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Different shapes and sizes

Distance education is everywhere these days and I must admit even I am a bit amazed at my latest foray into this form of learning.

A courier parcel arrived for me today and inside it were my course materials for a programme I had enrolled in only the day before. This made me stop and think about how long my learners have to wait to receive their course materials. They fill in their enrolment forms, gather together all the necessary associated documentation, and then they wait for what is sometimes a very long time before they receive anything. In the meantime that excitement at getting started is slowly abating. I was fortunate, this wasn’t going to happen for me.

My courier package contained all the materials and resources I needed for the next twelve weeks. All of this was beautifully contained in a small silver box. Not only was there printed material but I also had a DVD to watch. The booklets were beautiful. They were filled with colour and I wanted to read them. It made me wonder, whether my learners feel as excited as I felt when they receive their box of materials for their courses.

I am not going to gain any kind of qualification from this programme but that doesn’t matter. It doesn’t make it any less meaningful for me. This is experiential learning at its best. I am able to put into practice what I am learning immediately. It means something to me. I enrolled because I had a need. This was all about making changes for the rest of my life. It made sense. The programme seemed sensible. I had no problems working out how to apply it and get started. Why was this?

I have become increasingly aware that you need certain skills to be able to learn at distance. Many people enrol in distance learning programmes without realising what they are committing themselves to. They generally are very well intentioned yet this does not necessarily lead to success with this type of learning. Distance learners need certain skills and attributes like being highly self motivated, great time management skills, knowing how to seek out help if needed and so on. It can be lonely at times. Many people aren’t aware of their particular learning styles and needs until they are faced with the challenge of a mass of materials arriving on their doorstep or they suddenly realise their online course has begun and they haven’t done nothing about it. Putting things off until later is easy especially when you are enrolled in an open learning programme where you don’t have the same deadline pressures as a semesterised programme.

Apart from the materials in this little box what other support was I going to have available to me for my distance learning experience. I have the email and telephone support available to me, plus resources available on a website. Is this enough? I suppose only time will tell.

How do my learners feel when they phone to talk to me and I’m not there, or they email me and I don’t reply immediately? There is this assumption that when you are learning by distance and using technology to communicate with your course facilitators that they should be available around the clock. Everyone wants an immediate response. This seems to be an expectation today. I use my voicemail and my out of office assistant to let them know where I am, how they can access help if they can’t wait etc. I somehow feel this is not enough. Yet for some people it is. Some of my learners never contact me. They enrol, get their materials, do what they need to and send in their assessment. Others are really needy. I often wonder am I meeting the needs of my learners. I’m always questioning myself as to whether I put my learners first or do I get bogged down in all the administrative and other stuff that needs doing. When you work in an institution that has no learners on site it is easy to get sidetracked into other things that seem more important.

Do you have any idea what kind of learning programme I am talking about? I have been reluctant to write about this because it is so personal and yet I can’t help myself. This is a great example of informal learning.

From humble beginnings in a New York apartment, to becoming the biggest weight-loss company in the world… Jean called some friends over to her house and confessed eating cookies had become an obsession. They understood, and shared their own eating habits and secrets. The women began to meet at Jean’s house each week for motivation. Soon she had more than 40 people squeezing into her loft space each week.

Jean, like many of us, discovered the most effective tools for weight control were the opportunity to talk, to share feelings and to have a Leader who could remember what being fat was like … 40 years later it is still guided by the same philosophy: some talking, some listening and a programme that works.

Weight Watchers Passport to Success, p.27

I find it fascinating how something that has worked so succesfully for 40 years based on peer support and guidance from someone who has been there and knows what it feels like, is being equally as effective at distance. I am surprised on a daily basis at the new learning possibilities when we get around the concept that learning can only happen when people are in the same place, at the same time, and their learning is being led by someone who is basically nothing more than an information pusher. People are starting to be innovative and creative in what they offer. Flexibility has become a key component of any learning option being provided.

Things are changing. This excites me. What excites me even more are the innovative ways in which informal learning opporunities are being offered to us. We now have choices and we can pick when and how this learning takes place. Lifelong learning has never been easier and it is only going to get better.

Network developments and the growth in social software are enabling people to not feel isolated. They can now share and communicate with people way beyond the confines of those in their immediate environment.

Working as a distance educator and being involved in flexible learning has a lot to answer for. There is a downside. I seem to be glued to this computer. I have become sedentary instead of being outside exercising. Once I would have walked with a friend. Now I do a virtual walk and talk. This is not good for my health. I am trying to do something about it. I’ll let you know how I get on.

Taking a stand

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