Going the distance
There was no elaborate ceremony or gleeful tossing of mortarboards at Heather Abel's graduation ceremony. Instead, a helpful secretary at her Australian university simply handed over a blue plastic envelope containing her Master's of Education certificate, and offered a polite smile.
Then again, not much was traditional about Heather's degree. For a start, she earned it while working full time as a teacher in Bangkok. Unable to make any of the official graduation ceremonies in Hong Kong, Singapore or mainland China, Heather picked up her papers on a flying visit home to see family and friends.
"I wasn't sure about where I wanted to work in the future," says Heather, who is now settled in London with her husband. "But I knew that the extra qualification would help, no matter where my career took me."
It wasn't an easy ride. Heather found it tough to return to the world of essays and deadlines after years in the workplace, and found herself spending all her time either studying or working: "I was ever so grateful for the number of public holidays Thailand has!"
There were also certain factors beyond her control. Despite the obvious benefits of the Internet in modern distance learning, books and manuals are still fundamental to most courses. When a study package failed to turn up at the start of one course unit, Heather got worried. By the time the package turned up, Heather had too much catching up to do and decided to defer the semester by six months.
Distance learning is an increasingly popular option for people living and working away from their home countries. With an ever-expanding range of courses available and the awesome communications network afforded by the Internet, there is really no reason why a move overseas should spell the end of your education.
It is important, however, to understand exactly what is involved, especially with regard to time management, which is a key consideration when committing to a course. Juggling work, family and social commitments with essay deadlines and a reading list the length of a Rotiboy lunch queue is not for everyone.
"You have to be really serious and committed," says Michael Morrissey, a 32-year-old full time English teacher in Bangkok. "The work isn't going to do itself."
Mindful of changing regulations for foreign teachers and feeling that he still had room to develop professionally, Michael took the plunge and enrolled on a teaching diploma course run by distance learning providers Eurolink and accredited by the College of Teachers, London.
"Get organised, make a study plan and stick to it," he says.
It sounds simple; but Michael admits it was not always easy. Working long days, he saved most of his coursework for weekends and holidays, and found that he rarely had a day off.
"When my parents were here on holiday two years ago, I took them to Kanchanaburi," he says. "They went off and did stuff by themselves, with me spending four to six hours a day sitting outside the bungalow working on my assignments."
He ploughed on, though, and a year later received his diploma.
A freelance political journalist based in the north of Thailand, Toby Hudson agrees that balancing work and study time is one of the biggest challenges of distance learning. Nevertheless, she recognises that studying this way affords opportunities she might not otherwise have.
"Being able to live overseas while I'm doing [the course] means being able to get an on-the-ground feel for what I am studying," says Toby, who is working towards an MA in International Relations, provided by Deakin University in Australia.
"The other great thing about my course is that it brings together students who are living and working in a variety of places." There are students on her course, for example, based in such political hotspots such as Cambodia, Lebanon, India, East Timor and Iran.
"If I need to write a paper on the situation in Israel," she says, "there are three students on my course working there who I can bug with questions."
Lectures for each unit of Toby's course are audio-streamed through dedicated portals on the university's Internet site. Students keep in contact with each other via the portals' online discussion forums and frequently arrange real time conferences using an email messenger service. Although Toby says she largely manages to fit her studies around her work obligations, sometimes her job has to take priority.
"When it comes down to it, I can't study if I don't have any cash," she says, speaking the night before heading off to hunt stories for a month in Internet-barren Burma.
Down to business
Business degrees are now among the most popular distance learning programmes. Manchester Business School (MBS) Worldwide is one of several organisations to have launched MBA programmes in Thailand in recent years. As director of MBS Worldwide's Southeast Asia centre, Singapore-based Gabriel Lee oversees distance learning MBAs in the region.
"I cannot emphasise [enough] that students need to be prepared to run the race," he says. "Completing an MBA is a marathon and not a 100 metre dash." Gabriel says that almost all of MBS Worldwide's distance learning students - more than 2000 globally - have regular jobs in the business sector. They are typically between 30 and 35 years old and about 70 percent are married and more than half of those have children.
Because of students' outside commitments, institutes are typically very flexible when it comes to pacing. For example, MBS Worldwide and U21 Global - a distance learning network including universities such as Edinburgh, Virginia and Melbourne - allow up to five years to complete their MBA programmes.
Dr Helen Lange, MBA programme director at U21 Global, says that flexibility is crucial to their students, most of whom tend to be senior executives and professionals who simply don't have time to attend lectures.
"Online learning is most suitable for the mature, adult learner, who is increasingly unable to engage in full-time or even part-time study at a traditional academic institution," she says.
Given the average student's busy schedule and overseas residency, access to materials is vital. Study packs including required guides, texts and case studies are usually dispatched ahead of course start dates, but sourcing extra materials can prove tricky - especially if students are based far from big cities and their attendant specialist bookshops.
To this end, online libraries have become essential. MBS Worldwide, for example, provides access to the University of Manchester online library, which carries a staggering range of journals, databases, company profiles and other publications.
"Students can access Harvard Business Review journal from the first issue in 1922 to the latest on the newsstand," says Gabriel.
Whereas most programmes require students to attend residential workshops or occasional seminars at regional centres such as Singapore or Hong Kong, U21 Global's four postgraduate degrees are fully online. Even the final exam - which Helen describes as "open-book, open-web" - can be done from your living room.
Helen also describes studying online as "the most democratic form of learning." She points out that the online classroom negates such traditional classroom obstacles as shyness, or domination by louder students. All students have an equal opportunity to participate in class.
"This is beneficial for the student and for the class as a whole," she says. "In traditional education, the brightest students don't always speak out, but in the online class, all do, and so the class gets the benefit of the better students' comments and views. It also develops the individual student much more, as they feel freer to exchange and discuss ideas."
"It wasn't easy," says Michael, reflecting on his year of coffee dependency and looming deadlines. "But in a slightly masochistic way, I enjoyed it."
It couldn't have been that bad: With a teaching diploma already under his belt, Michael is now working on his second distance learning course, an MA that will allow him the title Fellow of the College of Teachers.
"When I got an A for my first short research paper, it was a great feeling," he says. "I'm waiting for a grade on the second paper now, checking my email every day. Still no news."
Bangkok Post, September 2006