When coronavirus took hold of the world globally in early 2020, few thought that it would still be impacting education by September. When the reality set in that students would not be returning to campus in the fall, there was a sense of uncertainty – what would university classes look like if there were no physical classes? For everyone involved, the confusion and frustration led to increased levels of stress.

Now, several weeks into the term, it seems that every university has selected slightly different strategies in response to the pandemic, nearly all of which required a shift to distance/online learning.

In this blog post, we discuss the different distance models and the strengths and weaknesses of learning online in order to help you make the most of your distance learning experience.

Different models of online education

The way that universities deliver their online education varies depending on the course type, topic, or professor preference. While this diversity can sometimes cause confusion, each model offers its own benefits and drawbacks.

Flex model of online learning

Let’s face it, some courses just need an in-person component. But with COVID-19 now on the rise again in many parts of the world, in-person classes need to be reduced to minimal contact.

In a flex model, students do all of their lectures online (in either synchronous or asynchronous form) and then go to in-person classes once or twice a week (or at some designated time). This is particularly popular for science courses where there is a laboratory component, or in any course requiring a practical.

Fully online synchronous

In an online synchronous model, classes are still held at designated times. Professors and students meet during these times. In this model, the format might be entirely lecture, where the professor talks for a set period of time and students learn passively through taking notes. However, because all students are present in the virtual space, educators might use this opportunity to create tasks including group-work and discussions.

Synchronous models may also include additional learning responsibilities of students. This will normally include readings, assignments and/or tests, but can also include short asynchronous videos about important topics that are not fully addressed during the synchronous session.

Fully online asynchronous

The online asynchronous model requires students to work almost completely at their own pace. In this way, students receive weekly requirements which can include pre-recorded lectures, readings, assignments or tasks, and/or tests that they have to complete within a designated time frame.

In the fully online asynchronous model, instructors may hold synchronous office hours to discuss the course material, or it is also possible that all communication is done in an asynchronous model, where the professor would be contacted by email or through the learning management system.

Distance learning: the bad and the good

So, let’s think about it – there are many challenges presented by the new online learning model enforced by coronavirus. These issues can be pretty significant.

Perhaps one of the biggest issues is global access to technology. What tools do you need for distance learning? Well a computer for one thing, but that is not where it ends. You also need speakers and a microphone, along with word-processing software that allows you to write your essays and assignments. Perhaps you also need software for completing maths problems, or a scanner to upload your completed work. And then there is the internet. If you live in an area with sketchy connections or low speed service, be prepared to miss lots of what your lecturer is saying in those synchronous sessions.

Remember also, that you weren’t trained to learn online. Your other schooling was likely completed in a classroom, so distance learning is a new model for you. The same probably goes for your professors – they may not know how to instruct in an online setting (never mind how to use the technology available!).

What you might also experience is an increased workload. In planning out their new online courses, professors looked for opportunities to use technology and found they could post videos, readings, online quizzes, and so much more. Many professors tried to implement ALL these new learning tools, meaning a lot more work for you as a student, even though the course is taught online.

On top of all this extra work, you may be far more inclined to procrastinate in an online setting. It is easier to fall behind. This, coupled with a more intense workload, is a recipe for potential disaster.

Another reported difficulty experienced by students studying online is tougher examinations. Because professors are keen to assess students through tests but they cannot proctor the tests easily, strategies have been implemented to ensure students do not cheat. This sometimes means the tests are more difficult to pass than those designed to be completed in person, or that professors will monitor your navigation of the computer screen. Failure to follow the rules exactly may mean an academic offence, which is more stress that you simply do not need.

Despite some close monitoring, the lack of community that exists in a virtual world means that finding someone to talk to about your situation may be much more difficult than if you were studying in-person.

Is distance learning all bad? No, not at all. There are many great things about distance learning, and some students say they like the flexibility that comes with this model. Students who are organised and motivated can actually get ahead on their work, meaning that ‘midterms’ no longer become stressful (for the well-prepared). There is also the flexibility to work from anywhere. You can stay at home, saving money by living with your family, and still get your work done. There are also no travel or commute times, which can be a significant chunk of the day for many students.

For some students, the exam format offered with online learning actually goes in their favour. Instructors may convert tests to open-book, or ask students to write essays instead of doing exams, which is a benefit to students who particularly enjoy this model of study.

Finally – and somewhat obviously, since it’s the reason more online learning exists in the first place – it’s in everyone’s interest to not catch COVID-19, so studying from home and steering clear of campus is a major advantage to distance learning.

Adapting to university course changes

In some situations, the actual program that you enrolled in may now be delivered in a different format. For example, students who expected to be in lab classes running experiments may no longer get the hands on experience they anticipated.

Of course, your motivation may be impacted if this is a situation you find yourself in. Adaptability does not come naturally to everyone, so dealing with change may not be easy. Instead of thinking about what could have been, it might be better to focus on all the things that you can accomplish in an online environment. Everyone knows that it was not planned, but you have automatically created a network with your peers of people that are going through the same challenging situation. Knowing that you are not alone is an important part of this whole process.

Tips for making the best of distance learning

Studying off-campus can be really challenging, but if you are following good strategies, some of the disadvantages of distance learning can be mitigated.

Some tips for making the best of distance learning include:

Set up a schedule

It’s important to establish a routine. With distance learning, it becomes much easier to say, ‘oh, I will just watch that lecture tomorrow’, but then tomorrow turns into the next day, or the day after that, and soon you are very behind and unable to catch up. Even if lectures are offered asynchronously, set up a weekly time when you will watch the lecture. Write it in your calendar and stick to the plan. Do the same thing for your readings and assignments so you are sure to stay up to date.

Make a plan to stay motivated

In a ‘typical’ in-person session, the first few weeks of class are when students are most motivated. After about the third week, assignments start to pile up and the motivation to continue to work hard wanes. In the online setting, this situation applies even more – the anonymity might cause you to be more easily distracted. Continue to remind yourself that a course is a finite length, and it cannot be done entirely at the last minute.

Turn on your camera and actively participate in lectures

Class instructors like engaged students – and you will benefit tremendously – so turning your camera on and participating in lecture not only ensures that the professor knows who you are, but helps you to retain the information that you are being taught. It also makes you accountable. Needless to say, napping mid-lecture is rather more tricky under the watchful gaze of your lecturer.

Attend office hours – even with no specific questions to ask

Office hours may be online, but they are still very valuable. Many students believe that they should only attend office hours if they have a very specific question about the course, but this simply is not true! Professors enjoy talking about their interests, and so going to office hours will not only help you stay motivated, but you will get to learn what the professor expects in their course and be able to meet these requirements.

Get enough sleep and adjust your day if needs be

The flexibility of online classes can be seen as an advantage, but if you live in a time zone that is drastically different from the one where your classes are held, your synchronous classes might be held in the middle of your night. The only thing you can do is to change your schedule – go to bed early and get enough rest to be able to participate in your synchronous classes. Yes, this is a less than ideal situation but again, remember that your course is finite, and sleep is essential for your health and success.

Make connections

Just because universities are online does not mean that all other activities are cancelled. Even though it can be hard to establish a sense of community in an online space, there are clubs and societies that are still running, so try and pick one related to your area of interest and participate. This will offer at least some connection to your peers.

Key takeaway

Higher education has, without a doubt, changed (possibly forever) as a result of COVID-19. While ‘distance learning’ was once seen as an inferior option to in-person learning, it is now the only option for many universities.

For some students, distance learning has had a greater impact than for others. This may be due to personal preference – some students prefer online over in-person learning; others might despise the thought of sitting in front of a computer to learn. The are some undeniable perks, too – waking up, opening your laptop and doing a lecture from your warm and cosy bed is a pretty awesome way to study!

But despite the flexibility (and lax dress code) that comes with this type of model, there are some significant challenges. Typically, courses are not any cheaper, so students are still paying very high tuition costs for what is an arguably inferior model of teaching. Pair this with instructors who are not necessarily qualified in online instruction, and frustrations can quickly mount.

Regardless of how you’re finding learning from home, what is important to remember is that you cannot change the situation; university distance learning is here to stay for at least the short-term future. Instead, if you can look at the positives, learn how to cope, and remain focused on the elements that best suit your preferences for learning, you will be in a better situation to adapt and thrive.