There are many questions a prospective learner can have when deciding about taking a distance learning course. Two very important ones among those are:
1) Is the interaction between students going to be very different compared to on-campus education? 2) How reliable are tutors/lecturers in helping students if (almost) the only way of communication is via email?
Studying from the distance but not in isolation
Well, the answers to both questions are interrelated, indeed. Online communication tools help students to be constantly ‘on track’ and there is definitely nothing to be worried about! There are many ways to communicate with other students and engage in debates, change of opinions or learn what’s new. Interaction between students is quite lively in the course of the academic year and it is up to you how well you can use the different methods of communication.
Personal and online interaction
Some of the distance courses include one or two (or more) in-house classes during the academic year. This is called blended learning. Some courses, for instance, require students to be present twice a year at the institution. After introducing themselves to each other officially during classes, students usually engage in the informal debates in between the breaks and soon the new friendships and sense of belonging to a distinct group of students has developed. So much for direct personal communication and interaction. All the rest is a question of virtual world.
How do you interact with your fellow students?
One of the main characteristics of online study is that prospective fellow students interact mostly using various online tools. In fact, these tools become the most crucial ones. Typically, students frequently use emails – this is very effective way of communication since nowadays almost everyone enjoys smart technologies (tablets, smartphones) allowing us to read and respond to emails instantly. Another source of widely used tools is skype.
Skype group chats have become the center of student interaction. It is not rare that in the evening (but even during the working hours) someone from the group engages in the debate about some issues which may arise when dealing with certain topics/subjects.
Advantages of online discussions
This way students can constantly be up to date and, moreover, if they struggle with anything (we all do sometimes, don’t we?) Skype group chats (or individual chats) provide a great deal of support and advice. I should note that probably in Europe, Skype is the most widely used and preferred online tool (many students from all across Europe have mentioned Skype as a way of communication almost immediately after initial meeting up) whereas in the USA, (in my group there are two American students) other tools might be the choice of preference.
Mentioning Skype, I should not forget to say that tutors are also very keen to communicate using Skype; however, the drawback is their limited availability – normally they allocate a couple of hours a week for students to have a chat on skype. This brings me back to email communication and emphasis on its importance, at least in terms of interaction between students and tutors. And here we get to another point – guidance from tutors.
Guidance from tutors
Since online studies are based on using various online tools it is only logical that the way of communication between students and teachers is exactly using the above-mentioned tools. But that is only the technical side of the coin. What is more essential and of our interest is to learn if tutors can really get us, students, all the support/advice/guidance we need in order to successfully tackle all problems we might have.
High level of support from tutors
All tutors (as well as student support staff) are usually very prompt in replying to all sorts of questions, be it general inquiries or particular subject/topic-related matters. The number one way of communication, as you might assume, is e-mail communication.
Furthermore, their guidance is well instructed in the general description of the course/subject, i.e. you will find all the information related to subject studied, grading scheme, deadlines, electronic submission of students’ work etc. in this description; however, there will come a time you will need a specific support and advice from tutors. Therefore, students who e-mailed and communicated through Skype with their tutors on numerous occasions were always pleased with the help they got.
Do not hesitate to turn with your questions to your tutor
Do not assume your classmates will always be able to help you. Some of them might have done particular task already and will offer you advice, but believe me, sometimes you will feel that the advice from your classmates is not what you have expected or it simply does not help. So do not hesitate and address all your doubts, concerns, uncertainties you have to your tutors. They are there to help you and are indeed happy to provide you with answers to all your questions.
Take advantage of the support offered and succeed
I personally see the interaction and guidance from tutors as a pretty straightforward matter. Simply make use of all modern methods of communications and get engaged in the debates with your classmates. In case you have any questions do not wait until the deadline for submission of your paperwork. Ask your tutors well in advance as this way you will avoid late response (which may happen if majority of students will approach the tutors with questions at the very latest dates).