How to Get the Most from a Distance Learning Class

Learn tips and tricks for getting prepared, communicating with an instructor, and participating effectively

As travel budgets become more restrictive, attending a data management class delivered by distance learning may be your only option. While most students prefer—and appreciate—the fewer interruptions and camaraderie of the classroom setting, taking a few simple steps can make your remote class experience just as valuable—and a lot more convenient.

Distance learning tools have improved dramatically since the early days. Today, most classes are delivered with sophisticated web-based tools designed to reproduce much of the live classroom experience, including real-time instructor audio and video, web-based lab environments for hands-on exercises, and remote control options that enable the instructor to monitor an individual student’s progress.

Today, attending a class remotely is a viable option and one many students find advantageous. Individual students can attend classes from anywhere around the world, and groups can attend class from their company’s conference room. One particularly ambitious DBA attended a class delivered by The Fillmore Group just a week after giving birth—with her newborn son sleeping in her home office while she studied advanced DB2 troubleshooting techniques.

There are several steps you can take to ensure that you have the best remote training experience possible. These recommendations are based on my experience coordinating training classes delivered to remote students. While they require some initial time investment and planning on your part, this effort should be far less than the time required to travel to an in-person class.

Prepare your "classroom"

Decide where you will attend class, either in a quiet location at work or at home. Prepare the system on which you will attend training to use the vendor’s distance learning tools. A few days before the class starts, schedule fifteen minutes to test your system to ensure you can access audio and video streams. If your company blocks software downloads or restricts Internet use in any way, make sure to allow sufficient time to notify your employer that you will be attending class from an alternate location, such as your home office. If you plan to use a conference room at work, make sure you have reserved it for class times so you aren’t interrupted by your co-workers holding ad hoc meetings. A “Do Not Disturb—Class in Progress” sign on the door, whether at work or at home, should reduce disruptions.

Treat your remote class days as you would treat days spent onsite at a training facility. Set up an out-of-office message notifying colleagues that you are attending training and not available for interruptions during business hours. Although you may only need to commute to the kitchen for lunch, reserve a portion of your lunch break to address any problems you are experiencing and to communicate with the instructor. And of course, while lunch may be served downstairs in the kitchen, don’t forget to be logged in and ready to resume class promptly after breaks and lunchtime.

Establish communication with the instructor

Email the instructor and introduce yourself. Verify the address to ship class materials, and schedule a reminder to make sure they are received a few days prior to class. If you have the opportunity to chat with the instructor or vendor contact for a few minutes, establish a method for communicating about any problems that may arise. A cell phone number, instant messaging address and/or Skype connection can be a lifesaver if you run into technical problems, need to have a portion of a lecture reviewed, or lose your Internet connection. Review the list of any software that needs to be downloaded in advance, test the distance learning tools with your system to ensure that everything works, and notify the instructor that you are ready to go.

Set expectations

Let the instructor know if there are any class times when you will be absent. Instructors understand that often students opt to attend classes remotely to accommodate schedule conflicts. Work out a plan in advance to cover the missed material with minimal impact to you and the other students in class. Your goal is to keep up and learn along with the in-classroom students, as any lagging negatively impacts the group’s overall satisfaction and ability to learn.

Verify class start and end times and make sure you adjust them to your time zone. If your time zone differs significantly, ask if the class can adjust start and end times to more closely align with yours; often in-class students are happy to accommodate with a later class start time that enables their remote classmates to avoid starting class before sunrise.


Engage and participate

Commit your full attention to the instructor’s presentation. While an instructor may circulate around the classroom checking monitors to ensure that everyone is following along, his or her limited access to your desktop does not mean you have permission to monitor your e-mail, CNN, or ESPN. If you get lost, getting you back on track will slow the entire class. Try to stay focused on the material being presented. Remember, after class finishes on the last day, while the in-classroom students are traveling home, you can use that time to catch up on your e-mail.

Don’t hesitate to join a discussion if the topic is of interest. Most instructors welcome student input and your experience may help answer another student’s questions. Training should be collaborative—jump in!

Provide feedback

Perhaps in the not-too-distant-future, distance learning will deliver an instructor hologram to hover as you work through a lab exercise. For now, however, distance learning tools are still evolving and improving to enhance the learning process for remote students. The few minutes that you invest in providing honest feedback on what worked and what didn’t will be listened to and may help define the next generation of distance learning tools. Many recent improvements to distance learning are direct responses to feedback from students—and, once you have saved your company hundreds or thousands of travel dollars through distance learning and demonstrated that you can apply what you learned, your next class may not be too far off!

Have you ever received training via distance learning? How was your experience? Let us know in the comments.

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