Now that I’m about halfway through my first full-time semester, there are a couple of thoughts I had about distance learning that I hadn’t considered before jumping in. None of them are things that would have changed my mind (and certainly not things that make life unbearable) but they are things that while I thought I knew what it would entail, I now realize I had no idea.
1. Class discussions take place on a discussion board.
What I thought this meant: We would post on a discussion board.
What I now realize this means: In addition to all of the readings for class, I also have to read my classmates’ observations, thoughts, and questions.
Explanation: Some discussion posts are easy to read and understand and, therefore, easy to reply to and become involved in the discussion. Others are less so. In a live class discussion is fast-paced and people will generally talk for a few sentences before the person feels they have sufficiently made their point or the professor chimes in. This is not the case on a discussion board and some posts can be quite involved or long-winded. There are benefits to having discussions posted on a forum, however, and I do find myself going back and re-reading previous posts for reference, which obviously can’t be done in class without a recording device. Also, I can read the discussions at a time where I am alert and able to best communicate. For me, this is rarely before 9am but some campus classes can meet as early as 8.
Advice I would give to someone considering distance learning: If you don’t like reading, this is not going to be pleasant but then again, if you don’t like reading, any sort of higher education is not going to be pleasant. On the plus side, that one jerk in class (you know the jerk – everyone has that one jerk) isn’t live and in-person so it’s easier to deal with frustration because that person can’t see you or hear you cursing at your computer screen as you try to decipher what it is they are saying through the piles of extra paragraphs and excessively large words.
2. Your peers are also at a distance.
What I thought this meant: Classmates would not be local.
What it actually means: Classmates are not local, available at the same time you are available, and quite often, have full or part-time jobs.
Explanation: I was expecting to feel as though I was pushing through this on my own without any real classmates to relate to and finding myself clinging to names I recognized but this isn’t so. While I do find that I have to work much harder to connect with my peers, especially if there is any sort of group work that needs to be done, there is a definite sense of community and this is multiplied when you log onto Facebook and see that everyone’s status is, “Freaking out about my paper for 605!”
Advice I would give to someone considering distance learning: Join any and all social networking groups that relate to your program. While it may seem like a cheesy thing to do and I know a lot of people aren’t comfortable putting a lot of information about themselves online, you can control who can see you and who to friend as well as what is seen on your profile. For me, I’ve found FB to be a comfort when I felt I was the only one overwhelmed with work. Don’t be afraid to talk to “strangers” because they’re in the same position you are in. Take advantage of the “boot camp” courses over the summer – I know others have said it before but even meeting people face-to-face once is enough to make a connection. Technology has just helped to keep that connection intact.
3. All of your work will be on a computer.
What I thought this meant: Since we are no longer in the 1980′s, we will be using personal computers.
What it actually means: I spend a lot of time sitting at my desk on the computer watching and reading lectures, reading discussion posts, checking links professors have posted, and doing my homework.
Explanation: Yes, my computer time has increased three-fold but this was something I expected. What I didn’t fully grasp was that I never realized how ergonomically incorrect my desk chair is. Also, while I knew assignments would be turned in electronically, it didn’t phase me that this negates the need to print out a paper or assignment, saving trees, but also, preventing you from having a hard copy backup of your work.
Advice I would give to someone considering a distance program: Get a comfy desk chair. You’ll be in it a bunch. Also, invest in a thumb drive. You never know when your technology will crap out on you and it WILL inevitably be the day a major assignment is due. It’s already happened to me – hard drive failure hours before an assignment deadline.
4. Your schedule is your own.
What I thought this meant: I would be able to continue to work and go to school.
What it actually means: It’s my responsibility to figure out where to squeeze everything in.
Explanation: Life doesn’t stop for school and school doesn’t stop for life. In fact, the constant overlap is what makes distance learning so great – nothing has to stop for the other. This does require some juggling and I find that being organized helps but does not alleviate the feeling that I’m always playing catch up at school, at work, or in my personal life. The three will never mesh easily but since school always wins out (for obvious reasons), something else has to lose to an extent. This does mean that I sometimes feel as though I’m squeezing in a discussion post in between my drive home from work and the start of a friend’s birthday party.
Advice I would give to someone considering a distance program: ORGANIZE! The more organized you are, the easier it is to find time to do (most) everything you want to do. You’re still going to have to make some concessions but the more you are aware of where your priorities need to be, the better. Your day planner will be your best friend.
5. This is going to be fun.
What I thought this meant: Claiming that graduate school will be fun is a crock. This is the sales pitch that pushes those teetering on the edge of deciding whether or not to go to school over the edge.
What it actually means: No, this is actually a lot of fun!
Explanation: Yes, it’s a lot of work and yes, I’m tired and stressed but at the same time, I have a great network of supportive friends I’ve met through the program and I really do feel like we’re in this together. While there are subjects I enjoy more than others, overall each class I’ve taken has had a great deal I’ve enjoyed learning about and I’m constantly jotting down ideas for implementing what I’ve learned in the real world. I’ve found that the mental workout really enjoyable (admittedly, I am a self-professed nerd) and I’ve never once regretted my decision to continue my education.
Advice I would give to someone considering a distance program: Go in with an upbeat attitude and allow yourself to get excited about going through your program. The hard work really does pay off when you look back and realize how much more you know and how useful it will be.