Distance learning offers enormous potential for students who want to take a class but are physically unable to attend a traditional classroom. It affords a flexibility that many students find appealing; however, others find this flexibility challenging, intimidating or frustrating. Distance-learning classes can present problems for students in the areas of support, interactivity, commitment and technology.
By its very definition, distance learning implies a physical separation between student and instructor. This creates a challenge for students who might need or desire academic or technical support, and it can quickly become a source of frustration. An effective distance-learning instructor will provide multiple methods of contact, including a phone number, Skype user name and/or email address, along with general availability and response times. Sometimes a "Help" discussion thread is included in an asynchronous environment, to give peers the opportunity to help each other. Even with these support structures in place, however, students new to distance learning will need to adjust to the absence of regular office hours.
Another problem facing distance-learning students is the level and type of interactivity. Similar to the issue surrounding support, the lack of face-to-face interactions between student, teacher and other classmates can be problematic for those new to the distance-learning environment. An effective distance-learning class will incorporate interactive tools, such discussion boards, wikis and blogs, and synchronous audio or video components. Group or paired projects can further foster a sense of interaction and collaboration. A lack of meaningful interactivity may cause students to feel isolated and become discouraged.
In a distance-learning class, students must be committed to their own success. A traditional classroom environment carries with it a certain level of social pressure: the teacher and other classmates expect each student to come to class every week, complete the assignments, answer the teacher's questions and actively participate in group projects. In a distance-learning class, these behaviors are expected as well, but the social pressure to comply is absent. Students must possess or learn to develop the self-discipline required to organize their time effectively and participate fully in the learning process.
The technology required to participate in a distance-learning class must be readily available and fully functional. Furthermore, students must have or acquire a certain level of competency with the technology, including hardware, software and all related accessories, in order to be successful in the course. Technology that is unavailable or unstable quickly becomes a barrier for distance-learning students. Technology that is hard to learn or use is enormously frustrating. Tutorials, user guides and other support systems should be in place for distance-learning students, in order to minimize -- if not eliminate -- this problem.
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