First Monday

Coping in a Distance Environment: Sitcoms, Chocolate Cake, and Dinner With a Friend

Students entering distance education programs often find themselves adapting to new learning environments and new technologies. Part of this adaptation involves coping with unfamiliar technology and learning to manage its use within the group, helping them create the environment in which they will learn. Part of it involves developing personal relationships that will ease their work and learning, helping them cope with unfamiliarity and change. Examining suggestions from distance learning students on how to cope with this process yields three-fold results. First, it demonstrates how students, instructors and administrators need to work together to ease student's paths. Second, it helps us in advising distance learning students about what they can expect from distance learning, and how they can contribute to and benefit from their distance learning community. Finally, it provides recommendations to instructors and program directors on how better to help their students cope with this community building transition and distance learning environment.


A New Learning Environment
Description of Study
Aspects of Coping in Distance Education
Multiple Perspectives on Coping
Helping Distance Students Cope


A New Learning Environment

"Watch silly sitcoms. Have a piece of chocolate cake. Have dinner with your best friend."
- Jan, 1st term LEEP student [ 1]

Students in a distance learning environment often find themselves in new educational surroundings supported by unfamiliar technologies. As they adjust to this learning environment, they may rely on available people and tools for support, as well as changing their own living and learning patterns. By talking with students who have already begun this adjustment process, can we discover what they have found to be the most helpful ways of coping? By discovering these means of coping, can we as faculty and administrators learn how to advise new distance learning students, as well as how to structure programs and classes to meet the needs of these students?

The Graduate School of Library and Information Science (GSLIS) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign offers several scheduling options for students to earn their M.S. A recently added scheduling option is LEEP, a distance education option. Unlike traditional students who often live in the Champaign-Urbana area while they are in the program, students who select the LEEP scheduling option come to campus only a handful of times: once when they begin the program and once per semester until they graduate. For the remainder of their class work, they use a variety of computer technologies that enable them to communicate with their instructors and with each other.

The students who participate in LEEP find themselves in different circumstances from the students enrolled in on-campus programs. For example, they have to manage many different types of technology and need more flexibility in scheduling classes, performing work, and managing their time. They are in a new and unfamiliar learning environment, without physical classrooms and with limited face-to-face contact. They face a variety of problems, social and technological, that students in more traditional programs do not. As students enter this new learning environment, they need support to help them gain entry to the community and to begin their interaction with others (Chidrambaram & Bostrom, 1996).

They need help in learning how to cope with new technologies on two different levels. First, to participate in the program, students are required to have and be familiar with certain types of hardware and software. To meet this requirement, they may have to acquire, install, debug, and learn how to use these technologies. Accomplishing these tasks requires certain skills on the part of the students and the availability of technological support from within the program. Second, they need to learn how to use these technologies in the context of group virtual learning. The group has to learn together how to incorporate technologies into their school work and social practices. As they learn, as a group, to use these new technologies, they are building their own learning environment (Dede, 1996; Harasim, Hiltz, Teles, & Turoff, 1995; Poole & DeSanctis, 1990; Small, 1999; Weedman, 1999).

They also need help in learning how to cope with new social situations. First, they need to learn how to develop personal relationships in a virtual environment where some aspects of the regular school environment are missing. For example, in the LEEP environment, students cannot meet for coffee after class or drop into their professors' offices unannounced. Second, they have to adjust to being students in an unfamiliar environment. Instead of just attending a new school, they attend a school which often requires them to perform unfamiliar tasks in settings not normally associated with school, such as their living room or workplace (Bruffee, 1993; Harasim, 1989; Harasim et al., 1995; Mason, 1991; Tinto, 1993; Wegerif, 1998).

As teachers and administrators, we are relatively inexperienced at helping students cope with these situations. While we know how to advise on-campus students, the distance education program is new enough that we needed further study to help us learn how to advise the LEEP students. So, over the course of the 1998-1999 school year, we asked students currently enrolled in the program what advice they had for other students and for program administrators to help students cope with these social and technological uncertainties. They were so eager to discuss this that, even when we did not explicitly ask for this advice, they spontaneously offered it. The purpose of this paper is to report on our findings.


Description of Study

For this study, interviews were conducted four times over the course of one school year. The four rounds of interviewing occurred near the beginning and the end of two successive semesters. The purpose of selecting these times was to allow us to see how the students' views changed over the school year; also, previously collected data indicated that, since mid-semester was potentially an important transition time for the students, there might be notable differences between the beginning and end of each semester (Haythornthwaite, 1999). With the seventeen LEEP students interviewed, we were interested in understanding how they managed to cope with an unfamiliar environment from the time they started through the time of the interview, including how the conditions of particular classes (e.g. the number of live sessions, the technologies used, the number of group projects) affected their LEEP experience.

For the first round of interviews, we used our experiences teaching in the LEEP environment and results from other research to develop the first interview schedule. Each interviewer made initial contact with students via telephone or e-mail to verify that they would participate and to schedule the initial interview. The interviews, which normally took approximately one hour (range: 20 minutes to 2 hours), were conducted over the telephone and tape-recorded. In a few cases, interviews were done face-to-face when the students were on campus. The interviews were semi-structured; each interview schedule included several topics to be covered in the interview and some suggested directions for further probing within these topics. Each interview was transcribed verbatim from the tape recording. The research team then analyzed the interview reports and used the themes and ideas that emerged from them to develop the interview schedule for the second round. This process was repeated for rounds three and four.

The data were analyzed using qualitative data analysis techniques (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). The first part of the process involved open coding, which began to identify concepts in the data; these concepts were then grouped into categories. Each category has properties, or attributes, that allow the categories to be linked together during the second stage, axial coding. This paper is a snapshot of the second stage of analysis: the findings described are based on one group of the linked categories and their properties. This way of examining the interviews revealed how distance students cope with unfamiliar social and technological situations. These findings lead to important implications for distance learning programs both at GSLIS and elsewhere.


Aspects of Coping in Distance Education

As the transcripts of the interviews were analyzed, we looked specifically at the portions of the interviews that reflected suggestions or advice the students had about coping in a distance learning environment. In addition, the coding process highlighted links between these portions and parts where the students discussed their own experiences and what had helped and hindered them. Over the course of this analysis, seven aspects of coping emerged from the data. These aspects provide a way to organize the particular physical and behavioral elements that facilitate student coping, and show the general areas in which students need to be supported.

The seven aspects are

Each aspect includes a number of specific elements that the students identified as helping them perform this kind of coping. These elements may be physical items such as syllabi and computer software, or behavioral elements like "preparing for class" or "following a routine." The elements described for each aspect reflect actions that need to be performed and physical items that need to be available to students to support that specific aspect of coping in a distance environment.

This section looks at each of the seven aspects in detail; each aspect is explained and each element is defined. Quotes from the interviewees are given as examples. They are representative of many similar examples found throughout the reports from the interviewees.

Aspect 1: Planning

Planning is preparation that has to be done in advance of a program, semester, or class to ensure the successful completion of that program, semester, or class, where "successful" is described as completing all of the work with a minimum of stress and confusion, and a maximum of learning and happiness.

Aspect 2: Technology

This Internet-based learning environment utilizes a number of technologies both at the school and at the students' homes or workplaces, and all of this technology has to work together. The technology includes computer hardware, Internet connections through local Internet Service Providers (ISPs), and software that runs on the LEEP computer and on the students' computers. Often, students must download and install software from the Web, but this is usually made available through a centralized source on the LEEP Web page. Some of the software is used throughout the LEEP environment, while some of the software packages (for example, graphics design programs) are only used for specific classes. Some of the technology is supported by a LEEP technology office, but difficulties such as problems with local ISPs are the students' responsibility.

Aspect 3: Workload

A student's workload includes how many classes are taken in one semester and how much time is spent completing the work required for each course. Students also included the type of work, for example group work versus individual projects, in discussing workload. In addition, workload includes non-school responsibilities such as formal employment, other activities to which they are committed, and family responsibilities.

Aspect 4: Socialization within LEEP

LEEP students socialize with one another through a variety of communication technologies, including face-to-face, e-mail, and synchronous text chat. They establish social bonds that help them with their school work and, later, with processes such as job searches. As they develop these social bonds, there are difficulties and benefits related directly to the environment in which they are meeting and learning. When students discuss the social aspects of the LEEP community, they talk both about social issues wholly contained within LEEP and those that blend with their lives outside school. Socialization within LEEP includes not only connections with other students, but also with faculty and administrators.

Aspect 5: Integrating life and school

Students involved in distance education are often earning their degree in this manner because they have responsibilities that keep them tied to one location, such as formal employment, families, and other activities to which they are committed including churches and civic groups. Part of participating successfully in distance education involves integrating their school activities with these other activities. If they cannot perform this integration successfully, they tend to feel disconnected from the LEEP community and frustrated with their ability to fulfill any of their responsibilities.

Aspect 6: Administrative adaptation

LEEP students rely quite heavily on the administrators of the program to take actions that make their progress through the program as smooth as possible. They must also rely on the university's adapting to their needs as distance students in a system that is almost entirely geared toward resident students. Though some of these points are not advice per se, they are statements from the students about changes that they have found to be extremely supportive and would like to see continued. The administrative adaptation aspect focuses exclusively on students' advice for administrators and instructors.

Students appreciate administrators and instructors who are available, virtually, during evenings and weekends because this is when many students must schedule time to do their school work.

Aspect 7: Efforts and rewards

Students in distance learning are making an effort to earn a degree in an unfamiliar environment while maintaining the other responsibilities in their lives. They look forward to achieving goals of learning about library and information science and completing the master's degree. These efforts and the goals they hope to attain help them "keep going" while they navigate the difficulties of adapting to new technologies and ways of learning. This aspect focuses on current students' advice for new or prospective students.


Multiple Perspectives on Coping

One of the initial questions of this paper was whether we could discover the means of coping that distance learning students have found to be the most helpful. The ways of coping and the behaviors and physical objects that support them were explained in the aspects and elements described above. These aspects emerged from what students said, not only when they offered advice in the form of suggestions, but also when they described what they had found to be helpful in their own experiences. Such descriptions are also a kind of suggestion, because they help us understand what to change and what not to change, and where more can be done to help.

However, to achieve a better understanding of the implications for the administration of distance programs and the teaching of distance courses, it is necessary to look more deeply at the coping elements. In particular, they must be viewed not only from the perspective of the students, but also from the perspectives of administrators and faculty. When we do so, we can see that many of the elements need to be enacted by students, and by instructors or administrators for that aspect to be fully supported. Taking these multiple perspectives not only demonstrates the complex ways that the roles of students intertwine with those of the faculty and administration, but also reveals some overall themes or areas of support not specifically described in the individual elements themselves. The discussion that follows uses each coping aspect to frame an examination of the elements within.


When the planning aspect is examined keeping the multiple perspectives in mind, it becomes clear that students, instructors, and administrators have intertwining roles to play. For instance, the syllabus needs to be planned, developed and made available by the instructor early enough for the students to be able to use it in their planning process. Students need to be able to rely on the syllabus as a stable document throughout the semester so that their own personal schedules can be relied on in turn to stay correct and be useful tools for helping them to keep up and prepare for class. Likewise, proactive announcements must be planned in advance by the administration so that announcements can be made early enough to support student planning. Finally, keeping up also demonstrates multiple perspectives: if the instructor does not keep up with announcements, class planning, and grading, it is hard for the student to keep up with their assigned work. Conversely, if the students are unprepared for class or hand their assignments in late, the instructor cannot keep up with class planning and grading. As part of keeping up, goal setting provides another example: an instructor's goals for a class and the students in it will affect the semester-long goals of the student, while the students' goals for a particular class can affect the way the instructor teaches the course.


Examining the technology aspect again reveals the intertwining roles of those involved in distance learning. For instance, for successful technology training to occur, the program administration needs to include people who are familiar with the technologies and skilled at training others in their use. The students need to be receptive to the training and not view it as a "waste of time," and it helps if the training is offered at appropriate skill levels. Also subject to multiple perspectives are the technology tools themselves: the students and the administrators each have tools for which they are responsible, and these are linked together by an Internet connection for which an outside party is accountable. Closely related to this is the technology support element; as with training, the administration has to have people who are familiar with the technologies and able to help others troubleshoot difficulties. The student, in turn, needs to feel comfortable calling on technical support for help and be able to follow their instructions for the support to work. Finally, appropriate technology use provides another example: in extreme cases, if the students perceive that the instructor is using the technology inappropriately for the subject matter or type of class, they will begin to subvert the use of the communication technologies to socialize, complain, or direct their own learning. For example, if students think that the instructor is using the text chat environment to present large amounts of text that could better be read offline, they may cease to pay attention to the lecture and use the text chat "whispering" function for private conversations.


As with the above aspects, many of these elements appear different from the perspective of the student and from the perspective of the instructor or administrator. And again, most of the workload elements must be enacted by both the student and the instructor/administrator in order to support the workload aspect properly. For instance, when students are working on group projects, they need to allow time outside of scheduled class meetings to coordinate and work with their groups. Instructors, on the other hand, can provide support for this coordination by using available software and communications technology to create shared virtual spaces such as chat rooms or electronic conferences for each group. A similar example is found in the rhythm of semester element: from the students' perspective, the pace of the work creates what may be widely varying demands on their time at different points in the semester, causing stress and inhibiting learning. From the instructor's perspective, it may be difficult to arrange the work in a way that both works toward course objectives and creates a more manageable pace for the students. Another example is found in the number of courses to take, where students develop fairly sophisticated schemes to determine an appropriate course load. Not only must students be aware of their personal abilities and limits, but they must abide by such constraints as what courses are offered, at what times, on what days, and for how much course credit. Program administrators, however, are trying to find instructors for courses and schedule the courses, without overlap, at appropriate times for students who have families and full-time jobs.

If students think that the instructor is using the text chat environment inappropriately, they will use the text chat "whispering" function for private conversations.

Socialization within LEEP

Viewing socialization within LEEP demonstrates again that supporting coping is a multi-party activity. For instance, from the students' perspective, boot camp is time-consuming and exhausting, but ultimately necessary from their point of view for helping them to bond with their cohort. For instructors and administrators, boot camp is also time-consuming and exhausting, but they need to structure the two weeks in such a way that educational objectives are met while the students are forging the necessary bonds. Face-to-face communication is another example: from both perspectives, it is difficult to arrange. For the students, it is necessary for them to have this kind of contact because it allows them to feel comfortable with classmates and project groups. For instructors, the on-campus session in particular is an opportunity to help the students meet educational objectives that cannot be accomplished online (for example, a presentation which relies on handling physical objects). As another example, the communication technologies that the students view as their means of staying connected with their classmates and instructors require maintenance and training from the administrators. Finally, students feel that they need to be purposeful in their attempts to stay in touch with fellow classmates, and they rely on both communication technologies and the opportunities for face-to-face meetings to help them do so. For administrators, this means allowing the students to use the technology in flexible ways, such as opening text chat rooms before class starts and leaving them open a bit afterwards; it also means helping by scheduling social events that bring students, instructors, and administrators together at a time when they are not consumed by doing class work.

Integrating life and school

Integrating life with school also required the joint activity of students, instructors, and administration. For example, from the students' perspective, there is only a small range that constitutes the optimum regularity of meeting. The instructor of a given course, in contrast, may believe that the course material requires weekly meetings, or that the size of the class precludes meeting more than twice in the semester. As another example, involving students in professional environments is important for students who do not have work experience in the new area of study; students may find it hard to integrate course work into their lives if it is strongly incongruous. From the administration's point of view, however, it may be difficult to construct a practicum at distance; it is also difficult at a distance to foster the kind of casual contact with professionals that occurs for on-campus students and for those who already work in related fields. Finally, although flexibility is an important means of supporting integration, it can also cause difficulties. Students need flexibility so they can cope with the many exigencies of their everyday lives, but too much flexibility interferes with their ability to make plans. For instructors, keeping track of twenty students with different personal situations, different assignment deadlines, and different amounts of credit being earned is a difficult task. For administrators, scheduling classes at different times of day to accommodate as many students as possible and trying to schedule classes in multiple semesters with enough variability and repetition is also difficult. Students, though, maintain that these kinds of flexibility are a major factor in enabling them to complete their course work and the program successfully.

Administrative adaptation

While administrative adaptation includes primarily actions that students would like instructors and administrators to take, it is shaped by the perspectives of the students. For example, students value a quick response time when they have questions, even if these questions arise during evenings or weekends. For the instructor, providing this level of responsiveness means having access to communications technologies and course materials during times they might previously have set aside for other tasks. Also, a student may have three instructors while the instructor will certainly have more students than that (and perhaps some on-campus students as well). This means that the interaction with students may seem almost constant, and the instructor has to be willing to provide this or to establish guidelines for response time that are mutually satisfactory. Other elements that support this aspect, such as access to materials and contact points, are things that make the students' distance learning run more smoothly, reducing frustration at unresolved problems and lack of materials. For a distance learning program that is not running under the umbrella of a campus-wide administration, these changes may be out of the scope of their ability to change since they may affect the library, bookstore, or official records offices. Finally, within the element of scheduling, students appreciate the ability to schedule their course work around their other responsibilities such as work and family. However, for the administration, this means trying to schedule a variety of classes during evening hours, being mindful that students may be in different time zones. It also means that faculty may have to teach multiple classes in the evening.

Efforts and rewards

Finally, the efforts and rewards aspect is focused on distance learning students and their attitudes toward their school work. The elements within it primarily include advice that experienced students have for prospective students. From their perspective, this means that contact with current students might be useful for incoming students; for instance, talking with "veterans" could help new students to develop realistic expectations before beginning the program. From an administrative perspective, this could mean establishing methods of contact such as student mentoring, or identifying current students who would be willing to answer questions from prospective students. This aspect also includes issues of continuing motivation and effort. Students need to be aware that these are important factors before beginning a distance learning program. In addition, though students did not provide advice for administration and faculty that relate to these elements, it may be helpful for those people involved in the program to develop creative ways of recognizing effort and inspiring motivation. For example, students said that doing class projects that allowed them to earn rewards at their workplaces, such as designing Web pages, were helpful ways to achieve goals. Perhaps making an effort to link course work to students' outside interests such as work or community groups could be a way to inspire effort and allow the student to reap multiple rewards.


Helping Distance Students Cope

Interviewing distance students over the course of one school year helped to reveal how they coped with adjusting to their new learning environment, what changes to that environment could help them cope better, and what they thought new students should know before beginning a distance learning program. Examining their statements about what they found to be personally helpful, in addition to their explicit advice and suggestions, was important because it clarified what should be changed or enhanced in existing distance programs and also highlighted what may be important in designing new programs.

These conclusions may then be used to aid in advising distance learning students and also in adapting distance learning programs to better meet students' needs while keeping in place the aspects that students already find to be supportive. In particular, an understanding of how the activities of program instructors and administrators mesh with those of the students helps those of us designing programs and courses know what factors are going to be most important to the students. For example, knowing that students prefer to see course syllabi well before the beginning of the semester may prompt instructors to re-prioritize their course preparation, leaving until later items that the students have indicated are not so time-sensitive.

In addition, the analysis reveals not only specific structures and activities that students identified as being helpful, but also demonstrates some more general concepts of distance learning support. First, students need to know many things as far in advance as possible: they need course syllabi several weeks before the class begins; they need technology training long enough before they have to use the technology that they have time to become proficient; and incoming students need to know before they begin the program what expectations about workloads and goals are realistic. Second, both students and instructors/administrators need to think carefully about the technology that is available to them and use it wisely, not only to facilitate learning in classes but also to support other activities such as group work and socializing. Third, distance students prefer, in areas ranging from technical support to financial aid, to know whom they should contact for help. It is additionally helpful if they are able to contact the same people each time they need assistance, and if those people are aware of the various special needs of distance students. Finally, students both enjoy and rely on activities within the program that bring them together socially or intellectually. "Boot camp," mid-semester meetings, group projects, and various social events all focus on the group rather than the individual, which allows the students to build a learning community on which they feel they can rely.

By using the results of this data analysis, including the aspects of coping, the multiple perspectives of students, instructors, and administrators, and the more general themes of distance learning support, we can improve students' distance learning experiences in several ways. As educators we can work to structure our programs and courses in ways that help students cope with the distance learning experience. We can work to improve existing programs while working to ensure that successful features are not compromised. Since we have an idea of what kinds of things students find helpful, we can add new methods and technologies with an understanding of why they might be helpful. Finally, we can advise new students about their approach to distance education, potential pitfalls they might encounter, and techniques that experienced students have used successfully in hopes of easing their transition into, and their navigation through, the world of distance learning.End of Article

About the Author

Michelle M. Kazmer is a doctoral student in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research focus is on knowledge-building communities in which members communicate primarily through computer media and are not physically collocated.


This work was supported by a grant from the University of Illinois Research Board. Our thanks also go to the distance students who participated in these interviews.


1. Pseudonyms are used for each student, and reflect the gender of the interviewee.


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Editorial history

Paper received 1 August 2000; accepted 29 August 2000.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2000, First Monday

Coping in a Distance Environment: Sitcoms, Chocolate Cake, and Dinner With a Friend by Michelle M. Kazmer
First Monday, volume 5, number 9 (September 2000),