Opinion & Essays -
October, 2002 Issue #98
How A Better Way
Approaches the Challenges of Distance Education
By Alexander Allen,
Teacher, A Better Way
At A Better Way, the residential program for boys in West Samoa,
we have found Independent Study Programs to be a superior medium for achieving an individualized approach for assisting our students
with their education. To create an educational plan, each of our students receive individual attention to determine the specific courses
that are needed. However, since part of that plan usually includes the participation in a distance education program, it is important
that the students are aware of certain challenges that they might encounter. While not every Independent Study Program has the same
difficulties, most programs are bound to have some hurdles. ABW has recognized these challenges and has subsequently implemented successful
strategies and solutions.
The most obvious hurdle for an independent study program is the lack of a physical teacher. Teaching is an art. Sometimes a studentís
interest in a class can be a direct result of a teacherís passionate, enthusiastic and interesting display of the subject. With an
Independent Study Program, the student is basically his own teacher. However, at ABW, a full time teacher supervises and assists the
students with their independent study programs so that our individualized student/teacher sessions add the extra touch that most programs
Sending materials in and waiting for graded materials to return adds unnecessary time delays. For example, in extreme cases, it may
take up to two months for a student to take his final exam after he has turned in all of the required assignments. At ABW, we have
incorporated a scanner to send lessons instantly as attachments through email. This allows lessons to be graded sooner, thus decreasing
the turn-around time. Some programs offer both online courses, which are completed entirely online, and the standard hard copy courses.
Due to slow and costly Internet access in Samoa, our students opt for the hard copy courses. However, we are working with some programs
to allow us to use the hard copy courses and, when it comes time to take the final exam, use the programís online exam.
A huge disadvantage to an Independent Study Program is the lack of any group activities or classroom presentations. High school group
projects are an important part of a childís education. They install teamwork, social skills and leadership in students. ABW encourages
students to work together. For example, we may hold interview workshops or form teams for debates. We will also have an occasional
team quiz bowl.
Also, leaning more towards leadership development, an Independent Study Program tends to neglect oral presentation activities. A childís
ability to speak in public needs to be strengthened through his high school classes. ABW addresses this need for public speaking skills,
and requires our students to perform oral presentations in order to advance in our level system. For example, students teach a strategy
or skill they have recently learned from their independent study program, to the entire class. Later on in the program, students present
a research subject to their class, that further explores a topic that was introduced in their Independent Study Program lesson. We
have found these to be effective ways to achieve our commitment to helping a student strengthen his public speaking skills.
Since most Independent Study Programs lesson exams are open book, and many supplementary lessons are not required to be sent in for
grading, thus distance education can challenge a studentís commitment to honesty and hard work. Open book assignments can easily be
completed without full attention to the lessons. A student may simply skim the pages for keywords, and answer from there. Also, students
tend to skip many of the enrichment activities that are suggested but not graded. These activities are designed for students to test
what they have learned in a more creative and interesting fashion than what the typical lesson exam evaluates. However, since they
are not graded, students sometimes consider them a waste of time. At ABW, not only do we check these assignments for completion, we
also scrutinize the studentsí work on these assignments and check for comprehension. These extra assignments give the teacher a great
opportunity to pinpoint exactly where the student needs assistance.
Depending on where the student completes his Independent Study Program, a lack of resources can decrease a studentís chance to further
research an area of interest. Large public libraries and access to the various types of professionals in urban centers are great resources
that can allow a student to more deeply investigate a subject, items that may be difficult to have access to in a remote rural environment.
Also, such resources as computer lab equipment and sports equipment may not be as accessible with distance education. To augment our
rural location, at ABW we are constantly adding to our library, while also providing students access to the national library in Samoa.
Our facility comes equipped with a computer lab with a multimedia system and we have plenty of sports equipment. We also provide our
students access to a local gym where the students work out together.
The individualized approach we use at A Better Way to help our students allows us to effectively deliver a quality education. We want
our students to achieve the most from their Independent Study Programs. Acknowledging the various challenges that distance education
poses has stimulated us to find creative ways to ensure that our students receive a solid education while far from home.