The Dos and Dont;s of Distance Learning

As told by Five ex-virtual students

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Over the pandemic, many students (myself included) had to work with what we had at home and attempt to finish the school year online. The shift was sudden and, at first, difficult to get used to. It felt like nobody had experienced what we were going through – teachers and students alike – and, without any time to prepare, I didn’t know what to do.

Looking back, I wish I’d reached out to graduates who had experienced distance learning prior to Covid-19. Now, with many schools opting to keep their campuses closed and switch to virtual classrooms for the foreseeable future, it seems like the right thing to do to give next semester’s students what I didn’t have. So I spoke to five people who studied online for part of or all of their learning experience.

Amy, Louise, Stephen, Isabel, and Paige have each had varying experiences with distance learning, but they all loved it. Here are their top Do’s and Don’ts.

DO have a scheduled time to study

One of the greatest benefits of distance learning is flexibility. Essentially, when, where, and how you study is pretty much completely up to you. But this leaves a lot of room for falling behind.

Stephen said that making a plan for when to study would have been invaluable for him: “Without the structure of having to attend somewhere it’s very easy to put off webinars and then you find yourself in a hole where it feels impossible to catch up”.

Amy agrees and advises planning how many hours of study you’ll need to complete each week and making a ‘to do’ list to ensure everything gets done. Isabel did this by splitting her schedule up into different tasks (one day for online lecturers and one day for reading and exercises).

A huge benefit of keeping a schedule, though, is making sure you give yourself enough time to chill out. When you work or study from home, the lines between productivity and overworking can easily become blurred. For Louise, who has officially been an external student for the past year and was unofficially learning from online materials for three years beforehand due to an illness, keeping your free time as best you can, “is important for your mental health” and socializing can help break up the day nicely and will “help to keep you motivated”.

DON’T work from your bed

Again, with the freedom to choose where you work, it’s tempting to lounge in your bed in your pajamas with a cup of tea. But working from your bed can come with a load of potential problems. Namely, it can decrease motivation and increase distractions. Unless you have an extenuating reason such as disability, Louise says, getting up, getting dressed, and sitting at a desk can make all the difference in getting into that work mindset. Amy suggests setting up a desk or study space in your room to spark motivation. “This way, it also allows you to switch off when you’ve finished your studying,” she says.

DO try to establish a connection with other students

For most of the students who spoke to PC Guide, an issue they had with distance learning was a lack of community or cohort. Isabel especially found this somewhat “robotic and not very engaging”.

The easiest way to connect with some of your coursemates is to check for a Facebook group or similar made by your school or tutor. These pages encourage group discussions and socializing. Louise thinks that setting up a group chat with some of your coursemates is a surefire way to at least try to forge some friendships, and Stephen says that it will help you along your course, especially when you’re not comfortable asking your tutor about certain things. 

If you’re really struggling, Paige notes that it’s easy to keep in touch with your old friends through social media anyway, and you can look for online clubs or groups relating to your interests set up by your school. Most importantly, be bold. Everyone is in the same boat and someone will appreciate you making the first move. 

DON’T get distracted 

The difference between a classroom and your bedroom can be astounding. Yeah, in class, there might be some coughs, sneezes, or other distracting noises every once in a while, but at home, this is elevated to the next level. Firstly, there’s your TV. Don’t be tempted to stick on that vlog for background noise. It’s never just background noise. 

Then there’s your phone. There’s a reason you’re banned from taking those out in school. Not only is it rude but they contain a plethora of distractions from rogue phone calls to doomscrolling on social media. The simplest option is to turn it off or delete your apps, but we all know that doesn’t last. Louise recommends using a productivity app like Forest of Flora to keep yourself accountable.

DO make use of recorded lectures and flexibility

Like I mentioned earlier, the main benefit of distance learning is the flexibility that comes with it. Since all the lectures are recorded online – something hard to come by in face-to-face cohorts – you can schedule your time studying to suit you, rather than the other way around.

Out of all of the distance learning grads, each of them said that the freedom to juggle university with other commitments, focus on non-academic things or make time to work towards the career they wanted to was the best thing about distance learning for them. And while that’s the case, you should definitely take advantage of it.

Amy used her free time to work and pay for her monthly outgoings. Also, the flexibility allowed her to gain work experience in her chosen field, preparing her for life after studying, which is something that can be quite difficult when your face-to-face classes are spread sporadically throughout the week. 

Likewise, if you need to miss a live lecturer for work or other personal commitments, having a recorded lecturer is like a pot of gold. “If you miss a lecture, make sure you keep on top of catching up with it. Lecture recordings are a fantastic way to do this and, up until lockdown, were hard to get lecturers to provide,” says Louise. “Humans aren’t designed to sit still, listen, and concentrate for 1-2 hours at a time and lectures can be intensely packed with information, so it’s inevitable you won’t retain everything,” she adds. “Having online lecture recordings are a great way to go back over key points you may have missed while being able to look up definitions and find papers”.

Another way to take advantage of the home learning experience is to set yourself up for an easy lecture. Amy would do this by printing out worksheets and taking written notes, despite the course being online. “Sometimes it’s easier to print out worksheets and papers so you have a physical copy in front of you,” she tells PC Guide. “That way, it’s much easier to make notes and retain that information.” and not to mention, having a hard copy of your work exonerates the risk of losing it to the Cloud

If you want to take it a step further, Louise found having a second screen for online lectures a “massive help”. “This could be a phone, tablet, or even a cheap second-hand TV,” she says. “When watching live or pre-recorded lectures you can use the second screen to make notes, or Google keywords you’re unfamiliar with”. 

DON’T do the bare minimum

As Amy points out, “just because it’s online, it doesn’t make it any less important”. It’s easy to dismiss distance learning as lesser than face-to-face learning, but at the end of the day, it’s the same degree, diploma, or qualification that you’ll be getting. You shouldn’t lose sight of that because of a different environment. 

Stephen told PC Guide the one thing he would have done differently was, “I would’ve ensured I worked out exactly why I was studying what I was and what I wanted to get out of it. That way I could’ve ensured that I was focusing on the right parts of the course”. Amy agrees, too, stating, “One thing I wish I’d have done differently was to do extra reading around topics as it helps you to understand the subject more and gives you a wider context about the core subjects in the course”.

DO give yourself a break

Finally, you need to give yourself a break. Although Paige loved distance learning, she acknowledges that it isn’t for everybody and it will probably feel like a massive change if you’re transitioning from face-to-face to online due to Covid-19. Putting too much pressure on yourself might cause you to burn out and feel like giving up. Understanding why you feel like that (and that others probably do, too) will be a saving grace in the new normal.

“Be sure to give yourself a break,” she says. “You might struggle with online learning, and that’s totally alright. Be sure to cut yourself slack where you need it, take breaks by doing things you enjoy, and just generally take care of yourself as needed”.