AU Profiles – Patricia Presti

STUDENT: Patricia Presti

This week we focus on Patricia Presti, a recent graduate of Athabasca University’s Master of Distance Education (MDE) program. She explains how online resources can help distance students have a better educational experience than at a traditional university, what topics MDE students study, and how the face of distance education is changing.

Patricia, who graduated from the MDE program in June 2007, currently works as an academic librarian at Seneca College’s Markham, Ontario campus. There, she instructs students on research issues and techniques.

?Students initially balk, then get really excited when they figure out how useful it is to learn to use these tools well,? she says.

Content is key. Because of the wide variety of online databases–including some containing articles dating back 20 years–?doing research at 4 a.m. in your PJs is possible,? Patricia says.

She encourages AU students to make use of the many electronic databases available through AU’s library: ?[they] provide research-level, peer-reviewed information not available through other means,? she notes. She also recommends using databases instead of the Internet to conduct research. For example, students can access decades? worth of articles through these databases, while the Internet might only contain articles from the past week. And, Patricia says, It’s quick, easy, and ?free for as long as You’re a student!”

Databases are not the only online resource vital to a distance student’s success. Patricia feels that to ensure the best educational experience, students need to become involved as much as possible?both in the coursework and in the greater AU community.

Online forums can be of great help. Patricia is a big fan of class discussion boards, having found that they were essential not just for motivation but also for more in-depth learning.

?Once you post your ideas, you have to stand behind them and defend them . . . you can’t just put up something . . . to get the assignment done,? Patricia says. ?You learn so much more.?

In fact, she believes that the educational benefits of this type of class discussion surpass those found in traditional learning. ?You can’t be hiding in the back of the class hoping the prof doesn’t ask you a question,? she says. ?You have to be prepared . . . and you benefit a great deal in the long run.? Plus, the accountability was a great motivator: ?You couldn’t shirk your responsibilities, otherwise everyone knew you were being a slacker,? Patricia says.

She also recommends the use of Facebook and other online social networking opportunities to help combat the isolation felt by many distance students. ?For distance ed students as a whole, I would say the biggest challenge is . . . isolation,? she says. In particular, what is missing from a distance-learning setting is the opportunity to obtain ?informal information?–the small talk in the hallways about what classes to avoid or which professors are the best. Online socializing, Patricia says, can help fulfill this need.

The importance of social networking doesn’t end with classes. ?You may have good rapport with people in your class, but then they leave, and do you really keep in touch with them?? she asks. Patricia has kept in touch with several of her classmates through Facebook, which she has found to be personally and professionally useful.

Patricia, who worked part-time on the MDE degree over a period of seven years, already had a Master’s in Information Studies from the University of Toronto when she enrolled at AU. ?A lot of the academic librarian positions [in Florida, where she was living at the time] require a second masters,? she says. She turned to Athabasca’s program so that, if she decided to move back to Canada partway through the degree, she could continue without losing credits during the transfer. Because the MDE program focused on educational technology and administration–part of her job as a librarian–it seemed an ideal option. ?It [also] fit perfectly with my previous Master’s,? Patricia said.

The MDE is an educational administration degree, with a special focus on educating by distance. Courses touch on the many different factors that are required to create an effective distance program. While some topics covered are typical administrative and distance issues, like adult education, instructional design, and designing curriculum for effective learning, there are broader concerns to consider as well.

One example is international issues, such as the colonialization of education. ?You don’t want to impose your culture on another just because they may be taking your program in another country,? Patricia says. The increasing reliance of distance learning on electronic and online resources is another focus. For example, says Patricia, students might study ?how . . . you moderate [chat in classes] properly so that it is effective.?

Patricia is particularly interested in how to offer student support services in a distance context: counselling services, learning centre help, and even social events like pub night are much more difficult, if not impossible, for a distance program to administer. She believes many of these services can be offered, although the question of cost comes into play. For example, one U.S. school flies out its librarians to teach research skills to its students. It’s ?costly,? Patricia says, ?but great for the students!? Overall, however, schools are beginning to focus more on the human interactive part of distance education.

There are also new developments at AU’s Centre for Distance Education (CDE), which administers the MDE program. For the past few years, the CDE has been putting together an annual conference on distance education. The conference coincides with convocation, allowing students, graduates, faculty, and others to meet, present papers, and discuss the latest developments in distance education. Also noteworthy, next fall AU will open its doctoral program in distance education (Ed.D.), the first such program in North America.

Patricia is excited about these new developments. ?Some really neat things are happening in the program right now,? she says. ?I’m kind of sad that I’m finished!?

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