Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Distance learning is viable option

Elizabeth on her very own shelf at my schoolwork desk.
After an interval of 15 years, I have returned to school. I am enrolled in distance-learning courses through Cuesta College.

Distance-learning is a new experience for me and I like its positive attributes. In many ways I find it far more compatible than attending classes face-to-face.

When I attended courses at Sonoma State University, I lived just down the street. My husband and I could walk together down E. Cotati Avenue and onto the SSU campus.

The really nice thing about going to school was that I could pursue studies for their own sake, especially at the two-year community college level. But even at a four-year school, where tuition was costlier, there was still room for me to explore my interests within the confines of applying credit toward my discipline.

The down side, however, was that attendance at class was subject to a pre-determined schedule, around which I had to revolve every other aspect of my life.

No other industry but retail would employ me at such variable hours and for very few hours at that, but combining that with my husband's income and with tuition assistance from my mom, the situation worked for me. In 1995 I graduated with a bachelor's degree in English from SSU.

Classroom attendance was also subject to its own limitations. Students sat either in desks and chairs connected by a metal frame that supported an arm rest on one side and left the other side open for access, or sat in rows of auditorium chairs that had an armrest platform that folded up and across the student's lap. In either situation, the arm rests were on the right-hand side of the chair to serve the student population's majority.

As a left-hander, I had to constantly ask for special accommodations. If none were available, I had to contort myself in order to write left-handed at a right-handed desk. It made full concentration difficult.

My attention during class was also hostage to distractions that were posed by other students such as conversations taking place around me.

Distance learning has none of those limitations. I begin and complete each of my assignments entirely on my own time.

My desk at home has been set up for my convenience as a left-handed student. The mouse and mousepad are on the left-hand side of the keyboard. My books are in easy reach on the shelves.

Best of all, the top shelf is set up to be a perch for my cat. A folded towel cushions the shelf and small pillows have been added that my cat can press against for full-body relaxing contact.

I like having my cat close by, because she's my peace barometer. Her calm-cat presence calms me.

There is no way I could bring my cat to a brick-and-mortar classroom. I'd be a bad and selfish kitty mommy if I subjected my cat to that trauma, let alone imposed the distraction of a loudly complaining cat on my classmates' concentration.

To be fair, distance learning is not for everyone. My husband is taking courses at Mendocino College and he said he prefers the classroom setting.

A person has to be self-directed to succeed taking courses online, according to Distance Learning information compiled by the Cuesta College library  (http://library.cuesta.edu/distance/who.htm). Students must also still contribute toward class discussions via online posts. Our contributions to online discussions and other class activities are being applied toward our grades.

Distance learning collapses the barrier that is imposed by geography. The certification I am pursuing does not have its counterpart at a Lake County community college so online is my only option.

Aside from one in-person orientation that took place on the Cuesta campus, the entire program of study can be completed online.

I realize, of course, that I am missing out on extracurricular activities, such as clubs or other social events, but even when going to classes on campus, those held little interest for me. I attended very few events on the SSU campus. My husband and I went to the student union pub once to hear the Celtic rock band Tempest and we returned once to SSU after my graduation to hear investigative journalist Greg Palast.

As before when I was at SSU and now when taking courses online, I've built connections and take part in activities through other areas of my life.

Bottom line is that distance learning will not be for everyone but for those people who want access to a program that is not taught locally and who can motivate themselves to follow through, distance learning is a viable option for expanding educational opportunities.

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