Achieving a work-life-study balance

October 2014


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DR CHRISTOPHER THEUNISSEN discusses how a supported distance teaching and learning model can help ensure student success in a time poor environment.


Many individuals are busy, for a variety of reasons. However, this is especially true for those who are working and trying to find a balance in managing various commitments such as family and study that characterise their lives. Also, individuals within this group are often those who are growing their careers and consequently find themselves wanting to increase knowledge and skills to improve competitiveness or merely keep up to date with developments in their chosen field.

So, when it comes to teaching and learning, how should academic and training institutions cater for such individuals who find themselves juggling work, family, and academic studies? The answer is supported distance learning, a common sense approach that is a hybrid of the traditional and distance learning approaches, facilitated increasingly by web-based technologies and applications.

Such a model has considerable benefits and is attested to by the academic success of this delivery approach followed by Manukau Institute of Technology in their collaboration with Southern Cross University (SCU) in Australia to deliver SCU’s MBA and associated programmes. This collaboration entailed combining the online delivery model from SCU with local support in the form of, among others, local monthly weekend workshops to New Zealand-based students, enabling them to experience the best of both study worlds. Not only did students have the self-paced instructional study material and online lectures from SCU but also local support that provided elements of the more traditional ‘face-to-face’ approach that helped overcome some of the limitations associated with the ‘pure’ distance learning study experience.

Supported distance teaching and learning is an approach that is useful not only for postgraduate ‘applied executive education’ students – such as those doing an MBA – but for any student who finds him or herself balancing responsibilities, whatever they may be. Although it is usually the slightly more mature student who finds supported distance learning particularly useful, for obvious reasons given the competing demands often made on their time, it is also of benefit to any student who may be time poor. However, exactly what is supported distance teaching and learning and how can it be used?

Essentially, it’s a hybrid model that caters for those students whose schedules and responsibilities make it difficult to follow a traditional ‘full-time’ and/or regular ‘face-to-face’ contact route towards achieving a higher qualification or skill. As a ‘hybrid’, it offers the best of many worlds as it combines elements of traditional teaching and learning support with the flexibility of distance learning.

Supported distance teaching and learning allows for the provision of well-structured course material to both local and remotely located students together with additional support infrastructure that may include regular online classes combined with the occasional teaching workshop. Such teaching workshops may occur on a regular basis during a semester and could be scheduled for a day during the weekend (e.g. Saturday/Sunday once a month), where students get to meet fellow students and their tutor or lecturer. Such, preferably optional, weekend workshops allow students to overcome some of the challenges of isolation often experienced by those undertaking ‘distance learning’ alone.

In some respects, the combination of well-structured course material – a prerequisite for excellence in distance education – and the opportunity to have face-to-face interaction with peers and tutors allows for an approach well suited to students in the contemporary environment although it may not be suitable for everyone. It is a model that is likely to find increasing applicability in the future as students are driven to an ‘earn while you learn’ environment where full-time study becomes an increasingly limited ‘luxury’ option that is often unsuited to more mature working students and a lifelong learning environment.

Dr Christopher Theunissen is associate dean postgraduate, Faculty of Business and Information Technology at Manukau Institute of Technology (MIT). 


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