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Distance learning

Options:     Print Version - Distance learning , part 3 Print view

Finding the right school

In the UK, the Open University (OU) regularly attracts very high satisfaction rates. For three years running (2005, 2006 and 2007; see ranking table) it was found to be the institution with the highest satisfaction rating of any in the country by the National Student Satisfaction Survey.

The success of the OU is a mark of how a properly run distance learning organization can provide value and real benefit to those involved. That degrees offered by distance learning are somehow second rate is a myth: a well-designed distance learning course can be just as effective, and have just as many student successes, as an "on campus" one.

However, it's important to remember that the OU is the "gold standard" of distance learning: at the other end of the spectrum are the diploma mills, the places which offer degrees online with apparently very little input from the student, and without accreditation from official educational bodies.

In between, there are a lot of places that may not offer courses which are as effectively structured as the OU's. Most universities are set up to teach face-to-face rather than at a distance, and are simply not geared for all the ramifications of supporting students in another mode.

The following considerations will help you select a good school.

Reputation

It is most important to know that you are dealing with a reputable school.

  • Is it accredited? (i.e. has it achieved certain levels of quality control with respect to programme design, teaching, research, mission, etc.?) If you are in the US (or thinking of studying there) you can find out whether the institution is accredited by logging onto http://www.chea.org. Business schools have a number of accrediting bodies ensuring their quality control; for example, The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AASCB), and the European Quality Improvement System (EQUIS).
  • What is its reputation? You can find out a lot by word of mouth, but there are also various ranking tables: Business Week in the US and the Financial Times in the UK both rank business schools. The Guardian and The Times both publish a yearly league table of UK universities, while Times Higher Education publishes global results.

Geographical location

This may not seem important for distance study, but few courses require no contact and you may need to visit a certain number of times a year. If this is the case, make sure that this is feasible; if attendance is only occasional then it may not be so important.

Another consideration is that many large organizations, such as the University of South Africa, Universitas Terbuka in Indonesia, or the OU, have regional offices in different parts of the country, where students can attend tutorials. How close is one of these offices to where you live?

Fees and other financial matters

Generally speaking, the cost of a distance learning degree is less than that of a conventional one. You should check how you need to pay – for example, does the institution require payment in one, annual lump sum or on a modular basis so payments can be spread out?

You will also need to pay for books, and perhaps for computer equipment to the specification you need.

Course content

If you want to do a degree, you need to have certain goals and ensure that the course fits in with those goals. If your intention is to become qualified to work in a particular field, will it help you do so? If the field is rapidly moving, is the course truly ahead of the game?

If you are thinking of doing an MBA, bear in mind that the core content for MBA degrees is very similar, but electives may differ widely, so make sure your interests are covered and that there are electives in your particular field.

Support

This is arguably the most important area for a distance learning degree. One of the main drawbacks of distance learning is isolation, which can be overcome with a supportive and empathetic tutor who has a real concern for your individual needs. One study carried out a survey of students' support needs, and stated:

" ... it is simply not enough for institutions to implement distance learning programmes solely through the provision of print and/or online materials. Quality with regard to distance teaching and learning cannot be achieved by merely providing the notes, activities and readings for students to read and utilise in assignments. It is crucial that students are facilitated in their learning by being able to access both academic and non-academic support from their lecturers. In these contacts with staff, students must be acknowledged as individuals and receive assistance that is personalised in nature. Staff must be able to build rapport with students and be capable of sustaining warm and supportive associations with many individuals over the duration of their distance learning programmes. In this way, students will be encouraged and facilitated to complete their studies" (Smith, 2004; p. 31).

You should find out as much as you can about how you will be supported.

  • What form does the support take – online or through face-to-face groups? If the latter, do these take place at the institution, or at one of its regional offices? Some universities, such as the OU, offer residentials. Both online and face-to-face (and universities frequently combine them) can be made to work with appropriate structuring, but do you have a preference for one or the other? You might feel a bit strange about not interacting with colleagues in person, or you might find the time commitment of having to attend residentials difficult. Think carefully what will suit you.
  • Will tutors be able to offer you prompt and empathetic support on the problems unique to you, such as advice on the programme, on interpretation of assignment requirements, and constructive feedback on your performance? How promptly will they answer e-mails? It may be difficult to get answers to these questions at the outset, but you should try and talk to the tutors and judge whether or not they seem genuinely enthusiastic about helping distance learning students. If you can get a chance to speak with other students, that will give you a good idea.
  • As distance learning students tend to be more mature, they may be less likely to require support on non-academic issues, but you should still have access to people you can turn to if you are suffering from stress, need help with study skills, or have special requirements due to a disability. Also very importantly, is there a 24-hour helpdesk to assist with any technical problems?

Smith also provides a model for off-campus support in diagram form (below, Smith, 2004 p. 36):

Figure: Diagram of Smith's model for off-campus support.

Interaction with other students

Recent educational research has revealed the extent to which we learn from other people. Group learning and interaction with students is an important part of a course and you should check whether it is provided, and how.

Some universities do this by means of online discussion boards and chat. This can work well providing it is appropriately structured by a tutor. You should therefore check how online discussion works: is the discussion board just there for people to voice their views (in which case, it is unlikely to be used much) or does it focus on a particular theme, with mandatory contribution? Does it form part of assessment or attendance requirements? (Some courses require a certain number of contributions as evidence that the student has attended the module.)

Check whether appropriate preparation is given for online discussion, as this is an area where students can stumble because of lack of experience.

Materials

Of course, you will not spend your whole time interacting with peers and tutors and will need to study the course materials, which replace the lectures and help you prepare for seminars and tutorials.

Note, the course materials will contain not only the teaching notes, but also an explanation of how the module works.

It would be helpful if you could get hold of some materials of the course you are thinking of applying for, and try to judge their quality.

  • Is the structure of the module clearly explained, so that the student knows what the objectives are, and what he or she has to do by when?
  • If additional reading of core texts is required, are these supplied (as with the OU) or easily (and preferably not too expensively) available?
  • If the materials consist mainly of core texts, is it clear how they relate to the module, and in what order you should read them?
  • Are learning outcomes clearly stated, and do the materials help you achieve them?
  • Pacing is very important in distance education, as it is in education generally. It is useful to chunk the material into discreet sections to help the student plan study time (e.g. two discreet sections per evening). Are the materials appropriately paced?
  • Is the material written in an interesting and an engaging way? Is diversity properly addressed?
  • Do the materials use a variety of approaches, for example summaries, case histories, illustrations, exercises, as well as narrative text?
  • Is the student given advice on the time needed to complete the module?
  • The "traditional" media for distance learning is print and cassette. Both are very user friendly and transportable. Other media however are frequently used – video cassettes, DVDs, vodcasts, podcasts, or web pages in a virtual learning environment. For media in non-print format, you need to ask yourself: Is this media the best way of delivering this material (for example, would a vodcast be better as a podcast?); Have I got the right equipment?
  • Most courses now have course websites: is the structure of your website really clear and easy to follow?
  • Are there sufficient materials to help the learner achieve the module outcomes?

Assessment

Assessment will not differ very much for a distance learning course. However, you should consider such matters as, can you deliver your assignments electronically, and where are exams held?

The library

A good library where you can consult required materials and search for others, is essential for a distance learner. Most academic libraries these days both offer support services for distance learners and enable their electronic collection to be accessed outside the walls of the library, by any member of the university.

  • Can you access the libraries electronic resources and databases?
  • Will you be provided with a named librarian who can help you do literature searches, etc.?
  • Will it lend books by post, and is there a sufficient number of core texts?
  • What sort of help will it give those who cannot access the Internet, for example will it print out articles and send?
  • Can you receive help on information literacy training?

Accessibility

It is very important that courses should be available for those with special needs. Are all course materials fully accessible? For example, can they be read in a screenreader? For those elements which use software with accessibility issues such as Flash, are alternatives provided?

Many courses make use of asynchronous (happening over a period of time) or synchronous forms of communication (happening at the same time). The latter have more accessibility issues than the former. All students should be able to use discussion methods with ease.

Summary

Distance learning, far from being second best, can actually be a very positive choice enabling you to follow your own schedule rather than an imposed one. Self-discipline is required, however, as well as careful consideration of the school. As with most major decisions, it pays to look before you leap!

Reference

Smith, A. (2004), "'Off-campus support' in distance learning – how do our students define quality?", Quality Assurance in Education, Vol. 12 No. 1, pp. 28-38.