Students entering distance education programs often find themselves adapting to new learning environments and new technologies. Part of this adaptation involves coping with unfamiliar technology and learning to manage its use within the group, helping them create the environment in which they will learn. Part of it involves developing personal relationships that will ease their work and learning, helping them cope with unfamiliarity and change. Examining suggestions from distance learning students on how to cope with this process yields three-fold results. First, it demonstrates how students, instructors and administrators need to work together to ease student's paths. Second, it helps us in advising distance learning students about what they can expect from distance learning, and how they can contribute to and benefit from their distance learning community. Finally, it provides recommendations to instructors and program directors on how better to help their students cope with this community building transition and distance learning environment.
A New Learning Environment
Description of Study
Aspects of Coping in Distance Education
Multiple Perspectives on Coping
Helping Distance Students Cope
A New Learning Environment"Watch silly sitcoms. Have a piece of chocolate cake. Have dinner with your best friend."
- Jan, 1st term LEEP student 
Students in a distance learning environment often find themselves in new educational surroundings supported by unfamiliar technologies. As they adjust to this learning environment, they may rely on available people and tools for support, as well as changing their own living and learning patterns. By talking with students who have already begun this adjustment process, can we discover what they have found to be the most helpful ways of coping? By discovering these means of coping, can we as faculty and administrators learn how to advise new distance learning students, as well as how to structure programs and classes to meet the needs of these students?
The Graduate School of Library and Information Science (GSLIS) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign offers several scheduling options for students to earn their M.S. A recently added scheduling option is LEEP, a distance education option. Unlike traditional students who often live in the Champaign-Urbana area while they are in the program, students who select the LEEP scheduling option come to campus only a handful of times: once when they begin the program and once per semester until they graduate. For the remainder of their class work, they use a variety of computer technologies that enable them to communicate with their instructors and with each other.
The students who participate in LEEP find themselves in different circumstances from the students enrolled in on-campus programs. For example, they have to manage many different types of technology and need more flexibility in scheduling classes, performing work, and managing their time. They are in a new and unfamiliar learning environment, without physical classrooms and with limited face-to-face contact. They face a variety of problems, social and technological, that students in more traditional programs do not. As students enter this new learning environment, they need support to help them gain entry to the community and to begin their interaction with others (Chidrambaram & Bostrom, 1996).
They need help in learning how to cope with new technologies on two different levels. First, to participate in the program, students are required to have and be familiar with certain types of hardware and software. To meet this requirement, they may have to acquire, install, debug, and learn how to use these technologies. Accomplishing these tasks requires certain skills on the part of the students and the availability of technological support from within the program. Second, they need to learn how to use these technologies in the context of group virtual learning. The group has to learn together how to incorporate technologies into their school work and social practices. As they learn, as a group, to use these new technologies, they are building their own learning environment (Dede, 1996; Harasim, Hiltz, Teles, & Turoff, 1995; Poole & DeSanctis, 1990; Small, 1999; Weedman, 1999).
They also need help in learning how to cope with new social situations. First, they need to learn how to develop personal relationships in a virtual environment where some aspects of the regular school environment are missing. For example, in the LEEP environment, students cannot meet for coffee after class or drop into their professors' offices unannounced. Second, they have to adjust to being students in an unfamiliar environment. Instead of just attending a new school, they attend a school which often requires them to perform unfamiliar tasks in settings not normally associated with school, such as their living room or workplace (Bruffee, 1993; Harasim, 1989; Harasim et al., 1995; Mason, 1991; Tinto, 1993; Wegerif, 1998).
As teachers and administrators, we are relatively inexperienced at helping students cope with these situations. While we know how to advise on-campus students, the distance education program is new enough that we needed further study to help us learn how to advise the LEEP students. So, over the course of the 1998-1999 school year, we asked students currently enrolled in the program what advice they had for other students and for program administrators to help students cope with these social and technological uncertainties. They were so eager to discuss this that, even when we did not explicitly ask for this advice, they spontaneously offered it. The purpose of this paper is to report on our findings.
Description of Study
For this study, interviews were conducted four times over the course of one school year. The four rounds of interviewing occurred near the beginning and the end of two successive semesters. The purpose of selecting these times was to allow us to see how the students' views changed over the school year; also, previously collected data indicated that, since mid-semester was potentially an important transition time for the students, there might be notable differences between the beginning and end of each semester (Haythornthwaite, 1999). With the seventeen LEEP students interviewed, we were interested in understanding how they managed to cope with an unfamiliar environment from the time they started through the time of the interview, including how the conditions of particular classes (e.g. the number of live sessions, the technologies used, the number of group projects) affected their LEEP experience.
For the first round of interviews, we used our experiences teaching in the LEEP environment and results from other research to develop the first interview schedule. Each interviewer made initial contact with students via telephone or e-mail to verify that they would participate and to schedule the initial interview. The interviews, which normally took approximately one hour (range: 20 minutes to 2 hours), were conducted over the telephone and tape-recorded. In a few cases, interviews were done face-to-face when the students were on campus. The interviews were semi-structured; each interview schedule included several topics to be covered in the interview and some suggested directions for further probing within these topics. Each interview was transcribed verbatim from the tape recording. The research team then analyzed the interview reports and used the themes and ideas that emerged from them to develop the interview schedule for the second round. This process was repeated for rounds three and four.
The data were analyzed using qualitative data analysis techniques (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). The first part of the process involved open coding, which began to identify concepts in the data; these concepts were then grouped into categories. Each category has properties, or attributes, that allow the categories to be linked together during the second stage, axial coding. This paper is a snapshot of the second stage of analysis: the findings described are based on one group of the linked categories and their properties. This way of examining the interviews revealed how distance students cope with unfamiliar social and technological situations. These findings lead to important implications for distance learning programs both at GSLIS and elsewhere.
Aspects of Coping in Distance Education
As the transcripts of the interviews were analyzed, we looked specifically at the portions of the interviews that reflected suggestions or advice the students had about coping in a distance learning environment. In addition, the coding process highlighted links between these portions and parts where the students discussed their own experiences and what had helped and hindered them. Over the course of this analysis, seven aspects of coping emerged from the data. These aspects provide a way to organize the particular physical and behavioral elements that facilitate student coping, and show the general areas in which students need to be supported.
The seven aspects are
- social issues;
- integrating life and school;
- administrative adaptation; and
- efforts and rewards.
Each aspect includes a number of specific elements that the students identified as helping them perform this kind of coping. These elements may be physical items such as syllabi and computer software, or behavioral elements like "preparing for class" or "following a routine." The elements described for each aspect reflect actions that need to be performed and physical items that need to be available to students to support that specific aspect of coping in a distance environment.
This section looks at each of the seven aspects in detail; each aspect is explained and each element is defined. Quotes from the interviewees are given as examples. They are representative of many similar examples found throughout the reports from the interviewees.
Aspect 1: Planning
Planning is preparation that has to be done in advance of a program, semester, or class to ensure the successful completion of that program, semester, or class, where "successful" is described as completing all of the work with a minimum of stress and confusion, and a maximum of learning and happiness.
- Proactive Announcements.
One element of planning is proactive announcements, electronic postings notifying students of such things as courses to be offered or upcoming guest speakers. LEEP students say they need to know about such things far in advance in order to incorporate them into their own schedules and routines."... [T]his is something that most LEEP learners want and expect. They want a lot of notice. They want to know what's going up. They want to get themselves psyched. They want to start planning their schedules."
Another element of planning is the syllabus; the syllabus is a document describing a course's objectives, readings, assignments, and expectations. How early the syllabus is made available to students, how often it changes over the course of a semester, when assignments are due, and clear explanations of the expectations for a course are all key characteristics of the syllabus element. The syllabus facilitates goal setting, where instructors make the goals of a course clear to the students, and the students incorporate those class-related goals with their personal and professional goals to establish semester- and program-long objectives. For instance, if a student is taking a class in which the goal is to learn computer interface design, they may have a class project of designing a Web page. They may then combine this with a Web design project at their workplace. In addition, students use the syllabus to help them develop a schedule or routine to help them know what to expect over the course of a week, a month, or a semester. This also helps them to perform the next element, keeping up."Other things that I have appreciated are how well informed we are with the syllabi, and how well the courses are planned in advance, so we can do some planning."
- Barbara"Once the course begins, I would like to see the syllabus remain pretty much the same, so I kind of know what to expect later on in the semester."
- Bill"That's the nice thing. The instructors all give you a syllabus and all your dates and everything so you put it in your daytimer and plan it like you would your job."
- Keeping Up.
The keeping up element includes not only getting one's work done on time but also not letting assignments pile up until the last minute. Instructors as well as students need to keep up, by grading assignments quickly for example, to support this kind of planning. Keeping up requires discipline, which enables students to work toward goals, follow a schedule, complete their work, and prepare for class. It also requires organization: both instructors and students need to be organized, handling class materials in a logical and orderly fashion. Finally, keeping up also includes preparing for class; a student prepares for class by completing their reading and written work, while students perceive that instructors prepare for class by developing a lesson plan or agenda."Don't fall behind because if you do fall behind it's going to be extremely difficult to get back to where you need to be."
- Bill"Get organized. Organize your life as much as possible. Get into the frame of thinking ahead, and planning."
Aspect 2: Technology
This Internet-based learning environment utilizes a number of technologies both at the school and at the students' homes or workplaces, and all of this technology has to work together. The technology includes computer hardware, Internet connections through local Internet Service Providers (ISPs), and software that runs on the LEEP computer and on the students' computers. Often, students must download and install software from the Web, but this is usually made available through a centralized source on the LEEP Web page. Some of the software is used throughout the LEEP environment, while some of the software packages (for example, graphics design programs) are only used for specific classes. Some of the technology is supported by a LEEP technology office, but difficulties such as problems with local ISPs are the students' responsibility.
- Technology Support.
When students have difficulties using their computers, software, or communications systems, they find the problems more readily solved if there are familiar individuals who can provide timely and reliable technology support. Students describe these people as consistent, available, and extremely patient. Students also say that these characteristics make them more comfortable in using the technology and testing its limits, in turn making them more skilled in its use."It's nice to know there are people right there on campus when you're really in a bind, they are willing to jump in and help you too. The technology support ... they are always very helpful and they return the calls and they are probably the ones that I contact the most."
Students need to be trained to use the new hardware and software they need for the program. Students are only on campus for a limited time when they start in LEEP, but that is when they need and appreciate the most intensive training in technology. Students also say that since they have widely varying levels of experience when they begin the program, training at a variety of levels from novice to expert would make them feel as though the training was worthwhile for themselves and for others. Finally, though they find face-to-face training best, asynchronous training through computer-based tutorials can help students who need to go through the material at their own pace."A lot of the stuff we that we have to use, we get good training for, so I would tell them [new LEEP students] not to worry about that."
- Betty"I felt like we should have been broken into groups based on our skill with computers. I think they could do that without giving the more computer-adept people an advantage. I know people were worried about that."
- Appropriate Technology Use.
Students express a variety of preferences about how the various available technologies are used inside and outside of class. They would like their instructors to be sure that the technologies they are using are suitable for the type of class and the subject matter being taught; in addition, instructors should also be aware of the wide variety of technologies available to them and utilize them when appropriate. Students, on the other hand, have a number of communication technologies available to them, some that can be directed to a wider audience and some that are more focused on individual communication. Students stress that they and their classmates should be aware of the scope of their audience when using these communication technologies. For example, personal messages should be sent using e-mail rather than a class-wide Web discussion."There are all different ways of doing things ... but the instructor's ... got to figure out which is the best one to use because just 'cause it's there doesn't mean it's going to work well."
- Effect of Technology on School Work.
When students are using technology both to complete and to hand in their school work, more problems tend to arise than with traditional paper school work; any one of the tools being used can break down. Therefore, students indicate that they need to plan additional time when they are using the computer to do or hand in work. Also, doing work on the computer can be more time-consuming than doing a similar task in another medium; for example, students who need to transfer their work from one computer to another experience occasional severe slowdowns because of the transfer process."But this is doing everything over the Web adds one more layer onto it so there's always like connection problems, or there's always new software or coding the paper in HTML is like a whole other step."
Aspect 3: Workload
A student's workload includes how many classes are taken in one semester and how much time is spent completing the work required for each course. Students also included the type of work, for example group work versus individual projects, in discussing workload. In addition, workload includes non-school responsibilities such as formal employment, other activities to which they are committed, and family responsibilities.
- Amount of work.
Students often refer to the amount of school work they have to do in terms of "a lot," or "more than they expected." Independent of the actual amount of school work, they use the phrase "amount of work" to frame their talk about workloads in general, especially when they are describing the intersection of their school work with other responsibilities, either work-related or familial.
- Group projects.
Often instructors of LEEP classes assign group projects to the students. Group projects require the students to coordinate their activities with others outside of class time. Students say that this coordination often leads to difficult logistical problems of scheduling and communicating, is time-consuming, and therefore adds more to their workload than a comparable individual assignment would."And then some of our assignments are done in groups. I have one right now this Fall. There are three of us working together on an assignment, which complicates it, but I think the benefits outweigh the downsides."
- Course satisfaction.
Students agree that, in general, it is not the amount of work required for a class that determines whether or not they like the class or feel that they have learned from it. Rather, students indicated that they are displeased with a course if they feel they are doing busy work or unnecessary amounts of reading, and that they are often more satisfied with courses that involved group projects, even though group projects increase workload."I liked the course because I liked the course, even if it had a lot of work involved."
- Number of courses to take.
When asked for advice about the number of courses that students should take in the LEEP scheduling option, students rarely answered with just a number. Rather, they explained schemes of varying levels of complexity where the number of classes to be taken in a semester depended on a number of other factors, such as experience in the program, desired speed of completion of the program, family responsibilities, and type of formal employment."I found that two worked out really well. I never felt like I was overloaded, and I never felt like I didn't have enough to do. ... I know some people who want to get it done right away did three every semester and got it over with in a year. I couldn't do that ... But, I can't imagine doing two if I had a family. If I had to come home, cook dinner, and do my LEEP stuff, forget it. ... Probably someone who had a lot of other responsibilities, I would suggest they just take one at a time."
- Rhythm of semester.
This element includes the arrangement of assigned work for a course and how well it reflects the instructor's awareness of the rhythm of a semester for these students. LEEP students travel to campus for one to four days, depending on the classes they are taking, at a pre-determined mid-semester point. Students notice and appreciate when their assigned work is scheduled around that disrupting, exhausting, but necessary mid-semester travel. In addition, many students feel that their LEEP classes fit in better with their lives when assignments are submitted in many small parts rather than a few large chunks.
Aspect 4: Socialization within LEEP
LEEP students socialize with one another through a variety of communication technologies, including face-to-face, e-mail, and synchronous text chat. They establish social bonds that help them with their school work and, later, with processes such as job searches. As they develop these social bonds, there are difficulties and benefits related directly to the environment in which they are meeting and learning. When students discuss the social aspects of the LEEP community, they talk both about social issues wholly contained within LEEP and those that blend with their lives outside school. Socialization within LEEP includes not only connections with other students, but also with faculty and administrators.
- "Boot camp."
When students begin their LEEP experience, they start by spending two weeks on campus completing a required course for the degree; this two week period is informally known as "boot camp." The group with which they complete boot camp is known as a cohort. Boot camp is more than an opportunity for face-to-face communication between students; it provides a shared experience for these students and an intensive period of prolonged personal contact. Students continue to feel close to their cohort members, remaining friends socially, seeking them out in classes, and joining them for group projects."The great thing about LEEP in a way was the first two-week introductory session. The one that we call boot camp. It really makes a group out of us. Even though we are in different parts of the country, you make friends face-to-face the first two weeks. Then you can maintain those relationships near or far through your computer."
- Face-to-face meetings.
Students indicate that face-to-face communication during each semester is very important to successful socialization in LEEP. Their primary mechanism for this communication is the on-campus session held in the middle of each semester. Students indicate that they feel a need for human interaction and an inability to complete their work if they are unable to participate in the on-campus session. They also note that in every semester except the initial one, the on-campus session is the first time they meet some of their classmates or even project group members face-to-face, and that this contact is important for developing a sense of being "part of the class." It is also the only time they have an opportunity to meet students from cohorts other than their own, which helps them to feel more a part of the LEEP community as a whole."I definitely think the on-campus sessions are a big boon; I don't think that the program could be as successful as it is without them."
- Holly"After the on-campus, when I'd met the people and everything, then those every-other-week live sessions, I felt very connected to that class."
- Doris"I missed the on-campus session a few weeks ago and I'm feeling a need for human contact."
- Socializing using technology.
There are a variety of communication technologies available to LEEP students. During class sessions, instructors use one-way audio broadcasts to communicate to the students. Class-wide discussion during class occurs through text chat (IRC) which allows every student to communicate with the instructor and with every other student. Outside of class, students have access to e-mail. There are also threaded electronic discussions for each class and for the whole community. Students use these means and become increasingly comfortable with them over time, finding that they are able to use them in very flexible ways. For example, many students find that being able to "do" e-mail or electronic discussions at odd hours of the day makes it easier for them to fit communication into their schedules. However, as mentioned above, many students feel that it is necessary to augment these technologies with a face-to-face session."I think it's the combination more than anything else. The live sessions are very good for immediacy. I think they are good for different things. I think the live sessions are good for a regular conversation. ... If you want to ask people very pertinent questions ... then you go to e-mail and if you have a general questions you want to discuss you go to the [electronic discussion]."
- Purposeful socialization.
Because students are not in a classroom together each week, and are not on campus working at other times, they do not have very much "incidental" socializing; they cannot run out for coffee together after class, or bump into one another in the computer lab on Saturday afternoon. Many students notice the absence of incidental social contact, and say that as a result they have to be purposeful in order to maintain their sense of being part of the LEEP community; this includes remembering to send e-mail friends just to say "hello," being sure to read and participate in electronic discussion groups, and chatting with friends in the text chat room before or after class sessions. In addition, the students also appreciate that the on-campus sessions, mentioned above, often include scheduled social time such as a buffet dinner that students say helps them maintain relationships with each other."I feel like there are lots of contacts that I could've made that I didn't really. With LEEP I think you have to make an extra effort to do that. You're not right there ... you are not going to bump into them in the halls. You need to make a conscious effort to meet people and form some sort of relationship."
Aspect 5: Integrating life and school
Students involved in distance education are often earning their degree in this manner because they have responsibilities that keep them tied to one location, such as formal employment, families, and other activities to which they are committed including churches and civic groups. Part of participating successfully in distance education involves integrating their school activities with these other activities. If they cannot perform this integration successfully, they tend to feel disconnected from the LEEP community and frustrated with their ability to fulfill any of their responsibilities.
When they talk about integrating their school work with their other activities, LEEP students often mention balancing, or achieving balance. One aspect of balance is that students expect to make some sacrifices; students must give up some activities, often social activities at home, in order to allot enough time and energy to their school work. On the other hand, they also need to make time for relaxation, including time with family and friends, or the balance may sway too far toward school work or work in general. Students say that a crucial way of maintaining balance is to keep their families and employers apprised of their school schedules and demands. When these people are aware of all of the demands on the student's time, they can help maintain balance by scheduling tasks around the student's school work or helping complete some small tasks that may be left undone.
Another part of balancing is the scheduling of class meetings within LEEP. A meeting of a LEEP class generally involves the instructor talking to the students using audio over the Internet, while the students and the instructor are also logged in to a text chat room where students can communicate with each other and with the instructor. Students indicate that meeting regularly is important to keep them from feeling isolated from other students and from the instructor. Most students do not, however, want meetings every week as this may cause scheduling problems with work or family and a feeling of overload. Therefore, many LEEP classes do not meet every week. Students find that classes that meet every other week or so seem to strike the correct balance between isolation and overload."It took me about a month, maybe a month and a half, to actually find my rhythm between having a full time job and going to school three and a quarter time, and then having to work in having an actual personal life on top of that."
- Rene"I find that the live sessions are very helpful. I think when you have more live sessions rather than less, with technology and the distance learning, I find they keep you connected much better."
- Jan"We had a live session every other week, which was a nice pace, because you ... didn't get away from it too far."
- Professional involvement.
Students who come to campus to earn their M.S. degree often have professional experience, but those who do not are able to work on campus while in school to gain this experience. LEEP students cannot do this. While many of them are already involved in the professional community, a few are not. These students have a difficult time trying to integrate their school work into their lives because they do not have people to talk to or work to do that relates to their school work. One suggestion students had for making this integration easier was that distance students could earn credit for independent study that included professional work experience; another suggestion was that students strike out on their own to make personal connections with professionals in their area, trying to establish the needed connection between school and practice. Most students say, however, that distance learning is very difficult if one does not already work in a related professional environment."It definitely helps that I work in the field."
- Ellen"LEEP would be much more difficult if you're not working ... in a library already."
Students need to be able to schedule classes and group work around other commitments in their lives. Students say that it is helpful when instructors understand that distance students have many situations that can arise with family and work, as well as with the technology they are using to do their class work, and allow flexibility in work deadlines, class participation, and make-up work. Many LEEP students like to have the option of taking variable-credit courses which enable them to manage their workload and tuition, and suggest that program administrators be flexible in assigning course credits. Flexibility, however, can be strongly in competition with the planning aspect mentioned above. Students appreciate flexibility, but say that frequent changes, especially when an instructor makes a course-wide change at the behest of only a few students, interfere with their ability to plan."I guess I appreciate being given enough time to get my assignments done, having considerations taken that I might have other things going on besides this one class ... to realize some of the limitations that would be present."
- Rene"[What has been most helpful in letting you continue in the LEEP program or helping you finish courses?] - I would have to say flexibility. ... I would say absolutely the flexibility of the program, starting from the professors and then to the whole system itself."
Aspect 6: Administrative adaptation
LEEP students rely quite heavily on the administrators of the program to take actions that make their progress through the program as smooth as possible. They must also rely on the university's adapting to their needs as distance students in a system that is almost entirely geared toward resident students. Though some of these points are not advice per se, they are statements from the students about changes that they have found to be extremely supportive and would like to see continued. The administrative adaptation aspect focuses exclusively on students' advice for administrators and instructors.
Many LEEP students place great importance on getting administrative or procedural questions answered quickly and correctly. These students tend to feel separate and isolated from the happenings in the program because they are not on campus, and many of them say that one of the best ways of alleviating these feelings is to receive timely answers to questions. Students also appreciate administrators and instructors who are available, virtually, during evenings and weekends because this is when many students must schedule time to do their school work. For example, a student who asks a question via e-mail on Friday night about a paper they plan to write over the weekend would be very happy to get an answer before Monday morning."That's one thing I really like about this program is that every time you have a question you get an answer back right away."
- Alice"If [your question] is not answered the same day, it is answered the next day and I think that is really important in a distance program because you are hanging out here by yourself. To feel connected you need that quick response time."
- Shannon"It was like her virtual door was always open."
- Access to materials.
LEEP students cannot walk to the library and photocopy an article they need for class, nor can they go to the university bookstore to purchase a textbook. As a result, they rely heavily on programs in the library and bookstore that enable them to receive items through the mail, often on an expedited basis."We got a lot of support from campus. If I needed articles, I could order the articles online and they would [send] them out to me. My textbooks, I ordered them, and they [sent] those out. I'm away from campus, but I still have a link."
- Contact points.
As these distance students attempt to navigate their way through a university and a graduate school that have historically been structured around resident students, they find themselves often having to make phone calls or e-mail questions to various offices and entities around the university. Several of the students said that having one person in an office (such as the financial aid office) as a contact point to answer all questions from distance students was helpful because they did not have to explain their whole situation every time they had a question. Also, they felt more comfortable knowing a name to ask for and a familiar person to talk to when they have questions; this makes them more likely to ask, and helps them resolve problems more smoothly.
Several students discussed their understanding of the difficulty the administration faces in trying to schedule classes and on-campus sessions for so many students, in different time zones, with different work and family situations. While the classes have in general been scheduled in the evenings, some students have difficulties with classes that are as early as 4:00 p.m. because they interfere with work or family meals; other students have difficulties with classes ending as late as 10:00 p.m. While many of these scheduling issues are only partially resolvable because of issues of scale (that is, how many classes can be offered per time slot, how many can be offered per semester), the students remind us that scheduling is an important way the administration can make changes that help the students in their school work.
Aspect 7: Efforts and rewards
Students in distance learning are making an effort to earn a degree in an unfamiliar environment while maintaining the other responsibilities in their lives. They look forward to achieving goals of learning about library and information science and completing the master's degree. These efforts and the goals they hope to attain help them "keep going" while they navigate the difficulties of adapting to new technologies and ways of learning. This aspect focuses on current students' advice for new or prospective students.
Students say that because of the nature of distance learning, and the fact that they are physically separate from the school and their learning colleagues, they have to be self-motivated in order to complete their work successfully. They also often say that distance learners have to be self-motivated enough to cope with the isolation of learning on their own. When students talk about self-motivation they also use words such as self-starting, responsibility, and independence, and say that students who are thinking about entering a distance learning program need to examine their own learning styles and be sure that they will be able to sustain self-motivation through the years it may take to complete the degree. Not only do students have to be able to self-motivate or self-start, but they also have to be extremely persistent. When distance learners are faced with their other responsibilities every day, it is easy to let school work lapse; students need to maintain a level of persistence throughout their time in the program to help them through periods of difficulty with school, work, or family."I think your self-motivation is probably more important than anything. I think it takes some self-discipline and self-motivation. And some organization too."
- Shannon"Don't be afraid. Don't just shut down and cover your head, and go, 'I can't do this, I can't do this.' Because you can. Get around the stress. Get around saying, 'There's no way.' Just because it is something new doesn't mean that it is something you can't do. You just have to try."
- Realistic expectations.
Current students also stress that new students must have realistic expectations about what the program is going to be like, what the end result is going to be, and what the impact on the other facets of their lives will be. Prospective students should discuss with current students what it is like to learn in this environment and determine in advance whether they will be able to work successfully within it. Current students also stress that while many new students expect to be able to add distance learning onto their other activities without eliminating anything, this soon proves to be an unrealistic expectation. Finally, since completing the program can take a long time and is labor-intensive, students say that they need to able to focus on and enjoy the process of learning rather than always looking forward to earning the degree. While it is a worthwhile reward, it is not realistic either to expect that goal alone to keep a student motivated, or to expect the degree to be what allows the student to change their life. Rather, what they learn along the path to the degree is the important part."If there is any advice I have for incoming LEEP people it's that it's not about the credentials after your name. It's very much about education. It's very much about the ideas."
- Jerry"I was not prepared originally for the amount of work that was going to be required. The first couple of classes, I was absolutely swimming in the readings and the writings, trying to keep up with the technology and events. It was all very overwhelming."
- Beth"I think when I first started I thought in my mind, oh, I can just keep doing everything, just stay up later at night. And you start to realize no, wait a minute, some things have got to go."
- "You get out of it what you put into it".
Students note that the rewards of distance education are directly proportional to student effort; a student who sits through a class meeting, folding laundry and not contributing to the class, is not going to achieve the expected rewards. Rather, the more energy a student is able to devote to contributing their time and thoughts to each class, the more learning and satisfaction they will gain.
Multiple Perspectives on Coping
One of the initial questions of this paper was whether we could discover the means of coping that distance learning students have found to be the most helpful. The ways of coping and the behaviors and physical objects that support them were explained in the aspects and elements described above. These aspects emerged from what students said, not only when they offered advice in the form of suggestions, but also when they described what they had found to be helpful in their own experiences. Such descriptions are also a kind of suggestion, because they help us understand what to change and what not to change, and where more can be done to help.
However, to achieve a better understanding of the implications for the administration of distance programs and the teaching of distance courses, it is necessary to look more deeply at the coping elements. In particular, they must be viewed not only from the perspective of the students, but also from the perspectives of administrators and faculty. When we do so, we can see that many of the elements need to be enacted by students, and by instructors or administrators for that aspect to be fully supported. Taking these multiple perspectives not only demonstrates the complex ways that the roles of students intertwine with those of the faculty and administration, but also reveals some overall themes or areas of support not specifically described in the individual elements themselves. The discussion that follows uses each coping aspect to frame an examination of the elements within.
When the planning aspect is examined keeping the multiple perspectives in mind, it becomes clear that students, instructors, and administrators have intertwining roles to play. For instance, the syllabus needs to be planned, developed and made available by the instructor early enough for the students to be able to use it in their planning process. Students need to be able to rely on the syllabus as a stable document throughout the semester so that their own personal schedules can be relied on in turn to stay correct and be useful tools for helping them to keep up and prepare for class. Likewise, proactive announcements must be planned in advance by the administration so that announcements can be made early enough to support student planning. Finally, keeping up also demonstrates multiple perspectives: if the instructor does not keep up with announcements, class planning, and grading, it is hard for the student to keep up with their assigned work. Conversely, if the students are unprepared for class or hand their assignments in late, the instructor cannot keep up with class planning and grading. As part of keeping up, goal setting provides another example: an instructor's goals for a class and the students in it will affect the semester-long goals of the student, while the students' goals for a particular class can affect the way the instructor teaches the course.
Examining the technology aspect again reveals the intertwining roles of those involved in distance learning. For instance, for successful technology training to occur, the program administration needs to include people who are familiar with the technologies and skilled at training others in their use. The students need to be receptive to the training and not view it as a "waste of time," and it helps if the training is offered at appropriate skill levels. Also subject to multiple perspectives are the technology tools themselves: the students and the administrators each have tools for which they are responsible, and these are linked together by an Internet connection for which an outside party is accountable. Closely related to this is the technology support element; as with training, the administration has to have people who are familiar with the technologies and able to help others troubleshoot difficulties. The student, in turn, needs to feel comfortable calling on technical support for help and be able to follow their instructions for the support to work. Finally, appropriate technology use provides another example: in extreme cases, if the students perceive that the instructor is using the technology inappropriately for the subject matter or type of class, they will begin to subvert the use of the communication technologies to socialize, complain, or direct their own learning. For example, if students think that the instructor is using the text chat environment to present large amounts of text that could better be read offline, they may cease to pay attention to the lecture and use the text chat "whispering" function for private conversations.
As with the above aspects, many of these elements appear different from the perspective of the student and from the perspective of the instructor or administrator. And again, most of the workload elements must be enacted by both the student and the instructor/administrator in order to support the workload aspect properly. For instance, when students are working on group projects, they need to allow time outside of scheduled class meetings to coordinate and work with their groups. Instructors, on the other hand, can provide support for this coordination by using available software and communications technology to create shared virtual spaces such as chat rooms or electronic conferences for each group. A similar example is found in the rhythm of semester element: from the students' perspective, the pace of the work creates what may be widely varying demands on their time at different points in the semester, causing stress and inhibiting learning. From the instructor's perspective, it may be difficult to arrange the work in a way that both works toward course objectives and creates a more manageable pace for the students. Another example is found in the number of courses to take, where students develop fairly sophisticated schemes to determine an appropriate course load. Not only must students be aware of their personal abilities and limits, but they must abide by such constraints as what courses are offered, at what times, on what days, and for how much course credit. Program administrators, however, are trying to find instructors for courses and schedule the courses, without overlap, at appropriate times for students who have families and full-time jobs.
Socialization within LEEP
Viewing socialization within LEEP demonstrates again that supporting coping is a multi-party activity. For instance, from the students' perspective, boot camp is time-consuming and exhausting, but ultimately necessary from their point of view for helping them to bond with their cohort. For instructors and administrators, boot camp is also time-consuming and exhausting, but they need to structure the two weeks in such a way that educational objectives are met while the students are forging the necessary bonds. Face-to-face communication is another example: from both perspectives, it is difficult to arrange. For the students, it is necessary for them to have this kind of contact because it allows them to feel comfortable with classmates and project groups. For instructors, the on-campus session in particular is an opportunity to help the students meet educational objectives that cannot be accomplished online (for example, a presentation which relies on handling physical objects). As another example, the communication technologies that the students view as their means of staying connected with their classmates and instructors require maintenance and training from the administrators. Finally, students feel that they need to be purposeful in their attempts to stay in touch with fellow classmates, and they rely on both communication technologies and the opportunities for face-to-face meetings to help them do so. For administrators, this means allowing the students to use the technology in flexible ways, such as opening text chat rooms before class starts and leaving them open a bit afterwards; it also means helping by scheduling social events that bring students, instructors, and administrators together at a time when they are not consumed by doing class work.
Integrating life and school
Integrating life with school also required the joint activity of students, instructors, and administration. For example, from the students' perspective, there is only a small range that constitutes the optimum regularity of meeting. The instructor of a given course, in contrast, may believe that the course material requires weekly meetings, or that the size of the class precludes meeting more than twice in the semester. As another example, involving students in professional environments is important for students who do not have work experience in the new area of study; students may find it hard to integrate course work into their lives if it is strongly incongruous. From the administration's point of view, however, it may be difficult to construct a practicum at distance; it is also difficult at a distance to foster the kind of casual contact with professionals that occurs for on-campus students and for those who already work in related fields. Finally, although flexibility is an important means of supporting integration, it can also cause difficulties. Students need flexibility so they can cope with the many exigencies of their everyday lives, but too much flexibility interferes with their ability to make plans. For instructors, keeping track of twenty students with different personal situations, different assignment deadlines, and different amounts of credit being earned is a difficult task. For administrators, scheduling classes at different times of day to accommodate as many students as possible and trying to schedule classes in multiple semesters with enough variability and repetition is also difficult. Students, though, maintain that these kinds of flexibility are a major factor in enabling them to complete their course work and the program successfully.
While administrative adaptation includes primarily actions that students would like instructors and administrators to take, it is shaped by the perspectives of the students. For example, students value a quick response time when they have questions, even if these questions arise during evenings or weekends. For the instructor, providing this level of responsiveness means having access to communications technologies and course materials during times they might previously have set aside for other tasks. Also, a student may have three instructors while the instructor will certainly have more students than that (and perhaps some on-campus students as well). This means that the interaction with students may seem almost constant, and the instructor has to be willing to provide this or to establish guidelines for response time that are mutually satisfactory. Other elements that support this aspect, such as access to materials and contact points, are things that make the students' distance learning run more smoothly, reducing frustration at unresolved problems and lack of materials. For a distance learning program that is not running under the umbrella of a campus-wide administration, these changes may be out of the scope of their ability to change since they may affect the library, bookstore, or official records offices. Finally, within the element of scheduling, students appreciate the ability to schedule their course work around their other responsibilities such as work and family. However, for the administration, this means trying to schedule a variety of classes during evening hours, being mindful that students may be in different time zones. It also means that faculty may have to teach multiple classes in the evening.
Efforts and rewards
Finally, the efforts and rewards aspect is focused on distance learning students and their attitudes toward their school work. The elements within it primarily include advice that experienced students have for prospective students. From their perspective, this means that contact with current students might be useful for incoming students; for instance, talking with "veterans" could help new students to develop realistic expectations before beginning the program. From an administrative perspective, this could mean establishing methods of contact such as student mentoring, or identifying current students who would be willing to answer questions from prospective students. This aspect also includes issues of continuing motivation and effort. Students need to be aware that these are important factors before beginning a distance learning program. In addition, though students did not provide advice for administration and faculty that relate to these elements, it may be helpful for those people involved in the program to develop creative ways of recognizing effort and inspiring motivation. For example, students said that doing class projects that allowed them to earn rewards at their workplaces, such as designing Web pages, were helpful ways to achieve goals. Perhaps making an effort to link course work to students' outside interests such as work or community groups could be a way to inspire effort and allow the student to reap multiple rewards.
Helping Distance Students Cope
Interviewing distance students over the course of one school year helped to reveal how they coped with adjusting to their new learning environment, what changes to that environment could help them cope better, and what they thought new students should know before beginning a distance learning program. Examining their statements about what they found to be personally helpful, in addition to their explicit advice and suggestions, was important because it clarified what should be changed or enhanced in existing distance programs and also highlighted what may be important in designing new programs.
These conclusions may then be used to aid in advising distance learning students and also in adapting distance learning programs to better meet students' needs while keeping in place the aspects that students already find to be supportive. In particular, an understanding of how the activities of program instructors and administrators mesh with those of the students helps those of us designing programs and courses know what factors are going to be most important to the students. For example, knowing that students prefer to see course syllabi well before the beginning of the semester may prompt instructors to re-prioritize their course preparation, leaving until later items that the students have indicated are not so time-sensitive.
In addition, the analysis reveals not only specific structures and activities that students identified as being helpful, but also demonstrates some more general concepts of distance learning support. First, students need to know many things as far in advance as possible: they need course syllabi several weeks before the class begins; they need technology training long enough before they have to use the technology that they have time to become proficient; and incoming students need to know before they begin the program what expectations about workloads and goals are realistic. Second, both students and instructors/administrators need to think carefully about the technology that is available to them and use it wisely, not only to facilitate learning in classes but also to support other activities such as group work and socializing. Third, distance students prefer, in areas ranging from technical support to financial aid, to know whom they should contact for help. It is additionally helpful if they are able to contact the same people each time they need assistance, and if those people are aware of the various special needs of distance students. Finally, students both enjoy and rely on activities within the program that bring them together socially or intellectually. "Boot camp," mid-semester meetings, group projects, and various social events all focus on the group rather than the individual, which allows the students to build a learning community on which they feel they can rely.
By using the results of this data analysis, including the aspects of coping, the multiple perspectives of students, instructors, and administrators, and the more general themes of distance learning support, we can improve students' distance learning experiences in several ways. As educators we can work to structure our programs and courses in ways that help students cope with the distance learning experience. We can work to improve existing programs while working to ensure that successful features are not compromised. Since we have an idea of what kinds of things students find helpful, we can add new methods and technologies with an understanding of why they might be helpful. Finally, we can advise new students about their approach to distance education, potential pitfalls they might encounter, and techniques that experienced students have used successfully in hopes of easing their transition into, and their navigation through, the world of distance learning.
About the Author
Michelle M. Kazmer is a doctoral student in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research focus is on knowledge-building communities in which members communicate primarily through computer media and are not physically collocated.
This work was supported by a grant from the University of Illinois Research Board. Our thanks also go to the distance students who participated in these interviews.
1. Pseudonyms are used for each student, and reflect the gender of the interviewee.
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Paper received 1 August 2000; accepted 29 August 2000.
Copyright ©2000, First Monday
Coping in a Distance Environment: Sitcoms, Chocolate Cake, and Dinner With a Friend by Michelle M. Kazmer
First Monday, volume 5, number 9 (September 2000),