSU-HUX, I have had the best of both of these wonderful worlds.”
This article was excerpted from Complete Book of Distance Learning Schools by Dr. Jerry Ice and Dr. Paul Edelson