Distance learning for teachers – is it right for you?

It’s a pleasure to introduce this guest post from Phil Wade. He shares some useful advice for teachers thinking of undertaking distance study.

I did my first TEFL course with i-to-i about 18 years ago and as a follow-up, I took a distance course. At that time, it was by mail so they sent me some books and tasks and I sent them back in a rather heavy envelope.

10 years later I started hearing about MOOCs and the Khan academy and looked into online TEFL MAs. It was tough as the idea of ‘distance study’ seemed to vary a lot between universities. There were some with residentials and others with weekend attendance but bolstered by ‘online modules’. This started changing so I jumped at the chance of taking what came to be called a ‘fully online course’. After that, I took the DELTA module 3 online, some LearnDash MOOCs, participated in the EVO sessions, completed 2 online coaching courses and recently started a fully online postgrad. I also moved to the other side of the screen, teaching online for a bit and tutoring the Cert iBET course.

I have learned a lot from studying online, and for a teacher who cannot relocate for a month or a year just to study it provides me access to the best of PD from my laptop. However, it does not suit everyone. Many classmates have fallen for one reason or another. The ‘motivation’ issue is not to be underestimated and the workload too. I’d like to share some questions you can ask yourself to see if distance study is for you.

  1. Do you have enough money?

Some courses, like an MA, can charge per year and be subject to inflation so that could increase your fees by 5% or more. Also make VERY sure that you have the money and always think ‘what if…’. For instance, what if I fail and have to repeat a module, can I afford it? You don’t want to get to the last hurdle only to run out of money.

  1. Can you find the time?

Do you have 5 hours free in the week that you could use? How about 10? 15? 20? Ask the tutors how much time they suggest dedicating to the course per week and double it. A full-time job and an intensive distance course with tight deadlines are not a match made in heaven. Long sleepless nights and early classes don’t go well together. Something will have to give and don’t risk it being your job.

  1. Do you have determination of steel?

Once the honeymoon period of ‘wow, this is great’ is over and you have only slept 4 hours a night for a week, you’ll be very tired and ratty. You might have failed some tasks and be behind in your reading and the easy option will be to quit. You need to be able to step back and consider how far you are towards reaching the end and understand that this stage is only natural.

  1. What is your support network?

The idea of online or distance learning is that students work together in groups, do online discussions and interact. The reality can be very different. Some people just have time for the assignments, some are shy, others will dominate the discussion and there will be people who just don’t see the value of ‘chatting’. This means you will be on your own. Having people outside the course will help.

  1. How efficient are you?

If you have 2 assignments, 10 chapters to read and a group presentation to do, you need to do each well but without wasting time. It’s very easy to get lost and try doing too much. Always check the marking criteria and write for it. Don’t waste words sharing your favourite anecdote or lesson resource if it isn’t what they want.

  1. How will you master time management?

Distance study is all about juggling. If you’ve ever taught EAP students how to timetable their studies, you’ll know the drill, but you might not realise how hard it is to fit everything in with your existing life and to maximise your time. Find a place, set hour blocks, turn off Facebook and when it’s over, get back to your life. It’s very easy to drag on assignments and spend long nights reading, checking Facebook and eating biscuits to stay awake but still without being as productive as during a peak 8-9am slot.

  1. Do you know how to prioritise?

Bigger assignments need longer to write. New topics need more time to understand. The more academic an assignment is, the harder it can be to write due to referencing and style. You must understand all these so you can prioritise what needs doing first, taking into consideration what will take longest. Also don’t forget about the grading. If it’s just pass or fail, you don’t need to aim for 80% if you don’t have time, but if something accounts for 50% of your grade then make sure you set aside enough time.

  1. How well do you take criticism?

Online chats and tutor emails can be blunt and without the visual aspect of a smiling face, they can be interpreted as even aggressive. Reading such responses to an assignment or an idea in a chat room you spent all weekend on can be hard to take. Failing an assignment you really had confidence in is not easy. This is why you need to take any comments as constructive. People may write at night from a phone and not have the politeness you expect so just take it as advice. Even very negative comments can help you get better. That is what you pay for. In fact, a brutally honest “this is completely wrong” is better than a “well, some things could be improved.”

If you are thinking of treading the distance student path then consider all of these and always keep the end in sight. It can be hard and schools and universities are not always great at advertising what you will need to do so do your research. I’ve done several distance courses and each course was completely different. Some had live webinars, some had PDFs and assignments and others had weekly discussions and group projects. Find out all you can and be honest with yourself whether you can manage it. Finally, keep your head down and study, study some more and keep doing it.

Feature image: worditout.com

About the authorphil wade

Phil Wade is a bit of a blogging legend. I first came across Phil’s old blog when I was working in Korea, and was chuffed when he chose to write a guest post here! He often contributes to EFL Magazine – you can find his articles here. Don’t miss his interview with Chris Ozog, it’s my favourite.

Categories: General, teacher development

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2 replies

  1. “The ‘motivation’ issue is not to be underestimated and the workload too.” I so agree! I recently did the FutureLearn MOOC on Dyslexia and Foreign Language Teaching (and thought it was brilliant), but keeping up for weeks 3 and 4 of the 4 weeks was taxing, to say the least. And that was a MOOC, not a course where I was getting assessed! Part of the time taken was reading the hundreds of comments by other students on each section of the course … a bit of FOMO there, but they were useful…



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