After more than a decade of reviewing thousands of distance learning courses, evaluating instructional design techniques, and supporting distance learning courses, I have identified seven tips that can help ensure the success of online students.
1. Set a fixed time to engage in the course work.
Those who have never taken distance learning courses may find it difficult to engage without being directed to do so by an instructor in person. Assignments can be put off or forgotten a lot easier in a distance learning course. Being organized and self-disciplined is a necessity.
2. Do not rush through your work.
Students often enroll in distance learning courses because they believe they are “easy” or can be completed faster that in-class courses. While you may save the time driving to and from class, you should not count on finishing course work more quickly or distance learning courses being “easier.” In some cases, distance learning courses can be more difficult.
3. Take the time to ask questions and engage instructors.
Instructors should require dynamic interactivity in a distance learning course. A good course will require the student interact with instructors and/or peers to collaborate and learn. Just because the course is offered over a computer doesn’t mean you don’t have the right to ask a question about the content. In fact, a good instructor will ensure students know questions are welcomed and encouraged, if not required. This is an important educational standard that should not be neglected.
4. Explore the technology being used in advance of having to use it.
There is no worse feeling than being required to do something you aren’t prepared to do. It can feel overwhelming especially if you have a short amount of time to complete it. Distance learning courses have historically high dropout rates often because students wait until the last minute to complete the assignment and then get frustrated with being behind. Seek out instructional videos or tutorials made available to you. Taking a little time upfront to complete the appropriate technology orientation will save you a lot of time later and ensure you understand when instructions are provided that require use of the technology. If you have to wait until the last minute, at least take time soon after the assignment is made to acquaint yourself with all that will need to be done.
5. If in a collaborative environment, choose your colleagues or project partners carefully.
If you have the option of choosing colleagues in a cooperative group, don’t leave this choice to chance. When collaborating with other students, notice who is excelling at their work in discussion posts or other interactions and then team up with the sharpest people you identify. When it comes to project production time, you’ll be glad you have a team full of those who will actually contribute to the project as opposed to those who may be dead weight.
6. Use alarms and calendars to ensure your benchmarks and course milestones are met.
Good organizational skills is one of the keys to being successful in distance learning courses. Once you get your syllabus or course plans, record all important dates on your calendar. Students who forget assignments in a distance learning course usually aren’t spared the repercussions. In some cases, because distance learning is less social, repercussions of forgetting an assignment could be more stringent than in a classroom environment.
7. Social learners beware.
Good instructors should design collaborate exercises to ensure students learn from their social experiences and not neglect students who have a propensity to learn socially. Know that you may learn as much about people from the collaboration exercises and projects as you do about the course content or topic itself. However, distance learning courses historically are deficient of social learning opportunities because of the distance and time separation. This is especially true for mandatory continuing education courses offered for everyone from real estate agents to optometrists. If you are a person who needs social interaction in the learning process think twice about enrolling in a distance learning course.
About the Author
Joe McClary, Ed.S, CAE, is the Chief Executive Officer of the International Association of Continuing Education and Training (IACET). Prior to his work with IACET, McClary served as the first Executive Director of the International Distance Education Certification Center (IDECC) which is an organization that develops internationally recognized distance learning standards. In his role with IDECC, McClary worked with more than 400 professional education providers and numerous regulatory agencies located across the globe.