An admission interviewer could help explore the above issues with any student considering the program and help the student determine for herself or himself whether the program might match his or her needs. Students who are most likely to be actively engaged in the process are also likely to achieve success in distance-learning program.
Clariana & Mohler (2000) performed a survey of distance-learners enrolled in a program sponsored by Pennsylvania State University and came to the following conclusions. The students themselves described these traits as being essential to their own success. It should be noted that these are students who have attended more than one distance-learning class and so -- as suggested above -- are more likely than first-time distance-learners to succeed:
The factors active engagement and independence were highly correlated with course achievement. Students that are actively engaged are likely taking maximum advantage of the course resources, while independent learners probably are initiating there own learning; alternately students not engaged and not independent neither initiate any learning or additional experiences and so gain little advantage from the course information and resources. These may just be waiting around for someone to tell them what to do next.
One possible aspect of a distance-learning program that was suggested by the results of this survey is that long-term distance-learning success may be increased if the first class taken is one that is framed in a way that it is easy for students to succeed.
Having succeeded at the first class, distance-learners are then more likely to succeed in the rest of the program. This does not mean that the content of the first class should be watered down, but rather that it should be designed to be accessible to someone who is not familiar with a distance-learning format. Indeed, first-time distance learners may not be familiar with certain aspects of computer technology at all, and so the computer skills that will be required to succeed in the class should be taught in the first modules.
Distance learners tend to be older and more mature than students in a traditional learning setting, which is part of why many of them will be able to succeed. However, personal maturity does not mean that they have the required technological skills or the most helpful educational perspective to increase their chances of success at distance learning. It is the job of program administrators to ensure that the introductory classes in a distance-learning program provide not only program content but also training in distance-learning skills.
Differences in Teaching and Learning Styles
As has been suggested above, successful distance learners can be assessed in different ways. There are demographic factors that are generally associated with distance-learning success, such as students who are older and who have already taken other distance-learning classes. There are what might be generally summarized as emotional or psychological aspects of the successful distance learner, such as good time management skills and a good social-support system. One aspect of the successful distance learner that has not yet been addressed in this paper, and indeed one that has received relatively little attention in the literature, is the style of learning.
Different individuals tend to have a medium in which they learn more easily than in other modes. Some learners tend to be more visually oriented, for example, while others tend to absorb and retain information better when they receive it in auditory form while others are best served when there is a kinetic element to learning that allows them to manipulate physical items. While all people can learn in all different ways, it should be obvious that people who are most attuned to learning through kinetic methods are less likely than those who are visual learners to feel entirely at home in a distance-learning environment in which almost all information is conveyed through visual methods.
Students in the distance learning class who possessed a more independent and conceptual learning style, had the highest average scores in all of the student achievement areas. People with the lowest scores in student achievement in the distance learning course had a more social and conceptual learning style.
Students with both a social and applied learning style performed much better in the on-campus class. The outcomes of the Gee study suggested that successful distance education students favored an independent learning environment while successful on-campus students showed a preference for working with others. The relatively small sample of 26 students suggested that additional work is needed to further explore this relationship. (Diaz, & Cartnal, 1999, p. 133)
Again, learning style is something that is difficult to assess as a part of an admission process: Certainly any successful distance-learning program will enroll students with a range of learning styles given that (as described above) is not why students enroll in a distance-learning program.
However, understanding that there are differences in learning style and that some are more attuned to a distance-learning program can help administrators design a program that accommodates as many different learning styles as possible. One way of doing this is to integrate concepts of constructivist learning. Historically education has been seen as a process of conveying information from the teacher (who possesses expertise) to the student (who does not). A more contemporary understanding of educational processes is that while teachers still possess expertise that they are engaged in conveying to their students, they should also cooperate with their students.
Students who are encouraged -- and even required -- to engage as actively as possible in their education, to "construct" their own knowledge and understanding, are those who flourish in any educational setting, including a distance-learning one.
The alternative approach is based on constructivist principles, in which a learner actively constructs an internal representation of knowledge by interacting with the material to be learned. This is the basis for both situated cognition (Streibel, 1991) and problem-based learning (Savery & Duffy, 1995). According to this viewpoint, both social and physical interaction enter into both the definition of a problem and the construction of its solution. Neither the information to be learned, nor its symbolic description, is specified outside the process of inquiry and the conclusions that emerge from that process. Prawat and Floden (1994) state that, to implement constructivism in a lesson, one must shift one's focus away from the traditional transmission model to one which is much more complex, interactive, and evolving. (Sherry, 1996, p. 352)
Basing a distance-learning program on a constructivist framework can be extremely helpful in promoting distance-learning success.
Education is a complex process and the farther away one moves from traditional educational programs the fewer models administrators have for creating the conditions that will allow as many students as possible to succeed. Attending to the profile of the successful distance-learner outlined above will help those distance-learners meet their goals and move on to a successful post-collegiate career.
Clariana, R. & Mohler, L. (2000). Presentation for AECT Annual Convention in Denver, CO in October 2000. Retrieved 31 March 2010 from http://www.aect.org/.
Diaz, D.P., & Cartnal, R.B. (1999). Students' learning styles in two classes: Online distance learning and equivalent on-campus. College teaching 47(4), 130-135
Muse, H.E. (2004).The web-based community college student: an examination of factors that l ead to success and risk. Internet and higher education 6(3): 241-261.
Osborne, V. 2001. Identifying at-risk students in videoconferencing and web-based distance education. The American…