The Paperless Student (II): Distance Learning Students and You

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Distance learning (DL) is an important but occasionally undervalued aspect of university life. Universities all over the world are grasping the benefits of engaging with physically remote online learning audiences – through podcasts (ITunesU, for example), MOOCs (massive open online courses), as well as through other forms of social media. But more traditional distance learning still exists, and holds its own, offering as it does accredited degree programmes, limited-number courses with individualised teacher-student interaction, opportunities for blended learning, good completion rates, and high employer recognition.

So how can you enhance your distance learning provision? Here are 5 ways to build the most positive learning experience for students in your remit.

Good housekeeping

One of the most important things you can do for your DL students is to create a sense that they are an important part of your regular teaching. The fastest way you can do this is to make sure that your VLE (virtual learning environment) is well maintained. Before any course begins make sure it is up-to-date, and that you have gone through all elements of it, removing old material, fixing broken links, and ensuring that any preparatory material is readily available. But the buck doesn’t stop there. Make sure that you schedule in a visit to your VLE at least once a week, keeping on top of any aspects of it that require your input. Remember, even if you think that a broken link is just a small matter, for your DL students such small details really count. Make them feel welcome in a well-organised, well-stocked VLE, and your students will feel at home.

Remote learning, not remote teaching

Remember too that ‘remote’ should refer to your students’ physical location – and not to you. Take an active part in students’ learning by being visibly present at certain pre-arranged times. For instance, you might set up a ‘live’ Q&A once a month, arrange for mini-webinars (live streamed video) to take place, and take part in online forums. There’s no need to participate all the time, but you can interject from time to time if the discussion goes off-topic. Such reminders that you are keeping a watching brief can help students feel less isolated.

Be responsive

So it’s important to be responsive – within reasonable boundaries. Make sure you respond to emails promptly (and certainly within the turn-around time specified within your institution). Use holding responses where necessary. DL students can feel anxious and isolated if they do not receive a response to an email in a reasonable timeframe, since they have no physical means of checking if their query has been received. But this anxiety can sometimes manifest itself with unreasonable demands on your time. Make sure to remind students of your other duties at the start of any session, and to emphasise that an immediate response will not be possible. Strike the right balance from the beginning, and everyone will be happy.

Understand your student’s context

It is also important to understand the individual context of the DL student. This may include very different working patterns from those of the on-campus student. Many DL students will be mature students, whose considerable and varied life experience may make them approach learning tasks in unconventional ways. Be open to this, and if possible, try to find out a bit about your students’ backgrounds so that you can address issues arising from workplace demands, and can incorporate their prior experience into their learning.

Promote blended learning opportunities

Finally, if there are ways to integrate your DL programme with the on-campus experience then do so. You might want to organise a regular face-to-face event, such as a conference, a regular seminar, or even an end-of-semester party – all of these will help cement the bonds between you and the DL student, and even more importantly, between student and student. Remember that DL students do not exist as a group in the same way that your on-campus students do – often they do not meet each other, let alone you or other students. If you can find ways to bring people together in person, even if very occasionally, your DL student will feel more at home, and learning opportunities will be enhanced for everyone.

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