Professional Development in Tech Comm: Is Distance Learning Worth It?

In August, I asked our wonderful community of technical communication professionals about their opinions and thoughts about online distance learning and I was amazed by the responses regarding the topic of distance learning.

As part of TechWhirl’s September theme of  “Your Career: Upgrade in Progress,” we try to demystify the world of distance learning, because if you plan on upgrading your skills in technical communication, you may find yourself in front of the computer screen attending an online course.

Distance learning is not limited only to online learning sites, but correspondence courses, and webinars. There was some discussion within the Society for Technical Communication about videoconference-based courses in technical communication in 1996. In Kathleen Farrell’s conference proceedings for the STC Summit, she talked about the considerations of costs, return on investment, and interactivity of video conferencing between students and instructors. Her conclusion, while written nearly 16 years ago, was that “as Internet access becomes more common, websites, mailing lists, or other computer mediated communication” could be used. Her thoughts were that students “can only benefit from the increased interaction” using available online tools.

In addition, there was discussion on the TechWhirl mailing list around the mid-to-late 1990s about distance learning. Searching the archives returned discussion threads about technical communication programs available via distance learning, a course offering distance learning interface design, and even a proposal for presenting a STC discussion panel about distance learning for technical writers. There was some discussion back then, but not as prevalent as it should have been, considering an abandoned thread regarding technical communicators’ distance learning experience.

Fast-forward nearly a decade and a half, and there are thousands of online courses provided each year by private and public instructional organizations. Clearly the educational environment has transformed from strictly classroom-based, lecture-style courses. Also, MIT and Berkeley offer free online courses for individuals who want to learn something new. OpenCourseWare is a project that publishes all MIT course content in which students can use. Berkeley webcast records audio and video of course lectures for students. Both of these services can be used as online learning tools.

I reached out to the TechWhirl discussion community and a few other colleagues for their thoughts on distance and online learning courses. Not surprisingly, answers varied wildly depending on whom I asked. I received responses from both individuals who have attended online courses and those who teach online courses. And generally speaking, the perception is that distance learning creates an overall positive experience.

Advantages of Distance Learning

Whether you choose to do coursework at home in your pajamas or work on your homework at a coffee house, there are definitely advantages of attending distance learning courses.

You get to:

  • choose your own schedule,
  • work at your own pace,
  • complete coursework wherever you feel comfortable,
  • and spend little to no travel or commute time to attend courses.

Distance learning has the clear advantage of accommodating to your schedule—whether it is planned around work, vacation, or family time.  It is great for individuals who have families, which allow students a flexible time to work from home while tending to other duties and responsibilities. According to Jamie Gillenwater, a technical communicator and STC Summit presenter from South Carolina, she chose a Technical Communication program from STC’s Academic Database which offered distance learning over traditional lecture courses to pursue her Masters degree because it was her best option while working full-time. Learning online during the evenings and weekends can allow professionals to continue a regular routine.

The Internet also plays a major role by being a huge advantage of reducing the cost of transportation to learn new concepts. For example, the Society for Technical Communication offers Summit@Click as a recent and alternative option to listen and watch the Annual Summit conference presentations at a reduced rate compared to actually attending the conference, which requires travel, lodging, and time away from home and work. While having the conference archived on the Internet, online learning may not replace the full experience of meeting face-to-face in a lecture room environment. Additionally, STC offers over 70 archived webinars for members.

Greg Sweet, a Learning Management Training Specialist and Training Manager with the New York State Department of Health, mentioned that there are many other advantages to using distance learning. For example, training time is reduced, courses can be offered frequently, and cost is reduced overall. “We estimate that we save approximately $14k per instructor, per course in travel expenses alone.

According to TechWhirler Phil Stokes, distance learning allows students to “explore topics fully on discussion boards with other students” and the instructor. In addition, “enrollment in an institution is not restricted by proximity and physical presence” which may enable institutions to provide their expertise to a larger audience base—anyone who has an internet connection.

It’s easy to see that distance and online learning have some great cost-saving advantages and general convenience factors. That doesn’t mean the options come without disadvantages, and you should consider the disadvantages before investing in any distance learning courses.

The In Between of Distance Learning

Distance Learning courses have learning curves, and it is important to figure out whether you can handle an hour-long webinar, a week-long course, or a multi-week course.

With these courses, students may falsely perceive that distance learning is easier. In fact, it depends mainly on the student’s work and study ethic whether he or she will learn something from the course. One thing is for sure, you need to carve time out of your own schedule to complete assignments, read lecture material, and react to constant changes. Jamie notes, “Online courses force more of the responsibility onto individual students” who “are responsible for all reading, work, and ideas.” For example, in a traditional classroom environment, it may be easy to miss a day of reading and “the class discussion might help you catch up.” Sometimes that safety net is not available in the online environment.

Disadvantages of Distance Learning

At any given point, technical communication professionals are working diligently to advance their careers. Right now, as Jamie pointed out, her best option, like many of us these days, is to keep a full-time job and attend school via distance learning.

Like Jaime, my current job doesn’t offer schedule flexibility to take a couple of hours off from work and attend a class twice a week, or spend time traveling to and from a seminar. Turning to distance learning is a great way for us to advance in our profession while managing everything else that life throws at us. But that doesn’t mean distance learning is without pitfalls or concerns.

Foremost, a gap exists between the lecturers and students in the online environment. some distance learning classes offer interfacing in a classroom discussion board or chat room as the only form of communication with other students or the instructor. Another factor to consider is the type of system used for distance learning, such as video conferencing, correspondence, or video-recorded lectures. Additionally, the system (classroom environment) should include assessments to gauge the knowledge acquired in the course.

In addition to the gap between lecturer and student and the delivery mechanism, students may experience a different learning reality than the expectations found in traditional classroom environments. For example, Phil mentions that students “will see a lot of dissatisfaction” in distance learning “partly from poorly designed courses, partly [from] staff who are not expert[s] at teaching through the medium…and students who are not ideally suited [for] independent home study.” It is indeed a new reality and something has to be accounted for when attending distance learning

According to Jaime’s thoughts about the environment, “you miss the in-person cues and it’s difficult to make deep connections with your professors.” In some cases, online courses may not be suitable for the subject material. Greg points out that “you cannot take your old classroom course and start presenting it online” and expect it to be the same. It’s not. Instructors often have difficulty changing the format to fit the online/distance learning environment which can result in missing the expectations of the student.

Among the responses I received on TechWhirl, Heidi Bailey even indicated on the discussion list, that she needed “more interaction, better contact to ask questions, and [more] time with the teacher to receive sufficient answers.” In Heidi’s example, she attended a correspondence-style course that involved communicating with the instructor via email and sometimes via limited phone call sessions.

On the flipside in connecting with students and instructors, is the delivery mechanism. For example, Greg indicated “there is far too much [distance learning] today that follows the lecture capture format” in which the instructor is video-taped and the student simply watches the lecture. This one-way instructional delivery may limit how students can interact with fellow classmates and/or the instructor. In Bailey’s experience, she had little to no interaction with the teacher and had many unanswered questions that may discourage potential students from attending online distance learning classes.

Is Distance Learning worth it?

Once again, the answer depends on whom you ask. For example, Jamie believes that despite the disadvantages, the courses are worthwhile. For example, her “professors work hard to make sure they are available for questions and project help.” Others, such as Heidi expressed disappointment because the communication on distance learning classrooms was limited and lacked substance, such as “distance-learning teachers [tended] to be offhand, anonymous, uncommunicative, and unprepared] at times.

While a lack of communication or poor instructional methods may be an issue, Greg pointed out that that communication can be highly interactive and “you simply must [be] engaged with everyone” if you have an appropriate teacher-to-student ratio to “ensure that every question is answered.” Similarly, Phil said distance learning was better than traditional format because of his positive experience because “My particular course was led by a very committed, very experienced online educator who was expert in both motivating students with appropriately structured and timed activities and ameliorating the problems that can arise from online study.”

My Takeaways from the Distance Learning Experience

My own experience attending distance-learning courses follows very similar paths to those of my colleagues. Some instructors shunned classroom interaction, other instructors were phenomenal, and online discussion with students was hit-or-miss.

For me, the most difficult aspect of distance learning was collaborating on projects in which my group partners were flighty and could not be reached, or procrastinated until the last-minute and threatened the groups’ grade as well as my overall grade in the class. There were even instances in which I finally contacted the other student at the very last minute and completed the project via the all-nighter, which ate up my sleep time before heading into the work the next day.

If you are committed to developing your technical communication career and skills sets, and don’t have the time or resources for traditional coursework, consider taking a class or two via distance learning. If you’re suited to collaborating and learning in the online environment, distance learning is the best alternative.


Is Distance Learning Worth It? New TechWhirl Article | Write Techie

10 years ago

[…] effort?The wonderful folks at TechWhirl published my article which I ask and answer the question: Is Distance Learning Worth It? My article delves into some history regarding distance learning in technical communication and […]

Fer O'Neil

10 years ago

Good narrative summary regarding the differences and benefits of distance learning—online education specifically in technical communication has been a growing topic lately on many mediums.

Another reason that some may “falsely perceive that distance learning is easier” is because of the different skills needed to be a great distance learner from traditional classroom education. For one, the majority of the discourse is written, which will disadvantage slower or weaker writers/self-editors. Along with this, because of the way the systems of most distance learning are set up, there is a perpetual record of every interaction. If an unsound statement is made in a traditional classroom, it is difficult to fully analyze the statement to make an appropriate reply but in distance learning courses, one can fully analyze a statement, research responses, and carefully respond with a well-thought retort. This surely serves analytical minds more and while stimulating discussions will be started this way, for others this might be a frightening prospect with their every word under such scrutiny.

Regarding what you wrote about “a gap exists between the lecturers and students in the online environment” and the statement by Greg Sweet that “you cannot take your old classroom course and start presenting it online”, there is a great book called Designing Globally Networked Learning Environments that discusses the “course in a box” mentality of early distance learning courses and even many of the new ‘for profit’ courses.

I discuss the application of this book and distance learning in general in my blog post about choosing an online technical communication program. Check it out for further information to add to your existing narrative:


10 years ago

Thanks for this interesting, insightful article, Roger!

In my experience, it depends on the learner “type” you are whether distance learning works for you. By “type” I mean whether you are a self-motivated, self-starting or need some outside prodding and exterior motivation.

And I’ve found that some external variables can nudge my type from exterior to self-motivation. It’s easier to stick to distance learning if
– I already know something about the topic and seek to extend my expertise (vs. starting as a newbie)
– The course has some link, relevance or effect on what I’m doing otherwise (vs. starting on a new career path in a vacuum)
– I can set up a regular schedule for the course (vs. finding free times on random evenings or weekend days)

So while I agree that distance learning presents challenges and risks, you can mitigate them to an extent.

Subscribe to TechWhirl via Email