Distance Learning: A Survival Guide


June 9, 2021
distance learning

I was a high school senior when I took my first online class. I was taking a distance learning class on research-based writing, and my family was barely moved on from dial-up Internet. The experience offered both an interesting change from the classroom and a challenge to asking questions or collaborating with classmates. 

Distance learning has come a long way since the early 2000s. I recently completed a Master’s degree almost entirely through online coursework. And COVID-19 forced remote education to become creative and progress more quickly, showing educators both the benefits and drawbacks to long-term remote learning. 

What is distance learning? Distance learning, also called remote learning or e-learning, is a term that covers a broad variety of education. Some colleges offer degree tracks for students all around the world that are accessible entirely online. Some institutions might follow a hybrid model: a few days in the classroom, and the rest of the semester online. The flexibility allows students who cannot relocate to participate in that program or gives options to students who have families or need to work full-time. My program’s “classroom time” consisted of weekly pre-recorded lectures and was supplemented by live Zoom meetings with my professor and small breakout meetings with other students.

In some ways, our tech-savvy generation can quickly adapt to new software and gravitates toward video-based learning experiences. This is the “YouTube generation” after all. But during the pandemic, one poll found that 77 percent of college students said that distance learning was “worse” than in-person classes. Many did not return last fall to their classrooms. Why is the online classroom experience so much more difficult than watching YouTube or a Netflix documentary?

Ability to focus. It can be hard enough to focus on a lesson while in the classroom. But take away all the restrictions of peer pressure or a professor, and studying remotely can be even more challenging. This was one of the top reported challenges for students who were learning online. 

Turning “do not disturb” on your phone or computer while in class, putting your phone in the other room, taking handwritten notes, or even using a stress ball or fidget toy are all potential tools to aid in focusing while in class. Another helpful tool is to keep your camera on when possible, to avoid falling asleep and help you engage with the material. Alternatively, if the lecture is pre-recorded and you don’t need to take notes, take a walk while listening. Walking can help with focus while engaging your body in a physical activity.

Finding support. Without the traditional resources available in the online classroom, remote learning can feel isolating. In a traditional classroom, a struggling student could casually approach the professor after class, meet with a tutor, or seek help from a teacher’s assistant. Virtual learning creates barriers to these resources. Don’t let that stop you. If you’re struggling in a remote class, set up a time to meet virtually with a professor or teacher’s assistant, or ask to stay on the call after a live class. Many are eager to help their students succeed. Another huge part of remote learning is figuring out how to be self-disciplined and create structure for yourself. Organizational tools, such as bullet journaling or daily planning, are your friend.

Creating relationships. While remote studying can help people spend more time with family and friends since they are not on campus, there is still often a lingering sense of isolation and disconnection when distance learning. Some professors are good about creating some classroom comradery through group projects or interactions, but it’s not the same as creating friendships in-person. Get ahead of this disconnect by messaging fellow students, asking to work on projects together, or friending each other on social media. It’s extremely hard to virtually replicate the in-person connections made in the classroom, but not impossible. Understand that this is one of the biggest challenges of remote learning, and try to take initiative both in the classroom and out.

Computer fatigue. When our entire lives: work, school, and play, are accomplished on screens, our eyes, bodies, and brains need a break. Contrary to popular belief, we are not cyborgs! Creating a space for your computer and study time, such as an office, desk in a bedroom, or somewhere that can be set apart from the rest of your life creates healthy boundaries for work and study. Studying with analog tools like a pen and paper, or making space for exercise and time outside, are other ways to make sure that your body and mind get some rest. 

Overall, distance learning can be a great fit for those who are unable to make the leap to in-person classes, offering flexibility to those who need to learn at their own pace or work on their own schedule. But ultimately, it doesn’t beat the ideal of in-person classroom time to network with classmates, make friends, and create a space to focus on the learning at hand.

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