(originally published in Transitions Abroad)
Chao Praya River, Bangkok
Arun Temple glows pink in the setting sun. Sand barges slide silently down the Chao Praya River, long tail boats race around them. I sit in a small cafe with a beautiful view of Bangkok's river: laptop on, notebook open, pen ready. Time for class.
I am enrolled in a Masters program through Shenandoah University's distance learning program, studying Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). Armed with a laptop and notebook, I can attend class anywhere in the world.
When people think of study abroad they usually think of traditional student exchange programs. Distance learning, however, is a powerful alternative to that approach - one which offers maximum flexibilty. It is now possible to earn a degree from an accredited University while living in Kathmandu, or teaching in Prague, or exploring South America.
This does not imply that distance learning programs are easy. They are not. An accredited program requires the same dedication and effort as an on campus program. In addition, most distance degrees demand a high level of initiative and self-motivation.
Extra rewards balance the extra demands. Distance programs are ideal for self-directed, independent students. They allow students to tailor the course schedule and requirements to fit individual needs and are perfect for nomadic individuals who wish to see the world and further their education at the same time.
How Distance Programs Work
Shenandoah University mails videotaped (DVD) lectures to each student at the beginning of the semester. Once received, students are responsible for viewing all classes and completing assignments by the semester deadline.
With a laptop and a pair of headphones, students can view class DVDs within view of the Eifell Tower, or London's Big Ben, or Bankgok's Grand Palace. They can move abroad and settle in a foreign city, or can remain on the move - traveling around the world while earning a degree.
Most programs use a software package called "Blackboard" to design their courses. Professors use the software to post assignments, create discussion forums, display materials and articles, add links to assigned readings, and create online tests. Each student has an individual Blackboard account, which contain their current courses. The program is easy to use and soon becomes second nature.
Written assignments, such as research papers, are submitted electronically - via email or Blackboard. Grades are likewise posted on the Internet. Final exams take one of two forms. The first approach is to administer paper finals which are observed and certified by a proctor (usually an embassy official or foreign university professor). The other approach is to use timed, online final exams.
Finally, most distance programs require short campus visits. Some have intensive summer semesters while others require only a visit to defend a thesis. Shenandoah University, for example, requires all Masters students to make one on-campus visit before graduating.
The Benefits of Distance Learning
There are many. Time flexibility is one. Distance programs allow students to "attend" classes and complete assignments any time of the day or night. It's easy to schedule schoolwork around a job or travel.
The flexibility of distance learning provides unique travel possibilities. The minimum requirements for most programs are a) a means of viewing DVDs and b) access to the internet. With these two requirements met, students can study from any internet accessible point in the world. For example, last semester I took my laptop to the island of Koh Tao in southern Thailand. I dove the islands' coral reefs during the day, and worked on the degree by night. Three months later I visited the mountains of northern Thailand while studying for final exams. I rented a motorcycle in Chang Mai and explored when the sun was up, then returned to the city in the evening to study and take exams.
Most of my time, however, has been spent in Bangkok, where I teach private English lessons and work as a substitute teacher in my spare time. With laptop in tow, I've studied in a cafe next to the Grand Palace, viewed lectures while watching boats ply the Chao Praya river, and written papers while relaxing in Chinatown.
Despite the rich travel experiences, I have saved money by studying in a distance program. Thailand is much cheaper than America. Monthly rent for my apartment is only $60. Furthermore, tuition rates for distance programs are often cheaper, as they do not have the built-in costs of on-campus infrastructure (activity fees, fitness centers, computer halls, sports facilities, roads, health centers, etc..).
Finally, distance degrees provide unique academic opportunities. As a distance learner, its possible to do internships with foreign companies, observe classes in foreign universities, and explore foreign cultures. As part of my program, I have completed internships at Thailand's Thammasat University and at the AUA Language School in Bangkok.
For those who are adventurous and self-motivated, distance learning opens a wealth of travel and learning possibilities.
[See the Distance Learning links on the sidebar for more information.]