As more and more students across the U.S. opt to get their degrees online, it’s becoming harder to ignore the perks of distance learning. First of all, it’s more affordable than traditional universities, and can even be tuition-free. While this may be the initial draw for most distance learners – they soon discover that it’s hardly the only advantage. Other benefits include the ability to set one’s own pace with their studies and to get their degree from anywhere in the world, without disrupting their personal or professional life to do so.
But in order to be successful, distance learners must adapt to the challenges of online learning. These may be quite different from the more familiar challenges of learning in the classroom and could come as a surprise.
If you’re considering pursuing your degree online, it’s important to understand the challenges of online learning from the get-go so that you can best plan for your own success.
The ability to set one’s own pace and self-direct one’s own learning is one of the greatest perks to an online education. Still, for some students, adjusting to this level of freedom can be difficult. For students who have grown accustomed to having a rigid schedule, the fluidity of a self-determined schedule can be overwhelming and lead to issues with procrastination and lack of motivation.
Sure, learning from home means that you can go to class in your pajamas, but unlike in a classroom there’s always the temptation to slip into that pajama-wearing state-of-mind. After all, what’s the harm if you procrastinate your coursework another half hour… or hour… or day…? The TV is right there and it’s calling your name.
Solution: Create Your Own Classroom
While going to class in your slippers might sound fun, I recommend that students create a classroom for themselves in their own homes… complete with dress code.
Start by setting aside a room, or even a corner of a room, to be your classroom. Make it an aesthetically pleasing sanctuary, filled with images that remind you of your aspirations (see this great article on creating a vision board for your home office) and even a small plant. Make this a distraction free space.
While it’s not feasible to buy two separate computers, make a pact with yourself that while you’re in this learning space, you won’t go onto distracting sites like Facebook or Twitter.
Also, dress for this space. We’ve all had the nightmare of being in class and realizing we’ve forgotten to put on clothes. In this classroom, you can dress however you like. But make sure you’re in clothes that make you feel ready and motivated. In my own home office, for example, I need to wear shoes. Being barefoot, for whatever reason, makes me less productive.
So learn your own best practices for decorating, dedicating and dressing for your classroom. This will make your workspace that much more productive, and your non-work space that much more relaxing.
The Internet can sometimes seem like a social place. Facebook claims to be “a place for friends,” and it’s true that when we’re online we’re communicating constantly with friends and family. Still, it can’t be denied that it can be a bit lonely to sit at your computer all day. This can be one of the biggest challenges in online learning facing distance learners – they lack the resource of a community of peers.
This can have a few negative consequences. Number one is educational. In university, our peers are not just there for social reasons but to help us learn. Students engage not only with teachers but work together to solve problems. The second consequence is connected to our state of mind. Student communities are there to commiserate about the struggles of their studies, to celebrate their success, and to bolster each other’s ambitions for the future.
Online learners may feel isolated. This can lower motivation and lead to a sense of loneliness and missing out.
Solution: Choose Connection Over Isolation
Not all online universities are the same. If you’re a social individual, choose an online university that makes use of online peer-study groups rather than one where learners are on their own.
A good online university will actually provide many opportunities for connection and community off of the computer screen. These may come in the form of internships in your local area, or by helping you form study groups with other distance learners located in your part of the world.
Make an effort to find these individuals. You may find that there are other distance-learners in your city who are attending the same online university as you are. You may also find that there are other distance learners in your city who are attending other online universities.
There are plenty of Facebook groups to join for online learners. Join one and reach out to others in your area. Schedule study groups, or even sit side by side with your laptops at the local café.
Beyond this, make sure that the busyness of work and study doesn’t derail the social connections you already have. Online learning offers a flexible schedule, so make use of it and call your closest friends to hang out!
The third challenge of online learning has to do with recognition. This issue has two dimensions – the first is personal and the second is practical.
Let’s start with the personal: many students feel that online degree programs have less prestige than traditional universities. Distance learners may be made to feel that their degree is worth less than a degree obtained on campus. Then there’s the practical issue of recognition: will my online degree be recognized by employers or other universities? This is a serious concern.
Solution: Choose The Right School
The solution to both of these issues lies in which online university you choose to attend. There are traditional universities with bad reputations and traditional universities with good reputations. It’s the same with online universities. They are not all created equal. So choose an online university that you believe in and do your research. Make sure that the university puts a high premium on quality and the experience of the students. If possible, get in touch with current or former students and interview them about their experience.
A good online university should be accredited, as well. This will solve the practical element of the recognition issue. And as for the stigma of online learning, yes, it exists. But as online learning becomes a more popular option with the years, this stigma is starting to wane. Try to rise above it.
Distance learners are hardworking, dedicated and self-motivated individuals. Pursuing your degree online is an amazing achievement, will add great value to your personal and professional life, and is something to be incredibly proud of.