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Distance Learning: Making It Work for You

Distance learning, also known as distributed or online learning, is a way of “going to school” that lets you choose when and where you learn.

In a distance learning program, you use online, print and/or video resources to study at your own pace, often in your own home. Many employers use self-directed learning modules for on-the-job training.

Distance learning is a great way to pursue your education when the classroom is too far away or the class time won’t fit your schedule. For example, you could be enrolled in a post-secondary program where you download your readings, email your assignments and take part in a weekly online tutorial, even though you live hundreds of miles away from the post-secondary school. Distance learning also lets you “go to school” on evenings and weekends, allowing you to further your education without giving up your job.

The flexibility of distance learning can be both an advantage and a challenge. When you’re free to manage your own learning, you’re also free to do other chores, watch TV or chat with friends instead of “going to class.” Learning on your own takes self-control, planning and commitment.

Follow the tips in this article to help you manage your studies and thrive in a distance learning environment.

  1. Set goals.
    When times and places for learning are not structured like in a classroom, it’s easy to put off tasks and assignments. Look for ways to break your learning into small, well-defined tasks. Then set deadlines for yourself and include them in your schedule like you would any other commitment. To reduce last-minute stress, set your own deadlines for a few days ahead of any assignment or exam due date in the program. When you’ve set your goals, make a contract with yourself. Write it out and sign it. You might even want to include the reward you’ll give yourself for each goal you achieve.

  2. Organize learning time and space.
    Use a calendar or organizer to schedule specific learning times and activities. Treat those times as seriously as you would a job. Whether you study at home or in the workplace, plan to reduce interruptions and distractions. Let family members or co-workers know when you’ve scheduled learning time and ask them not to interrupt you. Close the door, turn off your phone and email and log off social networking websites. If possible, organize and keep all your learning resources in one space. Take regular breaks and check in with your family or co-workers at those times.

  3. Find support.
    Tell your friends, family and co-workers about your learning goals and commitments and ask for their support. Co-workers may be willing to cover some of your workload or take an extra shift, while friends and family might watch your kids, make dinner, take your turn in the carpool or contribute in other ways that give you time and space for learning.

    It’s also important to find help with any questions or problems you may have with what you’re learning. Face to face in the classroom, instructors can often tell when students are confused, discouraged or frustrated. Your online instructors or tutors may not be aware of challenges you’re facing unless you tell them.

    If you’re taking a formal course, tutoring support may be available by phone or online. You may be able to link up with another person taking the same course so you can study together and support each other. If you’re studying on the job, your supervisor or an experienced co-worker may be able to help with your questions or concerns.

  4. Have access to a computer and be comfortable online.
    If your program is not completely print-based, you’ll need regular access to a computer with a reliable, and preferably high-speed, Internet connection. 

    The more familiar you are with the technology used in your distance learning program, the more time you’ll have to focus on learning, rather than on technical challenges.

    At minimum you’ll need to know how to:
    • download and open files
    • access and search the Internet
    • send and receive emails with attachments
    • format documents in word-processing and other software programs.

    Your program may also use CD-ROMs, USB drives, DVDs, online forums, streaming video and other ways to provide resources. If you’re unfamiliar with these formats or unsure of your computer skills, it might be a good idea to ask a computer-savvy friend for help or complete a computer literacy course before you enroll in a distance learning program.

  5. Follow through on your goals.
    If you find that learning time is getting bumped from your schedule, look for other ways to manage your time and roles. For example, could you negotiate a formal commitment from your employer to allow you a specific number of hours a week for learning? Could you afford regular babysitting or other support to give you more time for learning?

    Revisit your goals. Think about your initial motivation. Remind yourself why you’re taking the course and how it will help you succeed. If your reasons for learning are still important to you, re-commit to your goals and return to them often. Remember to reward yourself—it helps you stay motivated.

Make the most of your distance learning experience

Managing the unstructured distance learning environment can be both challenging and rewarding. Many learners have improved their education, their work and their lives through distance learning. With a strong commitment and some skillful planning, you can too!

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