Jennifer Macaulay, who really just has to stop writing such insightful pieces or I will never get anything done, wrote a piece on her experiences as a distance learner a couple of weeks ago. And if I didn’t know better, I would have thought that I had written the entire thing myself, so much did her experiences mirror my own. You should really take a look at it, but I will relate some of the salient points:

  • Too many programs have tried to just take regular courses and stick them online without different thinking about evaluation, teaching, etc.
  • Faculty can really make or break a class.
  • Other than discussion boards, there really aren’t many opportunities to build a sense of community among the distance learners.
  • It is hard to feel connected to the school, to be mentored or even to know how to get help.

Oh, Jennifer, I wish I could say it was only SCSU that had this problem, but Florida State University was exactly the same. I remember writing about my frustrations with distance learning when I was still in the program. I found that the quality of the online courses was so variable, with the majority of them landing on the negative side of things. If you had a really dedicated professor, who was always available, really made an effort to get students engaged in the subject and understood the differences between teaching online and teaching an in-person class, you’d have a great experience. I had a bunch of very excellent experiences like that. Then I had teachers who didn’t understand that an online course required a different approach. They would actually try to do a lecture through a chat interface, making all 40-50 of us answer a question just to make sure we were still there. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to offer the lecture through a screencast or voice-over PPT or something like that and then use the class time for discussion and questions? So many of the faculty gave us quizzes and other assessments that made it clear that they just wanted to make sure we were paying attention, not that we were actually learning. Then I had teachers who clearly didn’t care. I had one professor who showed up for two of the lectures during the entire semester. He didn’t teach in any way, shape or form, and unfortunately it was the class with the most difficult material. I had another one who took forever to grade things and when he finally did, you’d just get a grade with no comments whatsoever. I even one time had to tell a professor that a classmate of mine was trying to plagiarize material from the Web in our group project and the professor did nothing about it (at least as far as I know; I know the student did not get in trouble). I actually ended up rewriting his part of the project because I didn’t want to get in trouble for someone else’s actions. I and others would make all these things known in our end-of-semester evaluations, but we never felt like our comments really had an impact.

Then the community aspect. I remember they made some half-hearted attempts to build a sense of connection in our online orientation. We had a discussion board and submitted profiles, but after that, there really wasn’t any sort of community-building at all. We’d have to write up an “about us” thing for most of our classes, but that was about it. And we were assigned an adviser, but I know mine didn’t advise me in any way. We had to write up a plan on how we were going to fulfill our course requirements, and I sent it to my adviser and then waited two months for her to approve it. There was no discussion about what I wanted to do, my interests, etc. It was just, get this form approved and you’re done. I would have loved to have someone I could talk to about my interests, which were rapidly changing at the time. The only socialization we would have with our classmates came from our own initiative — setting up meetings with people in our local area, e-mailing with people with similar interests. It would have been lovely to have had something a little more formal to get us “talking” to one another. You just feel so isolated sometimes as a distance learner.

I guess that’s why I work so hard to make myself as available as possible and to provide as much documentation as possible to the online students. At FSU, the library did not make an effort to provide outreach to the distance learners in my program. I didn’t know the name of the distance learning librarian or the liaison to our area or whoever was supposed to be helping us. There weren’t tutorials designed to help us. And I didn’t know the most direct way to get help. There was nothing about the library in our courseware. At Norwich, in every single classroom in WebCT, there is a link to the library portal for distance learners. Yes, there is a space designed just for them with all the information a distance learner will usually need to use the library resources and learn about library services. And on the front page of that portal is now a MeeboMe interface, which hopefully will make us appear even more available to them. I want to make absolutely sure they know that a librarian is here to help them when they need it. And, in March, I will be doing a pilot project where I will actually be embedded in some of the Military History classes. My own experiences are constantly on my mind when I think about how to answer a student’s question, how to create a tutorial and how to improve our services.

I am very impressed with the way Norwich (my place of work) does distance learning. They have a unique model, and while I don’t agree with all of it, I can’t help but admit that it works. There are two things that impress me most. The first is the way they supervise their instructors. Those instructors are under near constant surveillance. If they don’t get back to a student within 24 hours or return a paper within 72 hours, they are in hot water. They are expected to contribute to discussions in a productive way and always provide useful comments on a student’s paper. They actually CALL each student personally before the start of the class (of course the classes are small with only 10-14 students to an instructor). The Program Directors are very committed to ensuring quality control, and they rightly realize that the faculty member can make or break the students’ experience.

The second thing they do is work really hard to build a sense of community. In addition to the regular discussion boards, they have a community space for the distance learners and offer new profiles of students every other week. They work hard to make them feel a part of the Norwich tradition. They try to humanize the experience as much as possible. The separate programs have even set up Google, Yahoo! and MSN groups for their students to build a sense of community and keep it going after the students have graduated and no longer have access to WebCT. When the students come to campus to graduate (they have a week of Residency with graduation as the finale), you can tell that they feel a deep sense of connection to Norwich and to the students they have studied with. And that is impressive since up until then, all of their interactions have been virtual (there is no residency component before they finish their coursework). Their efforts to create a sense of connection in the online world is really to be commended.

Jennifer wonders if the problems she (and I) had are inherent to distance learning in general. Looking at what I’ve learned from Norwich and hearing comments like those that Paul made on Jennifer’s post, it’s obvious to me that there are schools working hard to make online education more than a face-to-face class on the Web and to help make students feel connected to the University and to each other. I know that online learning will never be just like face-to-face, but it can be a lot better.