There are so many reasons for choosing e-learning. You can study when and where you choose, thereby slotting it in around commitments of work and home. There is no cost attached to opening a laptop, unlike travelling to a school or campus, and no time wasted in negotiating traffic or hiking across a quad.
On the surface it may look like the ideal choice, but students are urged to consider the pros and cons beyond obvious factors of convenience, as what works will vary from person to person. Most tertiary education providers now offer a choice in delivery – either on campus, online, or a bit of both, known as ‘blended’ learning. But choosing which option to take can be daunting.
Massey@Distance general manager Jacqueline Eade says students need to do their research first.
“There are pros and cons to both sides and it really depends on your individual circumstances as to whether you should study on campus or off.”
The flexibility with online learning could be a positive or a negative, she says.
“On campus you need to comply with the lecture timetable, which can make it hard to work a business hours job.”
Online lectures can be watched after-hours, with no need to travel to campus.
“But there’s the flip-side. The timetable of lectures is great support for routines. For distance students it can be hard to set a routine and it is easy to fall behind and then rush to catch up, or not catch up at all.”
Massey@Distance president David McNab agrees that flexibility is a major benefit of studying at home.
“You can go into the workforce and complete education at the same time. Say you want to be an accountant. With distance learning you can work in an accounting firm and be exposed to the concepts, while also getting that theoretical base through your study.”
Gaining a qualification while also getting years of practical experience allows for “deeper and richer knowledge,” he says.
Travelling to and from campus is not always feasible, especially for rural or isolated students, or parents.
“So many things can pull you away from study during your younger years. Distance learning opens that world back up to you.”
Distance students often struggle with the isolation of working from home alone.
“You can’t just shoulder tap a lecturer and ask what a word means. Sometimes a simple answer can take two hours to receive.”
For some learners, online study begins in school. Students who are part of NetNZ, a large community of secondary and area schools working together via the internet, meet via video conference in classes of up to 18 across as many as 10 schools. Teachers and students alike attest to the benefits of this set up.
Anne Williams is e-Dean at Ashburton College, one of the NetNZ schools, and says online learners rapidly take responsibility for their study.
“They feel motivated about it, they’ve learned to use a range of digital tools and they feel like they are in charge of their own learning. I see it as a really big advantage to them and tell them, ‘If you can do this, you’ll be fine when you leave school’.
Willilams says that NetNZ’s online students have a lot of flexibility around the way that they learn. Before their online lesson they have a study line of four hours a week and in that time, she says, they can come to the library and use the onsite computers, or they can use their own.
“They become very independent about their learning because they can actually access their course 24 hours a day if they want, seven days a week,” she says.
“They’ll continue to use those tools in all their other subjects because suddenly they are really motivated about how much difference it makes to the way they learn.”
Students find ways to communicate with others in the classes, says Williams; for example, a Google community or Student Lounge (a NetNZ tool).
“Online learning allows a lot of flexibility because you can be at home sick but still do your weekly lesson so you can be wherever you like so long as you have a laptop and a net connection.”
Student Vlad agrees. “There’s not constantly a teacher there telling you, do this, do that; you just go at your own pace and I feel that’s better.
“All our course content is posted online and at any point we can just go online and click to see any lesson, even from a month ago. To manage the time, I follow a timetable and if ever I have a question, I email the teacher or talk online with other students.
Teacher Nicky Lewis, who teaches art history online through NetNZ, says accessibility is important. “[Students] need to feel that you will talk to them and help them.”
“There are lots of ways to do this; we use Google hangouts, Skype, email – even old-fashioned phone calls.”
Lewis says students enjoy the level of independence they get from being in control of when and where they work, and also learn from each other by sharing work online.
“It’s not just me teaching them; they can see how different students approach different things.
In New Zealand, most school leavers enrolling at a polytechnic or university choose to study onsite largely for the social aspect so they can be in the company of like-minded young people and make new friends.
Research on the pros and cons of onsite learning is scarce, but one Australian study reveals that while outcomes were broadly similar between face-to-face and screen-to-screen learners, most students strongly preferred to complete written work online and to engage in group discussion in person, reporting that they felt more engaged and received more immediate feedback than in online discussion.
Jacqueline Eade says students who study on campus have the benefit of being face to face with lecturers.
“They can ask questions in real time; they can clearly see whiteboards and screens. They’re with their peers and can network immediately.”
Students studying onsite also have physical access to a library, while some distance students might struggle, depending on their provider.
“Massey does have an outstanding distance library with an excellent search engine,” says Eade. “Books can be couriers out on loan and returned for free, and it provides free access to otherwise expensive articles.”
Online or onsite, networking is always crucial
Eade recommends that all students, but particularly those studying extramurally, network with other students.
“You do need that emotional connection if you are isolated. You don’t seem to succeed in the long term without it. Lots of us are digitally connected, but not emotionally connected.”
Course overload can also become an issue for students studying off campus.
“Take one or two courses at a time. Read through all the material, set yourself up and plan for study.”
David McNab suggests that students keen to study off campus “create a village” around them.
“Find other students, collaborate, seek support.”
He says having a strong network means greater and more immediate accountability.
“Other students can push you harder. If you find out they’re busy working on an assignment, it can drive you too.”
He says all students, regardless of where they study, should connect with their education provider’s student association.
“Build the bonds. Peer support and pastoral care can be the difference between pass and fail. I see it time and time again.”