Distance Education Challenges + Strategies: Professors’ Perspectives

Distance Education (DE) has basically revolutionized the way students can earn an education, especially for individuals who are already in a career or located far from universities. While offering students unique access to education, DE can present some challenges to students.

We recently spoke with Dr. Paige Puckett and Dr. John Classen about their experience teaching for the BAE Online program. Here’s what they had to say:

What do you see as some of the benefits of online teaching, for both instructor and student?

John Classen believes DE enables students who are working professionals to work on the MBAE or the Watershed Assessment/Restoration Graduate Certificate while continuing their profession. Another benefit of DE courses is students do not have to rely on their own notes; professors provide source material they can review. For the professor, John reports a DE course requires more front-end preparation—deciding what to include, what not to include and which teaching tools to utilize. Teaching online also offers more flexibility.

Paige Puckett likes how DE course material can evolve over time as digital resources can change and develop, based on what resonates with students. As a instructor, this evolving atmosphere keeps her actively researching, in order to deliver the best experience for her students. Paige also likes how the asynchronous structure of DE courses enables professors to be thoughtful in their responses to students’ questions (and students to be thoughtful in their responses as well).

What challenges do you most often see students struggle with in distance education?

Paige often sees students have a strong hesitation to ask for help in DE courses. She frequently reminds students she is happy to answer their questions and schedule appointments with them. Paige says students often struggle with time management. For example, in a 3-week unit, some students will wait until the last day before the deadline to complete the assignment, often failing to produce their best work.

John agrees that DE students frequently struggle with time management, noting graduate students normally fair better than undergraduates new to online learning. He also observes a difference between the participation of working professional students and full-time students. The fluidity, and thus effectiveness, of Discussion Boards can be challenging because working professionals often post during the weekend and full-time students often post during the week.

What strategies do you recommend to students to combat those DE challenges?

In John’s syllabus and welcoming letter, he notifies students his course is not self-paced, and time management is essential. John also keeps an eye on his DE students’ online presence throughout the course; if a student has not participated in a few days, he will follow-up with that student. While John does not have set office hours, he encourages students to email questions, call him directly or set-up appointments when additional assistance for course success is needed. John also encourages his DE students to get to know one another by having students post self-introductions, in which they are asked to discuss their interests, family life, pets and more.

Paige understands many of her students work full-time. Therefore, at the semester’s onset, she notifies students of her flexibility with due dates if students are traveling for work and communicate their conflicts to her before they occur. Paige also creates a thoughtful layout to her DE courses, with most courses having a weekly assignment to help students stay on track.

What do you do specifically in your DE courses that encourages student success?

In her Freshwater Use, Rights and Policy course, Paige allows the students’ curiosity to drive their learning. In the Colorado River Basin project, students chose a community within the basin to study. Paige also thinks students’ experience is enhanced in DE because they share information with and learn from each other, perhaps more acutely than in a traditional format. She also thinks it may be easier to secure information in a DE course.

John reports that students really appreciate learning not just about his DE course content, but also about the context of course topics. He suggests that perhaps students more deeply engage with the context in a DE course because they must publicly “discuss” the readings whereas a traditional student may be able to avoid classroom discussion.

Check in the coming months as we talk to two BAE Distance Education students about what they see as the challenges of and strategies for distance education.