For what it’s worth…advantages and disadvantages of distance ed

September 4, 2009

PajamasWhen I started grad school I took my first distance ed class because frankly my thought process went something like this:  “I can sleep until noon and go to grad school in my pajama’s.”  This sounded extremely rational because I had spent the last few years of my life working under a tyrannical boss at about 80 hours a week.  However, after a few moments spent reading the syllabus of Statistical Analysis 601, I realized just how wrong my rationale was… I might be able to sit in my pj’s while doing the work, but it didn’t make the class material any easier or less in scope or more relaxed.   Eventually, after I stopped running around my apartment screaming and flailing my hands, questioning my decision to return to school and contemplating what it might take to get my job back, I sat back down to my computer and got to work.  Eventually, this course would become one of my fonder memories of grad school and prove to be serendipitous.  Why?  Because while I had a good work ethic, I had forgotten what it was like to be a good student.  My in-person classroom courses were all Socratic method  requiring little work outside of the lecture.  Whereas, this distance ed course immediately made me become:  more responsible; stay on schedule; deliver a greater amount of intelligent, thoughtful work; participate and interact more with my professor and my classmates; and be fearless about technology.  No one was holding my hand anymore telling me when this chapter had to be read or that paper turned in.  That’s what I liked most then (and now) about distance ed, it intrinsically motivated me to be a learner; to build my own personal database of intellectual property and tools.  I’m certainly not saying that all distance ed courses do this; and I’m certainly not saying that in-person classroom courses don’t do this; I’m just saying that’s what I like best about a good distance ed course…you want to learn and do and use.

I went on to survive grad school and now into my professional career, I find myself having been on both sides of distance ed — as student and as instructor.  As the student, the main disadvantage to distance ed for me was the cost; our university had a technology surcharge, and I had to pay for Internet access at home, making the actual cost of the class more expensive — and when you’re living on a $900/mth fellowship every penny counts.  Now, as an instructor I find that technological prowess is the biggest obstacle for my students; it’s not that they don’t have the ability to navigate the territory but that they become overwhelmed and afraid to ask questions because they don’t want appear ignorant.  One of my first test I ever gave was through Blackboard; this is a great way to give a test because you can enter the test questions or test bank, set the parameters for the test (i.e. time, date, choose questions, etc.), and have it self-grade, then post to the grades page.  Ninety-percent of the class had no issues but that other 10% ended up begging me for a paper exam — which I obliged because if you’re scared to death and worried about the technology you can’t focus on knowledge you’re supposed to be learning. Eventually, by the end of the course, almost everyone was up to speed with the technology (and surprisingly it wasn’t my older students with the issues, it was my text messaging, IM’ing, email using 18 year olds — can you figure out why?).

*****

One other way distance ed application is utilized to an advantage is for continuing education (CE).  As part of my Kentucky licensure requirements I have to attend ten hours of continuing education each year — usually this consists of: taking two 8-10 hour classes; time away from work; sitting in a hotel banquet room drinking bad coffee while taking notes for an entire day; and keeping up with the certificate credentials.  Further, topics are limited to what CE travels through my city. (For example my area of practice is bi-polar disorder.  A few years ago, there were no bi-polar disorder CE’s that came through my city — thus if I’m not getting the latest and greatest information about this topic, what good will I be as a therapist?)   Now, there are several companies that specialize in on-line CE’s specific to therapist.  The advantages are not just that I can take a CE when I have time — all I need is an Internet connection — but that I can re-watch that CE, choose from a wider selection of topics, communicate directly with the speaker, and the company keeps track of my certificate so that when I go to re-up my license I don’t have to dig through my office trying to find what class I took when, and where the certificate might be.

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