Distance learners encounter “distance” problems

Last semester was my first  semester as a “distance student.” I entered the MBA program late, classes were already underway and there was a technology curve for me to overcome. I became frustrated with the idea of “distance learning” and wrote a piece for the The Clarion Call that was published. Shortly after its publication, I received several emails, one from the Director of Distance Learning and the other from a Dean, whose exact title I’ve forgotten.

Both emails and the subsequent phone calls were pleasant enough, but I think it is safe to say that they were not overjoyed with what I had written.

My critique was not vindictive, nor was it argumentative simply to be argumentative. I felt then (and now) that I was (and am) making a substantial financial investment in a program, using a system that my own experience had demonstrated still had some “bugs” in it; more to the point, “bugs” that were not insurmountable, but then what problem is? 

A “distance” colleague told me last semester not to judge the program or those teaching the classes on the basis of one semester, and she was right: this semester has been dramatically different, in fact, it’s as if the sun has risen.

The idea of “distance learning” is not without its problems, yet I’m still not at all certain that “distance students” matter as much as traditional students. I think we’re collectively viewed as lower-maintenance, simply by virtue of the fact that we are not physically present on campus, and it is this-which I’m sure isn’t intentional but perhaps has become acceptable-view that continues to facilitate the notion that we are a sub-set of students.

Tutoring, for example, is anything but easy for “distance students.” I had an experience where a professor and a tutor couldn’t communicate, the tutor and myself couldn’t communicate, the problem of the platform over which the tutoring was going to take place.

This took weeks and weeks to resolve. Finally, 10 days out from the final, I received an email. My response was “too little, too late.” If tutoring is going to be offered for “distance students,” obviously we can’t just stop by for a drop-in session, so prudence would dictate having some sort of platform available just for this sort of tutoring. Maybe the problem has since been resolved.

Many of us in “distance programs” are working professionals who are in graduate school to either change professions or to move into better paying positions, both of which require two things: a stellar resume and some sort of career guidance/counseling.

Over my time at Clarion, I’ve noticed both of these services being offered to traditional students, in fact, they’ve been encouraged to attend these seminars, and so they should, but what about the rest of us? 

Earlier this semester, I received an email informing me of a “Professional Development Day,” and I was surprised to see that something was going to be done for “distance students.”

I was to reply if interested. I did. That day has come and gone; nothing was done for “distance students.”

The Clarion Online Facebook page posted an opportunity coming just for online students, and I hope they’re right.

I don’t think these problems are insurmountable, they only require a will to solve. I happen to be in ED 610 this semester, and if there was ever a class where you delved into the different types of apps that can be used for teaching and personal productivity, this is the class.

You look at the technology, technology that can be downloaded to a phone, and you have to wonder why these kinds of simple solutions can’t be used to make tutoring easier for “distance students,” for example, or holding career forums/resume workshops online in real time. My colleagues in ED 610 are almost all teachers, and they use these types of apps for K-8 classes; sometimes, sophistication is simply simplicity.

I think most importantly, at least for me, is that I want to believe that the types of problems I’ve mentioned matter to the administration of Clarion University, that they need to be resolved, but the process for the resolution needs to include my “distance” colleagues.

Anyone who has ever taken a marketing class knows that knowledge of your customer base, intimate knowledge of that base, is critical to success. Lean manufacturing techniques debunk the idea of producing warehouses full of parts that customers may buy, and instead stresses the idea of manufacturing for specific customer needs.

For “distance learning” to be successful, these principles should be taken into consideration, but perhaps the overarching principle is simply this: At the other end of that computer network is a human face, with human dreams and human desires.

To paraphrase a passage from the Gospel of St. Mark (9.24), “Help thou my unbelief.”

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