HOW WELL DOES DISTANCE LEARNING WORK? WHAT MY READERS TOLD ME
I've had interesting responses from several of you to my questions about distance learning. While a few of your stories confirm my reservations about it, your responses on the whole have been quite positive.
It IS clear that some distance learning institutions have not thought about the issue of library support and as a result have effectively dumped their students on their unsuspecting and unprepared local libraries. Susan Simovich, a reference librarian in a small public library in northwestern New Jersey said her library is the rather frustrating resource of choice for students in a distance learning program, and she has to keep explaining to them why their little library doesn't have the scholarly journals they need. Her library has added more academic full-text databases just to deal with the stress the situation placed on their interlibrary loan service -- a cost timposed by, but not reimbursed by, the distance program.
She also reports that a local community college claimed during its accreditation review that its students could meet their needs with the county's library collection, which was news to the county library director -- the college had no interlibrary agreement with the library, nor had it made any service arrangements with the library director.
However, students in the University of Illinois LEEP program, and Steven Bell, who is offering courses in Drexel University's distance learning program, indicated that many library needs are met very well by access to the university library's full-text databases and catalog, supplemented by interlibrary loan (though Bell felt it was a difficult challenge to teach business reference -- "How do you teach a resource course when the students may never see the books?", he asks). The University of Illinois also employs an outreach librarian just to meet the research needs of UI's distance learners.
Another issue that could be a serious problem is technology: not everybody has state of the art equipment or connections, let alone technical expertise. (As Barbara Quint says, "The trouble with miracles is figuring out the installation instructions.") I don't know how other institutions handle this, but I was impressed that the University of Illinois provides a "wonderfully responsive" technology group to assist LEEP students with such problems.
Somewhat to my surprise, most of the comments I received indicate that the distance learning experience has been as rewarding as previous on-campus coursework, which I suspect depends on how well the program administrators recognize the inherent communication problems and deliberately design the courses to compensate. I was especially impressed by how the LEEP program designs for a sense of community among its geographically dispersed students. Jane Gillespie, one of the LEEP students, describes how it works:
Each "cohort" begins their MLS program with a two week on campus session. This is a very intensive session (its nickname is "bootcamp") since we complete an intro class in that short time. The class included several papers and a lot of group interaction. We also had several technology workshops where we learned how to connect for our distance sessions. My group had 48 students. By the end of the two weeks, I felt I knew all 48 members of my cohort very well. We are also required to attend a full-day on campus session for each class we take during the semester. The on-campus session takes palce in the middle of the semester at Champaign-Urbana. While this requirement adds expense, it is a key component and allows students to physically reconnect with one another...The closeness that I feel for my LEEP buddies might surprise you, but these are really strong connections.
Louise Gruenberg, also a LEEP student, enjoys her distance education courses more than the traditional campus-based master's program she was in eight years ago, which she thought was completely lacking in the "sense of personal connectivity, interaction and support" she finds in the LEEP program. She says,
There is a lively typed in "dialogue" of questions and comments from students which we can all see. Instructors respond to these comments during their presentations and discussions. Class is only a very small part of the distance education experience, however. One of the greatest benefits is a strong connection to a community of learners via the class and program webboards (bulletin boards). People ask questions and receive help on all kinds of topics, from technical problems to career advice. There is much sharing of information, resources, news, and even humor... Because of this sharing, my colleagues in the program are frequently my mentors, counselors, coaches, or cheering section, and I return the favors whenever I can.
Some students actually thrive more in the online format than in the physical classroom -- people who have language difficulties, or are timid about speaking in public, or prefer to take time to think through their responses fully. The asynchronous formats, bulletin boards and e-mail, give them a safe venue for offering their thoughts and questions.
This degree of trust has to be deliberately created, however, as with the LEEP "boot camp." Louise feels this will be improved when LEEP adds instruction in group dynamics and conflict resolution for the next cohort in the program. Steven Bell is still struggling with the issue of how, as an instructor, he can create that kind of trust and participation, especially since Drexel does not require students to come to campus together at any point. He has not made discussion part of the grading system, and has found participation rather sparse. He says, "I am thinking of projects that will require more collaboration -- such as requiring them to build a group web site, develop a group tutorial for a database - that kind of thing."
The quality of the experience also varies in accordance with the kinds of technology the institution makes available, such as web space for students to post their work, chat and bulletin board software, etc. One way students can get to know each other and learn from each other is by posting their work online. Jane Gillespie says,
Students turn in assignments electronically either as a url or a doc attachment. This format makes it easy to post all of the student's assignments on a central bulletin board. It has been fascinating to see how my fellow students interpret assignments and to learn from their work. This approach also enables more in-depth analysis of topics than a Prof could cover in a single semester.
Both Louise and Jane felt that they had, if anything, more interaction with and feedback from professors than they might have had in regular classes. Jane says, "Distance education forces you to participate and put yourself out there, since you just don't exist if you don't create a "presence" online."
All my respondents emphasized how much self-discipline and commitment is required of students if the program is to work. John Royce's experiences as a distance learner on several occasions over a long period of time offer an interesting perspective. He took one degree by correspondence over three years, during which he never met his tutors, and met his fellow students for the first time when he went to take exams. Ten years later, when he took his master's in librarianship, his school offered a one week residential workshop at the beginning of the year, which gave him some chance to get to know his fellow students well enough to fax or mail them questions (he was the only one with e-mail at the time. He felt that he succeeded in large part because of his maturity and experience -- "Perhaps one does not need as much contact with fellow students when there is one's own experience to fall back on, to give confidence; perhaps it's a matter of age or even personality."
He was also, I gather, totally on his own to come up with research materials. It does seem clear that the web, e-mail, bulletin boards, chat, and online databases, make possible a much higher quality of personal and instructional support than was possible in any previous form of distance learning. Distance education can be done well, much better than I had thought. Seeing the accommodations the LEEP program makes to overcome distance should give you some good questions to ask about any distance program before you commit to it.
My thanks to John Royce, Jane Gillespie, Louise Gruenberg, Susan Simovich, and Steven Bell for taking the time to write thoughtful accounts of their experiences which I have greatly condensed here.
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In teaching, it is the method and not the content that is the message...the drawing out, not the pumping in.
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Copyright, Marylaine Block, 2000.