Distance education – the surprising truth

Posted October 13, 2011, by Andrea Riddell

Long considered the domain of the mature-age or postgraduate student, distance education has often been regarded as plan B when it comes to gaining a tertiary education. But for the jetsetter, corporate climber, or even the social climber, studying by distance education allows you to pursue your dreams and ambitions by acquiring the qualifications to make this possible, regardless of your age or education level.

We have explored five little-known truths about studying by distance that might surprise you.

1. You don’t need a computer to study by distance

There are three styles of course delivery you can choose from: by correspondence (by mail), online (by email) or flexible learning (a combination of both). Some universities will also offer you the chance to include some on-campus study in your delivery package. Many course providers will allow you to choose the delivery method that best suits your lifestyle and preference.

Libby Hamel chose to have her course materials for a combined Certificate III and Diploma in Children’s Services through Open Colleges (formerly known as Cengage Education) mailed to her doorstep in Texas, Queensland, finding it easier to learn from hard copy rather than on screen.

‘They would send all my study materials in the mail and then I would email back my responses. They did offer to email my materials but I chose to have it all sent by mail. I preferred to receive it in the hand – I’m a bit old school,’ says Libby.

Similarly, at SEEK Learning course consultants work with prospective students to create training packages and delivery options that accommodate their students’ needs and wants.

2. You have as much support as on-campus students

Contrary to popular belief, the level of support offered by distance learning providers is equal to the support you would receive on campus. The difference is, again, in the delivery. While on-campus support can be found in class, distance-learning support is provided by phone, email and on forums, as well as by SMS, teleconferencing and online chat – almost always 24/7. With such an array of contact points, obtaining support from distance education providers can often be more interactive and instantaneous.

You will also be assigned a tutor or mentor, and for the duration of your study this person will be your best friend. For Libby, her Open Colleges tutor was crucial to the successful completion of her combined Certificate III and Diploma program.

 ‘I had excellent support from my tutor. If I had any questions or anything, I ended up emailing her directly instead of going through the forums and she’d email me either that day or the next, or give me a call,’ says Libby.

SEEK Learning training consultants also provide career support in addition to study support. The consultants talk with potential students to find the right course for their career goals and needs.

3. Self-motivation is achievable

While distance education affords you greater flexibility, it also requires greater discipline – only you can decide when and whether you study. Having the responsibility of your education fall squarely onto your shoulders alone can seem completely overwhelming. However, this is the case with any form of tertiary education, on campus or not. If you plan on studying by distance there are many strategies to beat the distance education blues.

One scenario you definitely want to avoid is procrastination – leading, inevitably, to a daunting study load moments before your deadlines. Melissa Plant, studying a Bachelor of Communications through Open Universities Australia, chose to start her study early and spreads her workload as much as possible.

‘As soon as the online information is available, get straight on and try to navigate your way around and get a feel for what’s there,’ says Melissa. ‘It’s up to you to sort out what needs your urgent attention and what can be left to do at your own pace.’

‘I have a calendar which reminds me when I’ve two weeks to go until something is due, then one week and so on. I try to also keep tabs on the discussion boards for my units to see if other students are raising anything I should be thinking about.’

Course providers are aware that it may be harder for distance students to maintain motivation, and most strive to provide extensive support to counteract this. Open Colleges provides a team of experienced mentors to help encourage motivation when needed.

‘Our experience tells us that the best study habits deliver the best outcomes, so it’s crucial to establish good habits from the word go. Setting a timetable and having a specific place to study can be very useful, as can breaking the coursework down into smaller tasks,’ says the Academic Director of Open Colleges, Dirk Drieberg.

4. Finding the time to study is simple

Many people think that they will find it hard to find time to study. While your other commitments may make it more difficult to eke out solid study time, course providers recognise this with flexible assessment dates and long study periods.

Organising your workload will stop any forgotten assessments becoming nasty surprises and allows you to plan your time wisely. As Melissa says, ‘Doing a bit each day is much easier to manage. And if something comes up and you can’t study, it’s much easier to catch up.’

Melissa creates a timetable for her study, leaving enough flexibility to work around her other commitments.

‘I set aside certain nights of the week where I do different parts of study, and then try to fit in other study time around the rest of my life,’ says Melissa. ‘Map out what needs to be done by when. If you have a lot of readings, try to get them all in a pile and then section them up week by week, allowing for any readings to be completed before exams or quizzes, as necessary.’

For Libby, her study time was less about creating a structure and more about fitting in with her two children.

‘When the kids were asleep or outside playing happily, I’d get my books out and sit and watch them. I didn’t make my own timetable; I just studied whenever I got the chance. With kids you don’t have a timetable.’

Many course providers also guide students through their distance learning by providing students with guides to self-paced learning and writing assessments.

5. Your classmates are within reach

It can be intimidating to study by distance, with the lack of regular contact with tutors, lecturers and classmates making you feel like you’re all alone in your educational endeavours. However, course providers supply a multitude of avenues for you to communicate and interact with fellow students, meaning not only can you compare notes, but you can also make friends for life.

Browen Westley is studying a Bachelor of Education (Primary) through Open Universities Australia and enjoys interacting with her classmates despite the distance.

‘I have made a “study buddy” that I will always count as a friend – we phone, email, text and share assessment problems.’

Finding a study buddy online can also help you regain the confidence you need to excel. Open Colleges has recently launched a study buddy locator, allowing students to connect with others in their locality who are studying the same units.

For Melissa, the main issue was remaining confident that she was on the right track with her assignments, and interacting with her classmates helped her with this.

‘Just like in a classroom, other students will raise ideas and questions that you perhaps hadn’t thought of. The answers are really helpful, either to give context to the readings or textbooks or to help with navigating through the unit itself,’ says Melissa.

It is one of the many advantages of distance education – being able to tap into a large collective of brainpower from students all over the world. This network of minds is accessible simply by logging in to your student portal, discussion board, forum or any other form of online community offered to you by your course provider. And as Melissa found, these online meeting places can hold the key to the success of your education.

‘I have a greater sense of who the tutor is and a better understanding of what she is looking for from being involved with the discussion boards. And I am also very aware of my fellow students – for one subject I believe there are around 140 of them!’

Andrea Riddell

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