Distance education is a great alternative for service members who can’t always make it into a traditional classroom. Students can study at times convenient for them from anywhere in the world — and can be particularly attractive to members of the reserve component, who may also be working a full-time job. But virtual learning is an adjustment and requires the same, if not more, dedication and determination than face-to-face learning. Before beginning your program, be sure to research all your options and decide if distance learning is for you. Knowing your preferred learning style, available time and comfort level with technology are all important factors in your decision.
Once you’re committed, a few key strategies can help you succeed and achieve your goals.
Do Your Research
Figure out what the requirements are across the board. From technical needs to required weekly meeting times, make sure that it’s something you’re capable of doing before you enroll in the course. Classes that require extensive hardware or online web conferences might not be the best choice if you are deployed. If that’s the case, check with your advisor to work on a class that you’re confident about tackling if you’re working under special circumstances.
Get a Planner
Because you’re not stepping foot in a physical classroom, there’s sometimes very little to jog your memory about what is due when. A planner will not only help you keep track of assignments, but can also help you set aside dedicated time to study and work on projects. Since it’s especially easy to procrastinate virtual assignments, make and stick to a rule: If it’s written down for the day, make it a priority.
Find A Dedicated Space
While it’s not always feasible to have a quiet office-like environment, make a conscious effort to create a space that’s just for you and your schooling. It should be comfortable and free of distractions, if possible. Ideally, you don’t use this space for anything else. If that isn’t an option, consider setting specific “work times” where others know that you’re off-limits.
Practice Some Self Restraint
A big challenge for virtual learners is the simple fact that they’re learning online, a space full of constant distractions, notifications and places to waste time. If you struggle with the more-than-occasional Facebook browsing, you may benefit from a number of distraction-blocking apps like SelfControl or Freedom.
Take Good Notes
Some people retain information better when they write. If that’s you, make an investment in the tools that will help you succeed. Buy a few good pens and dedicated, fresh notebooks. If you’re partial to digital notes, think about using software that syncs across all your devices so you’re not limited to your desktop computer when it comes to studying. Software like Evernote (evernote.com) or Google Drive (drive.google.com) enable you to access your material on multiple devices at any time.
Get Going Early
Staying on track is important, but being ahead is a huge advantage. Things come up in life and it’s easy to get distracted when you’re not heading into a classroom everyday. By working ahead, you’re giving yourself a great buffer for those times no-study-times you simply can’tavoid.
Use All The Resources
Take advantage of all the student services from writing coaches to mentor programs, and even IT assistance. They can help you adjust to the requirements of the degree program and point out little-known aspects of online learning you may have never even considered.
Stay Motivated, Take Breaks
Don’t be afraid to push the pause button, but make sure you do it at appropriate times. Slowing down in the middle of a course is never a good idea, but if your school offers procedures for building in “rest time” between courses, consider taking advantage of the break. If possible, schedule your down time over holidays or that big mission. You’ll feel less pressure to complete a course and know that you can get back to it refreshed and ready to go.
Big Picture Focus
While it’s important to focus on one class at a time, it’s often helpful for online learners to keep the big picture in mind as a key motivational tool. Remember why you’re pursuing your degree and the impact it will have on your life. Every time you logon, you’re one step closer to your goal. And that’s absolutely something to be proud of.
—Tara Puckey is a military spouse and freelance writer who lives in Indiana