Staying Connected While Distance Learning

By Susan Klos, NIMAA Curriculum Director and Instructor

When many of us think about school, we imagine a physical building where you can meet with the instructor in class to ask questions about assignments, or sit with peers around a table to work on a group project. Establishing a connection to instructors and peers is vital to many students’ success in a program. Lack of engagement can lead to a feeling of isolation and some students feeling unsupported and unmotivated.

It is hard for many potential students to imagine themselves in an online program — sitting alone in front of a computer screen doing their assignments and not interacting with others. I believe the thought of isolation and everything associated with it prevents many potential students from applying to or even looking into online or distance learning programs.

The National Institute for Medical Assistant Advancement’s (NIMAA’s) instructional team understands how important it is to feel supported and connected – that’s one of the reasons we work hard to strengthen the student-to-instructor and peer-to-peer relationship. We value the time we spend with our students within our online medical assistant program, where both students and instructors are located all over the country. It isn’t unusual for an instructor in Connecticut to work with students in Hawaii, for example.

In our experience, one-on-one and group meeting via videoconference can support the development of the instructor-student relationship, allowing meetings to be both informative and personable. The instructors can get to know their students in ways that are different from the traditional setting. Often, we are invited into students’ homes when we meet via video conferencing. We meet their loved ones and enjoy seeing their pets as we talk about their progress. These meetings foster a close connection with our students — sometimes more so than that you gain from a traditional classroom setting — giving us a glimpse into who our students are beyond the assignments they submit. We better understand the barriers they face, and we get a glimpse of their motivation when a child pops into a meeting. As we get to know our students as a whole, we learn how to encourage and help them be successful.

It is also important for students to feel connected to their peers. Having the ability to connect with students from around the country provides a different type of support than the instructors can offer and expands what is learned. The peer-to-peer interaction gives students the reassurance they are not in this alone. Other students may have the same question or a question they did not think of, providing a reminder it is okay to not understand something after reading it just once. Seeing their peers succeed can also motivate them to keep going. Talking to other students regarding mutual challenges, time management, child care concerns, etc., creates a network of individuals who can provide ideas and support.

NIMAA has created several creative and ongoing methods to encourage student interactions. For example, the instructional team provides weekly online synchronous seminars that offer opportunities for students to learn from their peers. It is incredible to log in to a seminar and hear students in Colorado discussing with students from Pennsylvania how their experiences are similar or different. The opportunity to discuss experiences with peers in other states expands the knowledge received. The student community thrives on sharing unique experiences and hearing about their peers’ experiences. It allows them to see differences in how medical assistants’ skills are applied in different settings, and to better understand the aspects of the role that are malleable and those that remain constant regardless of practice setting.

A sense of connection is vital to student success. With planning and a thoughtful approach, online programs can include the student-to-student and student-to-instructor interactions students need to feel supported and achieve their goals.