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Retiring military, midlife career-switchers, empty-nesters and single parents all have something in common.  They are the newest evolution of students populating vocational, undergraduate and graduate level education programs at an increasing speed.

These distance learners are drawn to online learning environments or distance learning programs primarily because of the convenience.  Classes are up and running 24/7 and this allows for learning at any time of the day, any day of the week.

Educational institutions have prepared for the entry of adult learners by offering high-demand programs of study, online courses that are easy to navigate and student-focused faculty with sensitivity to the demands of career, family and military.

Preparing for a successful experience in the distance learning environment calls for a special set of skills and traits. This isn’t the typical classroom and distance learners are not the traditional student. Here’s how to prepare for a distance learning program.

Time Management

By far, the most important skill needed of the distance learner is the ability to manage time.  The absence of daily classes at a brick-and-mortar institution can give a false impression. Students may believe they have all the time in the world to read materials, do research and complete a project. The course moves on from week to week, and the procrastinating learner will soon discover they are so far behind that it’s difficult to impossible to catch up. Use time management tools to stay current. To Do lists and computerized reminder systems are a big help. Many online courses include a calendar of due dates for students or some automatic mechanism to keep them aware of pending work. Take advantage of these tools.

Academic Teamwork

One of the unique characteristics of the online learning environment is the reliance on student team work. This is the electronic equivalent of a classroom. Be prepared to interact online with classmates. This may come in the form of small group tasks or peer review on discussion boards. Not only will the distance learner be part of an academic team, he or she will be expected to give feedback to peers, which leads to the next item.

Be Prepared to Write

There is no classroom in which students can raise their hands and contribute verbally to a discussion. Instead, online platforms use discussion boards. However, to contribute to these, the student will need to write. Be prepared to write every week and usually several times a week in these forums. In college programs, students will be asked to follow the standards for “academic” writing. This somewhat innocuous term basically means fully developed sentences which show critical thinking skills.

Use the Tools

Many distance learners are returning to college after a hiatus of several years or even decades. Terms like “thesis statement,”  “concrete language,” “variables” and “real numbers” may appear as distant memories. To give returning students a boost in the basics, many online colleges and universities have created math and writing centers. These are valuable tools for students.  Take advantage of them.

Electronic Essentials

The distance learner will not survive without a reliable (and fast) internet connection, an updated computer or laptop with plenty of storage available and stocked with the most recent versions of popular applications such as the Microsoft suite. However, equally important is user familiarity. Navigating the internet and accessing email are basic requirements for the distance learner.

Internal Motivation

These is the one variable that will create success for the online learner. It’s keeping an eye on the goal when things get tough. It’s the commitment to complete a project even when the kids are yelling. It is the constant awareness of a final objective. Without motivation, the distance learner will find far too many things to set him or her off course.

The distance learning environment requires a new set of learning skills and personal abilities. It’s not for everyone. But the well-prepared individual with unyielding motivation will be one of the most successful distance learners.