Distance learning. Low residency programs. The new way to mix higher education with real life.
Goddard College in northern Vermont (and now with a west coast Port Townsend campus) was among the first, a prototype program years ahead of its time, and not without rocky roads along the way. It offered graduate and undergraduate programs, but is no longer the solitary figure of progressive education. It’s in good company now.
With the hectic pace of modern life and extensive access to the internet a reality, more and more colleges, universities and specialized institutions of higher learning are jumping aboard the distance learning bandwagon. The select few have gone global. An educational industry.
One might argue that nothing can replace the discourse that occurs day to day in a classroom setting, but the intensely personal dialogue and relationship that develops between advisor and advisee in a low residency program is intenseand offers at least as much qualitative and quantitative learning. Having done both, I have found that I consistently work harder and am forced to work smarter to keep up in distance learning. You can’t just sit back in class. You can’t hide in the corner. You can’t slump down in your chair. You can bring your coffee to class. And you ARE the class.
I am not necessarily referring to online classes with e-mail or IM discussions and monthly campus meetings. I am referring to schools such as Goddard College, Union Institute (another groundbreaker), Vermont College, Antioch (Boston and California), Spalding University in Louisville, Murray State University, and a multitude of creative writing and liberal arts-focused curriculums in which students gather in eight or ten day residencies, interacting with each other and a faculty of professional. In residency, the student is the designer of his or her own course of study.
The student residency is an intensive period replete with workshops, seminars, guest speakers and instructors, and considerable interaction with a diverse array of fellow students who range in age from their 20s to their 80s. Many are midlife students finishing up a degree interrupted by life or moving into graduate study. During this intensive, they work with an individual advisor who helps outline a course of study that includes extensive reading and writing, critical essays, and a major thesis project. The study plans created must meet the students’ needs and stringent academic requirements. Students work in small “advising” groups, in one-on-one sessions with their advisors, and participate in larger workshops and seminars. Personally, my largest advising group was 13; on average, I have been in study groups of six to eight students.
I worked hard in traditional college when I was young; I worked twice as hard in the non-traditional programs I undertook in midlife. I was lucky; I was already a fast reader and a fairly solid writer and editor.
Time Management is key
The hidden secret is time management, the ability to build time for 25-30 hours a week of school work and study into an already busy schedule, for most of these programs are not just a course a semester — they are full time programs with at least 12 credits per semester at the graduate level. The good news is that the schedule is of your own making. If you are a night owl, you can fold study into your awake time at three a.m. If you have a sick, you can reschedule your own “class time.” If your child has a school play, you don’t have to miss it to be in class.
These programs also, however, recognize that life happens, and education also happens around this thing called “life.” Sometimes, too, you lose a semester to pressures and responsibilities to your non-academic life. It happens.
My thesis semester for my undergraduate degree was a round robin of 13 weekends of three friends moving house to house each weekend for cooperative writing binges that produced completed graduating work on time. Haul in the computers and set them up, sleeping bags on the living room floors, meals eaten of the kitchen counters, and work, write, read, review and then do it all again. Real life co-existed with mayhem. Final semesters are the toughest.
At one point in time, as I lay hospitalized with a back injury, my advisor rearranged my study plan to shift the order of my work; I read my books between physical therapy sessions, and for several months my detailed long-distance discussions with my advisor replaced the notes and papers I was originally scheduled to write. The Q&A was intense.
There are many “tricks of the trade” to making low residency programs work for you, and the work doesn’t really stop between semesters; the thinking and planning for the next round is always looming. You have to create a “study as a whole” and semester plans that will get you to the end: your degree. Deadlines are everything, and many advisors require regularly scheduled packets on which they can make copious margin notes in addition to their multi-page evaluations of each written packet. Mailing deadlines are inflexible; mail service is fallible. Keeping records, meeting deadlines, working ahead whenever possible, are good guidelines for such programs. E-mail is slowly becoming the process by which these all important packets are exchanged.
Goddard remains among the more unique low residency programs because of their fields of study, which includes the first undergraduate program in creative writing in the country. Their degrees include peace studies, social justice, gender studies, holistic health and healing, transformative language arts, creative writing, and inter-disciplinary studies at the graduate and undergraduate level.
The cost may be higher than traditional state colleges and universities, but you are paying for the exceptionally small classes and the one-on-one interaction with faculty. The hidden costs are travel and accommodations. First, you have to get there by plane, train, bus or car. Some students travel thousands of miles to be in a specific program. Many schools have dorms and food service programs, but other require that you find hotel accommodations and perhaps have a number of meals at your own expense off campus. The variations are endless, and those hidden costs have to be incorporated in the fiscal planning for these programs. Computers and high speed internet are also required.
This form of self-directed study sounds easy to some, horrifically hard to others. It takes determination, persistence, a bit of good old fashioned stubbornness. The reality is a manageable way to complete a dream within the framework of a busy life. It is worth it? Absolutely.
For more information on this type of program, simply hop on the internet and search low residency programs and/or list your preferred field of study.