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Opinion & Essays - October, 2002 Issue #98 

How A Better Way
Approaches the Challenges of Distance Education

By Alexander Allen,
Teacher, A Better Way
edu_abw@ipasifika.net

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 lack.

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.

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