Tertiary education providers have been using technology for years, but it is now at a stage where it is meeting the needs of a wide range of students.
Students no longer have to attend classes or study on campus; they can now study while living overseas, raising families and working full-time.
Victoria University of Wellington associate professor Dr Kate Thornton, who is a postgraduate programme director in the Faculty of Education, says one of the most important things about distance learning is its accessibility to students who may not have been able to study in the past.
“It opens up university for a wide range of students,” she says.
“I think people are expecting more flexibility. It’s the way of the future.”
Early versions of distance courses had issues because the technology was not advanced enough for cohesive learning, and students lacked confidence because they did not know others in their classes, she says.
However, innovations such as video conferencing, discussion boards and blogs have helped overcome these issues.
The university also offers other options, such as blended courses, which include some time on campus as well as allowing some students to complete traditional on-campus courses via distance learning.
Wellington student Cherie Knights, who is in her fifth and final year of a Master of Applied Social Work at Massey University via distance learning, says she loves the flexibility the course has given her.
“I like to work late at night so this suits me really well.
“In campus you had to work everything around class times, and often it was hard to plan work and other things around because you might not get your timetables until quite late in the piece.”
Because she has assignments for each paper and not exams, she can do as much work as is required to complete the assignment whenever she likes.
“I wouldn’t study every day consistently, but if I have an assignment due, I’d do a bit in the evenings and then usually a big stint on the weekends.
“I definitely learn by reading and doing assignments, rather than sitting in lectures, so the distance thing really suits my learning style as well.”
It has enabled her to study part-time, which fits into her busy work schedule and allows her to pay her mortgage.
Technology has been invaluable as all the students’ communication is done online, and it has allowed her to access resources from home.
“To be able to access basically any journal article, book or report online means I can research any time of the day or night. “I don’t have to leave my home (or track pants) to go to the library.”
Block courses combat isolation
The only drawback for Knights is that because she is not on campus, it is harder to connect with other students. However, she has several contact block courses a year in Palmerston North as a requirement for the Social Workers Registration Board.
“We are lucky to have our block courses; I have actually met some great people through those, and we are in touch throughout the year and can bounce ideas off each other,” she says.
“I think I’d definitely struggle if I didn’t have those block courses, I imagine it would be quite isolating.”
Knights has found distance learning so beneficial that she is considering doing a PhD distantly in the future.
“I’d recommend it to people who can be disciplined and who would be motivated enough to stay home and study, even when there’s other stuff they’d rather be doing.
“If you don’t enjoy what you’re studying, I imagine it would be super hard to motivate yourself, so for anyone thinking about doing it, just make sure you’re passionate about what you’re studying or you’ll end up resenting the time you spend studying.”
Recent graduate Ben Johnston, who completed a Diploma in Business Studies from Massey University, says distance was his only practical option.
“I was living in London at the time and knew I wanted to go into business for myself when I returned to New Zealand after my UK visa expired. So a New Zealand business qualification made the most sense.”
Its flexibility allowed Johnston to complete the diploma in five years rather than one year (full-time) as work, travel, getting married, returning to New Zealand, starting a business and then finally buying a stake in another business all slowed down his completion of the qualification.
“I enjoyed the mobility that distance learning offered as I completed papers while living in the UK and New Zealand, and also completed a paper during a three-month overland backpacking trip from Morocco to Gallipoli.”