South Africa’s tough economic conditions, combined with limited space at public universities, is seeing thousands of students opt for distance learning annually. Students who need to earn while they learn, and people already in employment who need to upskill to boost their career prospects, consider distance learning an effective way to further their education.
But distance learning comes with very unique challenges, and anyone considering it should make sure that they tackle this life-changing project with a strategy that will ensure their ultimate success, an education expert says.
“Distance learning is a great way to further your career or get the qualifications you need to enter the job market, but it requires the same, if not more, discipline as full-time study,” says Elbie Liebenberg, Principal at Oxbridge Academy, which serves more than 20 000 South African distance learning students every year.
She says before embarking on the distance learning route, prospective students should get in the right headspace, and make sure that they have the structures in place that will enable them to balance the demands of their studies with their personal and work lives.
“You have to ask yourself some tough questions, and be honest with yourself. If you find that you come up short in one or all of these areas, you need to address them first, which will leave you better equipped and empowered to achieve your goals,” she says.
Liebenberg says prospective students should consider the following:
Are you organised?
Making a success of distance learning centres a huge amount on being able to keep balls in the air and admin sorted. You need to plan your days, your assignments and tests. If you are not the list-making, diary-scheduling type, it is a good idea to start implementing basic planning principles into your daily and work life. Once you feel in control in these areas, you can transfer your newly acquired skill to the planning required for distance learning.
Are you disciplined?
Having plans and programmes in place are great, but it is no good to be a good planner if you can’t stick to the plan, says Liebenberg.
If you are studying on your own, and are not part of a contact lecture environment, it is up to you to keep up with things. Make sure you schedule at least 2-3 hours daily to do you reading and studying, work on assignments, and prepare for tests. If you consistently wait until a few days before the test or assignment deadline to get going, things are soon going to pile up and spiral out of control. A daily, consistent effort is required in distance learning.
Are you able to focus on your goals and the big picture?
Quality distance learning institutions have the support structures and interactive online environments that didn’t exist in years past, and which make a significant difference to the success of students. However, at the end of the day, distance learning students need to be able to focus on why they started in the first place, and be able to visualise and work towards their goals. It is easy to get lost in and overwhelmed by the twin demands of keeping distance learning admin under control while also excelling in your studies – particularly if you don’t see your fellow students grappling with the same issues. It is therefore important to make use of the support and collaboration opportunities that good distance learning institutions will have in place, while constantly reminding yourself of the better future you are building.
Are you ambitious and motivated?
Do not sign up for a distance learning qualification if you are simply making a half-hearted attempt to add a qualification to your CV. A quality distance learning qualification is just as respected by employers as one from a full-time contact institution, but that means that the demands on students must equally be so if the fruits of the labour are to be enjoyed.
If you are serious about your life and your career, then distance learning is a fantastic option which will bring significant rewards upon graduation, but it is not to be considered a second-rate option for those who are not committed to making a success of their studies.
“When things get tough for distance students, they often opt to just throw in the towel and disappear,” says Liebenberg.
“But these students and prospective students should know that just like at contact institutions, good distance learning providers will have ample resources to assist them in making a success of their studies if they can commit to seeing things through.”
She says students should not underestimate the intellectual demands of distance learning, and should make sure that they effectively structure their studies.
“Throw yourself into your studies and take every advantage of the opportunities provided by your institution, to ensure you banish any feelings of isolation and engage fully with your chosen field, your tutors and your future peers,” she says.