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The keys to making distance learning a success

Best Practice for Taking an Online Course

There is no denying that online and distance learning courses are becoming more and popular across all areas of learning. Regardless of position – junior, middle or senior – and industry, the flexible and cost-effective nature of distance learning is making it an increasingly attractive option for individuals and companies looking to reap the benefits of professional development without facing many of the administrative and operational burdens it often entails.

The advantages are clear: no travel or accommodation arrangements to be made, no fixed schedules to follow, little or no interference with work-related duties and the liberty to work through material and one’s own pace, without having to slow down or speed up for the sake of other delegates. Crucially, what all of these factors contribute to is also a drastic reduction in the cost of training, making courses much more affordable even for those who are funding their training out of their own pocket.

But of course, in order to be cost-effective, a product or service doesn’t just need to be reasonably priced: it needs to actually achieve its intended objective(s). In this case, it needs to help professionals develop their knowledge and skills in a way that will benefit their careers. With this in mind, there are some key rules to follow to ensure that the investment you make is worth the return you get.

Make a training schedule and stick to it.

Just because you don’t have fixed training dates and times doesn’t mean you should just leave studying to "when you have time". That kind of approach will most likely mean that you end up always putting you training off, whether to prioritise work-related tasks or personal commitments, and never end up finding that time to focus on your study. What then tends to happen is that you get discouraged and end up feeling like you're never going to manage, which can make you want to give up altogether.

When you find a course you think is right for you (and preferably before you enrol), talk with the training provider about how long it usually takes and think carefully about how much time per week you will realistically be able to dedicate to it. This will give you an idea about how long the course will take to complete. Once you decide if that is an acceptable amount, draw up a detailed training schedule for the entire time frame and stick to it, if not religiously then to the greatest degree possible. While you don’t want to be so strict that you refuse to address urgent matters that surface at work or at home (no one can predict the future), you need to set out with the mind-set that your training is important and worthy of the time you plan to spend completing it.

This will require significant planning and time management skills, as well as a great deal of self-discipline, so be aware of that if you know that this is not one of you strong points. Bear in mind, also, that there is no "right" answer – the ideal solution for you will depend on how you are as a person and how your daily routine is structured.   


Choose a reputable provider.

This is, of course, important regardless of the delivery method you choose, but is particularly relevant to distance learning because the quality of the resources and support that a provider offers can end up making the difference between success and failure. It is thus advisable to do your research, read reviews, ask colleagues or friends for suggestions and contact the training providers to get a clear idea of what is included in the package they offer.

Obviously you will want to have quality training materials, and since distance learning courses can vary quite significantly in terms of the way in which they are delivered, it is advisable to ask for a sample or demo of the course to understand what it will be like. Distance learning courses can be paper-based, but the large majority are now delivered online via systems often referred to as Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) or e-learning platforms. What you will want to know is how these function: will you be following audio-visual lectures or will it be more of a self-study (reading-based) programme? Will you have access to simulations and exercises? To what extent and how will you be able to interact with the trainer and other students?

Another important issue is that of support. For most people, it will be important to have a tutor to turn to in order to address any problems or particular areas of difficulty. Since we all know that technology has the tendency to malfunction every once in a while, you will probably also want to make sure that the provider gives you access to a technical support team able to help you resolve any issues that may arise with the learning software. As with anything, you should have a clear idea of what you are buying to ensure you get a satisfactory return on your training investment, as well as your expectations.

Be proactive and interact with peers.

Even if you respond well to self-study, you will most likely get to a point every once in a while where you would appreciate a discussion and exchange on a particular topic. But just because you are physically alone doesn’t mean that there aren’t other people out there feeling exactly the same way as you. Most online courses will offer access to some sort of online forum where students can post and answer questions, and it is thus important to make full use of them for useful feedback and interaction.

There are multiple reasons for this. Firstly, if there is a particular topic that you are having difficulty with, it will only hurt your progress and self-confidence to sweep it under the rug. You can of course turn to your course tutor, but talking about it with other students will also help you realise that you are not the only one struggling with a certain subject. On the contrary, others are probably sitting around wondering the same thing. Don’t wait for someone else to bring the matter up: take charge and be the one to get the discussion going.
Aside from clearing up points of confusion, interaction can create a lot of added value on top of the course content itself. Delegates who attend open courses often find the opportunity to interact with peers one of the most enjoyable and rewarding aspects of attending, so if you have the chance to do the same – albeit in a virtual environment – why hesitate to take it?


Take your assessments seriously.

Regardless of whether your course includes a final examination or not, your progress will often be "monitored" and evaluated via a series of exercises or assessments taken at the end of every module that you complete. Since you are sat alone with the Internet at your fingertips, the temptation to look up the answers so that you can easily pass the assessment and move on to the next unit can be a great one.

We’ve all been there, but you know as well as we do that this is a bad move. You may think that you’re being more efficient, but in truth you are wasting a valuable opportunity to see how much you have actually learned. Presumably you are taking the course because you want to tangibly improve your capabilities and achieve certain goals, so why not take the chance to test yourself when you have it? Moving forwards when you haven’t fully grasped the concepts previously introduced will not benefit anyone, least of all you.



Make full use of the time at your disposal.

Because distance and e-learning course providers know that students will work through the course at their own pace, you will often be given a generous amount of time in terms of your length of access to the course. This means that even once you have completed the programme, you are likely to have ample time to go back and revisit the material.
Take advantage of this opportunity to go back, refresh your knowledge and find new ways of applying the concepts and tools covered to your day-to-day working practices. This will help you draw more value out of the course, enhancing your effectiveness as well as your career prospects.

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Last updated: 30 Mar 2016

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