Navigating Distance Education Opportunities

Having been involved in post-secondary distance education for over three decades I am intimately aware of its evolution. I am cognizant of the dark shadows, the need to justify its merits and counter its pitfalls. For many educators, distance education has been a delivery method to be avoided. It’s a last resort, isn’t it? 

But alas, here we are in 2020 amidst a worldwide pandemic that has the power to stop our lives and control our behavior including the decisions we make and the guidance we provide to our children and students. As the Canadian economy shifts and companies downsize and change their business models, employees are becoming displaced. There is a need to enhance and learn skills that will accelerate new career opportunities. Distance education is not just a temporary fix for academic course delivery brought on by the COVID-19 Pandemic. On the contrary, it has already made its debut, received its criticism and a few accolades, and now it is taking centre stage with a refined performance that will change the way society learns, forever!

Over the past decade, more and more high school credits have been offered through distance education. This has allowed students course choices that would not otherwise be accessible. And, studying online and independently, at the high school level, has facilitated an easier transition to post-secondary distance learning because the fear and uncertainty of studying independently is diminished. Going forward, to help students successfully navigate remote learning It is prudent for educators to take the time now to learn about distance education, its pros and cons and the type of student it is best suited to.  

Based on my knowledge and experience, studying independently, outside of a classroom is not for everyone. We are taught to think outside of the box but completing a distance education program requires you to get into the box! Distance education through online learning requires a lot of structure and personal responsibility. You have to be disciplined and you have to want it. Graduates of distance learning programs often report that their online learning experience contributed to increased self-discipline, a better sense of responsibility, the ambition to persevere, an increase in inquisitiveness, better detail orientation skills, and the capability to prioritize and manage their time.  

Studying via distance education can be a
rewarding academic experience and a life changing personal experience. Distance education students often report that they appreciate the flexibility of self-directed study and more importantly that it allows them to still maintain employment and take care of financial and family responsibilities. In fact, many students would not be able to support themselves financially if it wasn’t for online learning. 

“By learning from home in my spare time rather than having to attend a physical institution, I am able to work full time at my current job and pay all of those expensive bills I have committed to. I simply cannot afford extended periods or regular days off,” says Benjamin Ritter from
Calgary, Alberta who graduated in March 2020 from the Centre for Distance Education’s IT Professional Program.  Benjamin also acknowledged that, “some of the drawbacks with the decision to learn online is the lack of recognition for online learning…big name institutions come with big name recognition…” However, as the demand for distance education increases, the present and future success of students who graduate from post-secondary distance programs will serve to dispel this belief and help distance education programs gain recognition.  

Online learning allows students to further their education regardless of who they are or where they are from. There can be no argument that distance education provides students, especially those living in rural
or remote areas, with more options when it comes to their education. Students no longer have to settle for what is offered at the local community college! Without the daily commute to a physical school, students can utilize more of their time for reading, studying, and completing assignments. Many students appreciate that they can work ahead of schedule with online learning. Access to instructors is only a phone call or e-mail away.
And, in fully supported learning programs, there is no waiting for an appointment time with an instructor or professor. The most commonly expressed downside to distance education is that students report missing face to face interaction with their peers. However, online forums can help to bridge that communication gap. Technology is improving rapidly to allow for collaborative learning and teamwork scenarios with other students.  

For educators and guidance counsellors, here is what you need to know about post-secondary distance education courses and the schools that deliver them.  First, check the school’s course prerequisite requirements. Almost all curriculum is written at a grade 12 level. Schools that accept students without a high school diploma or equivalency are performing a disservice to students and society. Depending on the course, additional prerequisites may be required, such as strong math and science grades. Most importantly, prerequisite criteria, especially as it relates to distance education students, is not just about academic standing.  On the contrary, students need to know that they are capable of completing a goal. Having a high school diploma in hand speaks to the students’ sense of accomplishment and sets them up for post-secondary success. High school graduation is an accomplishment to draw from when times get tough.

The second aspect you need to be aware of is the course structure. Examine things like course schedules. For example, are there expectations set for the student like specific assignment submission dates and student-instructor conference times? Students involved in a quality distance education course can expect to be supported academically and personally before, during, and even after graduation.  Students should also expect to experience interactions with instructors and staff when they fail to adhere to the required schedule. 

When considering a school, be sure that the faculty is genuinely interested in their students’ success. Don’t hesitate to ask to speak with the instructors and ask questions about the course material, the common problems students encounter and the resources that are in place to help students succeed.  If the course in question has a practicum or co-op component, speak to the practicum coordinator. Ask questions to be sure that the school works with a student’s employment schedule when arranging practicum placements. For students with disabilities, it is also imperative to find out if academic accommodations and support systems are available, and if they will be customized to the needs of the student. If a school refuses your request to engage with their instructors, keep looking.  

Distance education is all about making the experience work for the student’s lifestyle! Reputable colleges will provide resources to their students in the areas of career services, mental health services, and personal financial information. A good online school breaks down barriers for students to aid in their success.

Lastly, be sure to check the school’s credentials! Calling the provincial or territorial regulator or visiting the government regulatory body website to make sure the school is registered and in good standing is paramount. If the course being considered has a provincial or national exam, check the exam success rate. Courses that are comprehensive and delivered effectively should have a stellar exam pass rate.  The same goes for the school’s overall student satisfaction rate and student employment rates per course. If these percentages are low, it’s time to ask more questions or look at alternative options.    

Developing a good relationship with your students to understand their strengths, weaknesses, learning style, as well as their goals is critical in determining if distance education is a viable option.  Take the time to ask about the resources the student has available to help them on their educational journey. Working with the student, their parents or guardians, and the post-secondary institution helps to instill confidence in the student and set the stage for a smooth and positive transition to post-secondary life. 

Lori MacMullin is the President and Principal of the Centre for Distance Education Inc. as well as a business consultant with specific interests in online and e-commerce business models.