Friday, 15 June 2012

Learning to Learn by Distance

By Amelia Carlin

Like many MIS students, I am conducting my studies online by Distance Education. After a rather
long on-campus university career, studying from afar presented many challenges and opportunities
to develop new skills. I want to share with you some of my experiences, and the resources I drew on
to support my journey in long distance learning.

The week I started my MIS degree was the same week I relocated to a country on the other side of
the world. Distance education carries certain requisites - primary amongst these being access to
the Internet. The best connectivity in my studio apartment was to be found about a metre outside
the window (I was on the 7th floor) which proved challenging in the rain (see photo). Sometimes I found myself trying to find hotspots waving the laptop around like a butterfly net trying to snag invisible butterflies. A low point was trudging to a local fast-food restaurant at midnight in the rain to use their Wifi to upload my first assignment after my connection disappeared.

That low point leads me to my main discussion: that distance learning can take a bit of getting
used to, but once you draw on and develop the skills and find the right tools, it can be incredibly
rewarding. Distance learning fosters a range of aptitudes such as self-discipline, self-motivation, time
management and the ability to create networks of peers. These skills are of course inherent in face-
to-face tuition but with distance learning, I feel that they become more pertinent.

As mentioned, an initial challenge was locating reliable Internet. That is where public libraries saved
me; I signed up for 5 public library cards in as many days and I was soon on greeting terms with the
welcome desk staff (greetings were all I could do at that stage!). Now with internetivity (= internet +
connectivity), I could focus on time-management.

I trialled a few methods but settled on the Pomodoro Technique. This helped me to breakdown and
prioritise work into tasks, structuring my time and prompting me to organise my thoughts when
it came down to the nitty gritty of assignment writing. Although a basic tool, I shouldn’t overlook
the importance of using online calendars to map out subject timetables and schedule assignment
reminders. Planning ahead becomes especially important with the time-difference being so great.
For example, email correspondence with lecturers and tutors can take place over the course of days,
as working hours and public holidays don’t coincide. In addition, 1 am scheduled university system
downtimes are in the middle of the day here, so it pays to be prepared.

I use bibliographic software (Endnote) to organise and link readings and research for assignments,
and I put articles onto my e-reader making study more portable and available whenever the
opportunity might arise (e.g. whilst waiting in lines to get library cards!).

Lastly, without the immediacy of physical classes, a big challenge can be self-motivation. For me,
this is where friends and colleagues in the library field came to the rescue*. They are an invaluable
resource as support networks, sounding boards and motivators. University online forums also
provide means to connect and communicate. Tapping in to these resources can alleviate the sense of
isolation that very-distant-education can engender and can help you stay on track.

The inherent flexibility of distance learning fosters new skills and develops old ones; preparation,
tools and peer networks can go far in enhancing the experience. It would be great to hear about the
tools and skills you have found indispensable in your learning journey.

Amelia works at the American Library in Paris

* And I would like to take this opportunity to give my profuse thanks to you all!


  1. I'd never heard of the Pomodoro Technique - it sounds really interesting! I think the challenges you describe of having a wonky internet connection greatly affects access to information. I am currently enrolled in a coursera course (Sociology 101) and the group discussion was really disjointed by contributors connections fading in and out. Poor technology infrastructure is really limiting the potential of distance education.

  2. Thanks for sharing your excellent tips!
    It's easy to forget how important a good internet connection is, but it was only 4 years ago that I dropped out of a distance program because I couldn't reliably access the course websites.
    I've since managed to complete a Masters at CSU- thanks to a much more reliable internet service provider in Sydney.
    I'll have to try the pomodoro technique for managing my time more effectively :)

  3. Nice post - thank you! I study by distance too, but without any of those technical difficulties - I'll think of you next time I'm complaining about my course :-)

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  5. Thanks for the great post Amy! I'd never heard of the pomodoro technique either, but I just tried it this morning, when I was trying to have a productive morning on my flex day, and it worked!!!!
    (Facebook only crept in a little towards the end of my 4th pomodoro!)

    I downloaded the lite version of the timer by rapidrabbit, but it has a rather annoying kitchen timer tick, which makes it difficult to concentrate. I also tried the free 'Simple Pomodoro Timer' from SourcePad, but it doesn't have an alarm at the end of the 25 minutes... So I ended up just setting the kitchen timer for 25 minutes and then 5 minutes.

    Has anyone got a recommendation for a good Pomodoro Timer iPhone app?