The COVID-19 pandemic has taken remote learning fully mainstream. We can now see that millions of students—whether in a K-12 school or at college—can learn skills and obtain credentialing exclusively via the Internet. And thrive doing it!
That’s not to say that distance learning doesn’t pose its challenges. It definitely does.
I know firsthand. When I graduated from high school in 2003, the world of online learning for college was relatively new. Just under 2 million students were studying virtually at the time, compared to 6.6 million in 2017.
But I jumped in with both feet, enrolling in a community college distance-education program in early 2004.
Overall, my experience was fantastic and I’m thankful for it.
But as you can imagine, I had plenty of missteps along the way. I’ll share them in this blog post—hopefully giving you the chance to avoid the same mistakes in your own distance-learning journey.
Mistake #1: Taking too long to commit to a career
Don’t get me wrong: I’m a big advocate of using your teens and early 20s to experiment and discover the best career path for you. But you need focus and an endpoint or else you’ll waste time. I certainly did.
After I graduated from high school in May 2003, I knew that college was in my future. I wanted to earn a credential in order to support a family one day. But I also had a dream of publishing my first novel and becoming a full-time fiction author (preferably bestselling, of course).
My initial plan was to bypass school and shoot for the stars with this dream—what ended up being a foolish goal. My dream was great, but it needed to be based in reality. I could have pursued my writing passion while enrolled in college and working. Instead, I floundered for months trying to finish my novel and get it published, all unsuccessfully.
It wasn’t until early 2004 that I actually enrolled in community college and got a job. Even then, I took a small number of courses and worked only part time, continuing to pursue my dream.
Two years later in 2006, I finally realized that fiction author would not be my career trajectory, at least not right now. By then, I had only earned a small number of college credits.
The upside is that when I did finally commit to my college studies and pursue them with vigor, a career path quickly emerged that I love—and one that pays the bills!
The bottom line: Explore your career options and dream a little bit, but stay grounded. If you do want to pursue a dream—say becoming a writer or a professional musician—continue to work on your more practical alternatives at the same time.
Mistake #2: Not following an accelerated path sooner
All told, it took me six years to earn my bachelor’s degree. That’s a full year longer than the national average of five years, which itself is hardly an impressive number. Even worse, I only worked part-time during this period. I was spinning my wheels and wasting time.
That reality struck me in mid 2008 when I took stock of my credits earned toward a bachelor’s degree: In the prior five years, I had netted only 70 credit hours. That was just over half of the requirement for a bachelor’s degree.
The one thing I am proud of: Over the next 10 months, I kicked into high gear and knocked out the remaining requirements for my degree through a combination of CLEP tests, portfolio review, and condensed three-month courses. (All of this came through Thomas Edison State University, which has a robust online learning program.) In April 2009, I officially graduated with a BA in journalism.
Imagine the possibilities if I’d followed an accelerated path in early 2004 when I was just starting out. (For more on this, read You don’t have to be a genius to speed through college).
Mistake #3: Not taking distance learning seriously enough
Remote learners know that discipline is mandatory. You don’t have a set time to be in class, so you have to find international motivation to get your studies done.
Early on, I was pretty bad about practicing this habit. I never set a daily schedule, let alone short- or long-term goals. As a result, I floundered quite a bit.
What’s my advice for avoiding the same mistake?
Begin by deciding what hours of the day you’ll study and then protecting that chunk of time no matter what. These “core hours” could be something as traditional as 10am to 3pm. If you’re an early bird, 5am 10am—or 10pm to 3am if you’re a night owl!
That isn’t to say you won’t study outside of these hours, but having the discipline of this time reserved exclusively for schoolwork—day in and day out—will serve you well.
Another must do: Work with advisors at your college to map out a clear academic path toward your degree, with dates plugged in. Even if you’re still deciding on a major, the first two years of a bachelor’s degree are usually prerequisites, anyway. Having it on paper will give you some long-term accountability as you advance toward a degree.
Mistake #4: Being too reticent to ask questions
Clear communication would’ve made my distance learning journey so much better. Truth is, I was flying blind for most of it. Looking back, it’s fortunate that I didn’t waste more time and money due to my reticence to ask questions and seek clarity.
For example, I was blessed that all but three credit hours from my community college years transferred over to my four-year school and counted toward my bachelor’s degree. I never clarified that this would be the case prior to taking the classes. The scenario could just have easily been that half of my credits wouldn’t transfer, sinking years of learning and thousands of dollars down the drain.
I also never took advantage of the college and career counseling resources available to me at my colleges. These counselors can help you map out a plan for your degree and offer suggestions for alternatives if you’re not sure what you want to do.
In sum: Don’t be afraid to ask questions like I was. Clear communication is essential for any part of life, but especially for distance learning since you don’t have the benefit of in-person contact with your advisors and teachers.
Mistake #5: Remaining socially isolated
Online learning meant that I didn’t have access to the same social connections as students enrolled in traditional colleges. Looking back, I spent most of my college years lacking regular, meaningful social connections.
As a distance learner, I should have done a better job thinking creatively about ways to connect with other learners my age—for example, through local meet-ups or a church college and career group. Interacting with my instructors and fellow students online was fine, but nothing beats in-person relationships. They should be a priority.
Of course, that’s even harder in today’s world of pandemic social distancing. But as our world slowly begins to return to a new normal in the coming months and years, making in-person social interaction a priority for distance learners will be essential.
Wrapping up: A distance ed degree is worth it
This blog post has been devoted to regrets and mistakes. Here is one thing I don’t regret: Earning my degree online in the first place. Even though I made plenty of errors along the way, distance learning allowed me to obtain a credential in a field I love, get practical experience while I studied, and keep costs to a minimum (my bachelor’s degree ended up costing less than $10,000, all told).
Today, I’ve been working over 13 years in the same field I studied for (journalism and marketing communications) and loving every minute of it. I look back with fondness on my college years, particularly the latter half when I accelerated my learning and had true focus.
So, that’s my story. What about yours? If you’re a distance learning graduate, post your experience in the comments below. Or if you’re currently learning remotely and have questions for me, ask away. In any case, best of luck as you pursue your studies!