Distance Learners Many of Us Literature Review

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Distance Learners

Many of us have an image of what we think a "normal" student looks like. And that typical -- or even stereotypical -- student is dressed casually but neatly. Sitting in a classroom with desks in slightly disarrayed rows, the twenty-year-old is mostly listening to her professor -- who is dressed only a little more formally than she is. But every once in a while she glances out the window over the campus and smiles to herself at the squirrels running up and down an ancient tree. She's also thinking about what she will do when she finishes this class. Maybe she'll go to a coffee shop with some friends before heading off to the library to study for a few hours before going home and getting to bed early.

There's nothing wrong with this picture, of course. Some students do look -- and act and think -- precisely like this. However, it is also the case that many, many students look nothing at all like this. One of the advantages of modern education is that many students who would never have found a place in higher education, who would never have had a chance to continue their education beyond the secondary level, now have the chance to do so because of the flexibility that now exists in the range of educational settings and program designs.

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This paper examines one of those non-traditional settings, that of a private, post-secondary level business administration program in Puerto Rico. Essential to this paper is the development of a model of a virtual student. In order to be able to serve distance learners as fully and appropriately as possible, it is essential that the officials at the school have a clear understanding of the profile of a distance learner and how this profile differs from that of a traditional student.

What is Distance Learning?

TOPIC: Literature Review on Distance Learners Many of Us Have an Assignment

There is a range of different strategies that distance learning programs employ. They can be combined in different ways for different programs and classes and for the novice distance learner and the one who has had a considerable degree of experience in this learning mode. But while there are important differences among distance-learning programs, there are also over-riding similarities. The key element, of course, is that distance-learning programs are formally designed to be carried out without any regard to geographic limitations. Teachers and students can be separated from each other by both space and time. A teacher can design a lesson from her office in London and the next day her students in New York, Mumbai, and Buenos Aires can be collaborating on a project.

Distance-learning programs help provide programs that work for students who have numerous responsibilities, as so many students today do. Students have part-time or full-time jobs, children to raise, parents to take care of, spouses to spend time with. Students can be both serious and dedicated to their studies and yet be unable to attend classes in a traditional setting at the traditional times. This latter can be especially helpful to students who do not have childcare during "normal" classroom hours and to students who do shift work and thus also are not available during traditional class times.

Flexibility in terms of location is useful to many types of students, but especially to those in rural areas where a college may be too distant for a student to commute to easily on a regular basis. Other students may live close to a college but because of personal physical challenges -- such as using a wheelchair or being blind -- may not find the accommodations that he or she needs at that campus. Being able to study in one's own home, where one's computer and other equipment has been adapted to one's needs may be what a student needs to be successful. Being able to study at home can also be extremely helpful to students who do not have access to reliable daycare during traditional class hours.

Distance learning programs can include a number of different specific technologies, including Webcasts or other voice-based media such as MP3 recordings or podcasts and various forms of video technologies such as DVDs and interactive videoconferencing. Perhaps most common to distance-learning are web-based technologies in which students respond to lessons by posting comments on a shared site that allows them to discuss class content with each other under the supervision of the instructor. All of these forms of distance-learning technologies can be supplemented with more traditional methods of assessment such as writing papers, which students can submit electronically or by mail.

Whatever specific form of technology is used to convey information to students, the most successful programs are those that maximize interaction between students and instructors and allow students to feel a sense of agency about their learning outcomes. The following summarizes these issues:

The terms "distance education" or "distance learning" have been applied interchangeably by many different researchers to a great variety of programs, providers, audiences, and media. Its hallmarks are the separation of teacher and learner in space and/or time (Perraton, 1988), the volitional control of learning by the student rather than the distant instructor (Jonassen, 1992), and noncontiguous communication between student and teacher, mediated by print or some form of technology. (Sherry, 1996, p. 375)

Before proceeding to a description of the traits that are most important for a virtual student to possess, it is imperative to stress that there are key aspects to teachers in a distance-learning teacher as well. While certainly it is imperative that distance learners take responsibility for their own progress through the program, it is also true that student success in distance programs is affected by teacher skills as well.

This should hardly be surprising, of course, since good teaching always matters. But just as there are key attributes that ensure that some students will flourish in a distance program while others will find more benefit in a more traditional educational setting, there are also key attributes that ensure that some teachers will be more beneficial to students in a distance-learning environments than will others. Holloway and Ohler (1991) describe this phenonemon:

Little happens of any magnitude without administration buy-in, and the best way to achieve that is to succeed on a small level first. Put most of your effort into finding the right people rather than the most exciting technology...Some teachers work well on camera, behind a microphone, or running a computer conference, and others do not. Find teachers who feel comfortable and work well with the media, then give them all of the technical support you can afford. Their job is to teach, not splice cords together or figure out why their conferencing software is misbehaving. The more transparent the media are to them, the better service they will deliver. This has a financial payoff too: the better a teacher works with media, the less necessary the expensive elements of distance delivery coursework (like graphics and sophisticated editing) become to the creation of a quality product (p. 264).

This last point is an extremely important one for both administrators and students. Containing costs will allow administrators to offer a degree program at a level that will allow more students to enroll.

Key Attributes of the Distance Learner

There are general attributes that successful distance learners share. Because distance programs do not have the same constraints as traditional learning situations do, they require a degree of self-discipline that is generally not needed by a student who is required to attend classes at a certain time each day. Key to the success of a virtual student is good time management skills along with a high level of motivation. Even so, course-completion and program-completion rates are lower for distance learners than for those in a traditional classroom setting, in some part at least because they lack the support of a community of other students (Osborne, 2001).

Muse (2004) argued that these traits are key to the success of a distance learner, who:

has more previous education than an at-risk student has a higher GPA than an at-risk student has a good study environment is older is taking fewer credits and working more hours than an at-risk student is returning to college after more than two years away is highly motivated has already completed a distance class gets support from family and friends has appropriate access to a computer with Internet connection is confident using computers

As is clear from the list above, many of these traits are something that school administrators have no control over, which presents a distinct challenge in recruiting the kind of students who are most likely to succeed. Not only is it impractical, it is also illegal to focus solely on older students, and it is simply impractical to try to enroll students who have higher levels of family support in terms of publicizing a business administration distance-learning program.

Such traits can be emphasized in an interview process, however, and this is something that program administrators should certainly… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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