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What is "Accelerated Distance Learning"?

PHS interviews Brad Voeller
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #46, 2002.

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Some months ago, we received a review sample of the book Accelerated Distance Learning by Bradley Voeller. Reading the book, I was intrigued by how Brad, a homeschool graduate, had created a new model that self-starting high schoolers and those contemplating college at home could use to earn real college degrees in a fraction of the time and money required for a traditional campus-based college program. He'd not only written about it; he'd actually earned his own fully accredited college degree from a state college in less than six months and for less than $5,000.

I knew you'd want to hear about this!

  • High-school students, wouldn't you just as soon also get college credit for your hard work?
  • College-bound kids, doesn't it makes sense to know all your options before you commit to six years on a college campus (the typical time it takes students to earn a bachelor's degree these days)?
  • Even Dad or Mom might like to know how they can get a associate, bachelor's, master's, or even Ph.D. (in a few limited fields) at home in so little time it might actually work out to do it!

As is our habit at Practical Homeschooling, we tracked down and brought our prey to bay. In this case, we caught up with BRAD in between two of his Accelerated Distance Learning seminars.

Bradley Voeller
So, without further ado . . . . heeeeeere's Bradley!

MARY PRIDE Accelerated Distance Learning - what is it?

BRADLEY VOELLER It's basically a combination of distance learning and accelerated learning methods.

Both have been around for a long time, so it's not something really new. It's just that nobody else seems to have put this combination together.

With distance learning, you have the flexibility to do your studies at your own pace, using your own learning method, and get college credit.

With the accelerated learning method, you then can learn at a much faster pace, instead of being bound by the way your teacher teaches or the resources he uses. You're able to be in charge of your own learning experience.

MARY Tell us about distance learning for college credit.

BRAD There are five different ways of earning college credit through distance learning:

  • Credit by exam
  • Portfolio assessment
  • Internships
  • Guided study/independent study
  • Online and correspondence classes from accredited institutions

Credit by exam is the most popular. You take the exam, and if you get a passing score, you get college credit. Later that credit can be transferred to an accredited program, even to a campus-based program.

A lot of people haven't heard of portfolio assessment. Homeschool students in particular can create portfolios that will earn them credit for a lot of the extra learning they've done, including homeschool projects. You document these, show what you learned is equivalent to a college course, and you can get college credit.

MARY Work experience, missions, volunteering, ministries . . .

BRAD Yes, all of these things can qualify for portfolio credit. This is one of my favorite ways of earning credit. Anything that's an accredited college course can form the foundation of your portfolio. And with thousands of course descriptions to choose from, that's a big opportunity..

MARY Where do you find these college courses to write an equivalent portfolio?

BRAD The best place, I find, is on the web. You go to individual college web pages. Usually they have the course catalog posted there. You go through the course catalog and cut and paste course descriptions out of there. The one thing you want to make sure, though, is that the course whose description you use is from a regionally accredited college or university . . .

MARY Doesn't a program like Thomas Edison State College's do some of the work of trying to find the courses for you?

BRAD Thomas Edison is great for portfolios because their program specializes in this. They are experts in portfolio assessment. However, they still leave it up to you to find the course descriptions. They'll give you suggestions as to how to find an appropriate course description and how to write up your own equivalent course description based on your actual work.

MARY They don't have a database on their site of all these courses, or a list of generic course descriptions?

BRAD They do have some pre-approved generic course descriptions on their website. They don't link to other college's programs.

MARY So how do they find the missing courses that you need to fill in? I know that they do not offer all the courses for all their degrees. For example, if you want a degree in Applied Systems Technology, which at the moment is my son Ted's goal, Thomas Edison doesn't offer all the courses for that one, so you'd have to find the others somewhere else.

BRAD One way to fill in a missing course is to do a portfolio on it. Another way is to take an exam for it. I took an exam for Tagalog, the language I learned to speak in the Philippines, and earned 10 credits for passing that exam. Thomas Edison doesn't offer a course in Tagalog, but I could take an exam, and have that credit transferred to my diploma program.

MARY Tell us about how you find a place that gives an exam in Tagalog! That's not something you find in a list of CLEP exams.

BRAD In the back of my book, Accelerated Distance Learning, I have a listing of credit-by-exam programs. New York State University Foreign Language Exams is the source for many exams in less-studied languages. I took their exam in Tagalog, wrote a good essay, and got 10 college credits! I had them send a transcript of the exam results to Thomas Edison, and it was included in my degree.

MARY So for you've told us the first two options for earning college credit at home: credit by exam and portfolio assessment. Now tell us about other three.

BRAD One of the three would be internships. Some established internship programs that are run by a corporation or ministry have already been evaluated for credit.

MARY Let's say that the school that approves the credit is SUNY (State University of New York) at Albany. But you want to get your degree from Thomas Edison. Do you have to pay SUNY at Albany and Thomas Edison?

BRAD There are two ways you can do this. One is to take SUNY/Albany's course description and do a mini portfolio - not quite as comprehensive as a regular portfolio - explaining that they give credit for this internship. Attach some verification from the corporation or ministry that you actually completed the internship, and turn it all in to Thomas Edison. The other way is to apply for credit to SUNY/Albany. The credit goes on their transcript, and from there you transfer it to Thomas Edison.

MARY That second option sounds a lot more expensive and time-consuming.

BRAD Possibly. It really depends on the internship opportunity.

MARY Would your Thomas Edison counselor help you with any of this?

BRAD Yes, they would. If you're enrolled at Thomas Edison, you'll want to work closely with your counselor. This is true of any distance learning program. Some people make the mistake of assuming it's only Thomas Edison you can do distance learning with. Actually a number of schools offer this kind of opportunity.

MARY This sounds like a good time to tell us about the last two course completion methods.

BRAD The first is independent study, otherwise known as guided study. Probably the term "guided study" is best. You work one-on-one with the professor. Community colleges are the best way to do this because oftentimes they already have a program for guided studies. You contact the program director - the person in charge of that department - and find out if the department allows you to do independent study. If they do, you contact the individual professor who teaches that course and find out if he or she is willing to meet with you one-on-one to complete that course. I did this with two courses for my degree, and it was really a wonderful experience.

MARY So this means you have to pay the community college, and then Thomas Edison, right?

BRAD Not necessarily, because Thomas Edison, like many schools, doesn't charge you for transfer credits.

MARY I hear from a lot of homeschooled kids that they're taking community college courses while they're still in high school. How do you manage this?

BRAD Each state has their own system, so no two community colleges are the same. But a lot of schools, maybe even the majority of community colleges, don't require you to already be a high-school graduate. They have a dual enrollment program and will let you take the course for both high-school credit and college credit. Sometimes you have to be 16; sometimes there is no age limit. Again, you should check with the community college you plan to enroll in for their specific policies.

If your community college does require you to have a high-school diploma, and you don't, one way to get around it is to show them that you've completed college work through taking something like CLEP exams. Once they see you've earned credit through these exams, and you're already doing college-level work, at that point they might say, "What you did in high school is irrelevant."

MARY How long did it take you to do your independent study courses?

BRAD The work of writing, research, study, and taking the exam took me about two weeks for a semester course. My meetings with the professor took place over a four-week period. With independent study, there's a lot more flexibility in time, location of meeting, everything. But I didn't get my final grade until the end of the semester.

MARY Now, tell us about the last method you can use to get college credit at home.

BRAD This method used to be referred to as correspondence courses because you corresponded back and forth through the mail. Today you can do this online and it's even more convenient. Many colleges and universities offer the opportunity to earn credit through taking online courses.

MARY How do you find these colleges?

BRAD Peterson's Guide to Distance Learning Programs, which I offer through my catalog, is probably the most comprehensive listing of colleges and universities that provide online courses.

MARY Does it list the individual courses?

BRAD It lists the universities and colleges and gives a brief overview of the types of courses they offer. If Peterson's says a college offers business courses, and you're interested in that, at that point you go to their website and get the course description, pricing, and so forth there.

MARY BRAD, you put the "accelerated" in accelerated distance learning. How does it work?

BRAD Accelerated learning skills include speed reading, memory techniques, and effective writing techniques.

In college, you're often assigned to read stacks and stacks of books, looking for very specific information. If you don't know speed reading techniques, it will take you forever!

MARY Tell me about speed reading.

BRAD Speed reading is meant to improve both the speed of your reading and also your comprehension. Most readers use elementary reading methods, word by word, line by line, paragraph by paragraph. With speed reading, you learn to read two lines at a time, four lines at a time, whole paragraphs at a time, even forward and backward. Your finger helps you stay focused on the text and keep an even pace.

MARY I have to tell you, I'm already a speed reader, and when I tried using a speed reading course, my finger was just going, "Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh," all over the page. It was really distracting.

BRAD The key is eye focus - whatever you're doing to maintain eye focus. For me, keeping the text focused just above the right index finger, or just to the right of it, and moving steadily through, works well.

MARY Let's talk about comprehension. I remember taking reading-comprehension tests when I was a kid. You'd read a page of information, and then they'd ask, "What color was her dress?" It wasn't the point of the story; the color of her dress didn't make any difference. You were supposed to read it once and then remember it like Sherlock Holmes would, as if you were an eidetic reader who recalled every single word with equal intensity.

So when we're talking about reading comprehension, I suspect we're talking about two different things. Reading comprehension quizzes test your ability to put into short-term memory every single word of something you just read. Whereas actual reading comprehension, as used in the real world, like by businessmen, for whom speed reading was initially developed, is based on the ability to remember the important stuff. So if I was reading about the history of widgets, I would remember the main points, and maybe not the names of every single person who was ever associated with widgets. You see what I mean?

BRAD Yes, eidetically remembering every word is not the goal of speed-reading comprehension. What we're trying to do is form the key questions ahead of time, anticipating what is the most important information that the writer is trying to communicate. When you're anticipating, forming key questions, and looking for answers, you automatically gain insights into what you are reading and much better understanding.

MARY I read the Lord of the Rings trilogy the first time using speed-reading methods, because I only had the book for lunch hour, and I've always regretted, to this day, buzzing through it that fast.

BRAD [Laughs]

MARY After that I read it just wallowing in it - where you sit and read and take the time to form the picture in your mind of every little flower and leaf that Tolkien is describing - the "movie" method, where you try to see every little speck that's happening. Those are two entirely different speeds and entirely different outcomes.

BRAD That's correct. If your purpose is to enjoy some wonderful poetry, you don't want to speed read that. The speed-reading method is meant for academic reading, when you're trying to absorb some key information quickly and effectively instead of getting bogged down in the details and minutiae.

MARY That brings us to my second question. My experience of college textbooks is that they excel in minutiae. Huge amounts of stuff is put out there.

That's why students are always asking, "Is this going to be on the test?," because it's not necessarily clear from the textbook what you need to know and what you can safely ignore. So how is speed reading going to help you when every page is densely packed with all sorts of facts?

BRAD Here's how we get around that. It's called "multiple reading speeds." This harks back to what you were saying earlier about even reading novels. You read it really quickly to get an overview of it, then much more slowly to get all the details.

Whenever I read a textbook, I read it multiple times through at multiple reading speeds. The first time is very quick, about a page per second, just getting an overview of the whole book - how it's laid out, where the important information is, how different points relate to each other. Maybe at that speed I'll discover that a topic that was introduced in the beginning of the book is explained in much greater detail in a later chapter. So I know I won't have to understand that concept in depth until I get to that chapter where it's dealt with more fully. This helps me plan out my study much better. Then later I come through at a "study" reading speed. I put checkmarks by important points and move on. Later, I come through and do in-depth study. At this point, I'm not speed reading, but memorizing some formulas, learning a list of points, learning key definitions, and memorizing terminology. Finally I'll read it through a fourth time just to review the material for an exam.

MARY How long do you retain material learned this way?

BRAD If you combine these multiple speeds and readings with writing about the subject, retention is much greater. This method of speed reading integrates very well with the writing techniques we teach.

MARY Tell me about your writing techniques.

BRAD One of the keys for maximum productivity in writing essays is before you even start reading your book, identify what you will be writing about. Have the end in mind from the beginning. That way, as you're forming your key questions, you're thinking, "That's a question I'm going to be addressing in my writing assignment, so I want to pay special attention to the answers to those questions." Later, when you begin your writing, you'll already have a plan.

The next thing you need to do is have a method for structure and style.

MARY Define that.

BRAD Every student should understand the basics of writing a descriptive essay. In my book, there's a whole chapter about how to do this. I go into depth about what the descriptive essay is. Basically, you introduce your topic with a thesis statement. You'll have maybe three points that you briefly list in your introductory paragraph. Each following paragraph brings out one of these points. Finally, in the fifth paragraph, you recount each of these points, highlighting the most important one, and conclude the essay. That is your basic descriptive essay model. It can be expanded or adapted to many kinds of writing. The key is for students to have this structure memorized and to be familiar with it. Then any writing assignment becomes very easy, because it's really just a variation on a theme.

MARY We've talked about writing and speed reading. Now tell us about memory techniques.

BRAD Memory techniques are not something new. Mnemonics were used by ancient Greeks to memorize long lists of complicated information, even to recite thousands of years of history for hours on end. The key in memory is learning how to make pictures for key information, and to store key information as pictures. This is not because everyone is a visual learner, but because a picture is worth a thousand words. It's a great way to store a lot of data.

MARY What about auditory methods, like the "Alphabet Song"?

BRAD There certainly are different learning pathways. If you are an auditory learner, you can combine auditory techniques with visual techniques to make an extra-strong combination.

MARY That sounds good. Now what are you talking about?

BRAD Here's an example. With a musical rhythm or maybe a piano piece you know very well, you associate the first measure with a certain mental picture, which in turn stores some information.

When they hear this, some people say, "What a lot of work! It's so complicated!" At first, when you start using these memory methods, it does require work. But once you begin making these kinds of combinations, storing information in pictures, it becomes fun and much easier.

These techniques are a wonderful way to remember lists, dates, formulas, and so on. These become part of your long-term memory.

MARY I've seen materials that present these memory techniques. I have a book, for instance, that's supposed to teach you all the presidents in order with this long visual picture. At one point, I could remember the whole picture, but now I don't. The method you're using talks about using rooms in a house. Does it also involve making up crazy pictures? You know, there's an elephant with a dime on his trunk and he's sliding down a palm tree . . .

BRAD The glue of your memory is imagination, action, and vivid visualization. Most memory products just teach basic association, connecting things with pictures, but there's no system for making sense of the whole and keeping track of the sequence. You don't want to think of President Jackson just as represented by a jack on the sun, but you want to know which President he is. That's the benefit of using a house layout or file cabinet; you can remember not just the item, but also its order in the sequence.

I actually demonstrate this in my seminars. I ask a couple of people in the first row to give me a list of 20 nouns, and another person to record them. Then later in the seminar, I'll have the audience ask me about specific nouns on the list, e.g., "What was number 17?" I'll tell them any noun on the list, and I'll give them the whole list forwards and backwards. That's a very powerful technique when you're facing college-level studies.

MARY In college, the goal is not only to pass the course but hopefully remember some of it for the rest of your life. You can remember your list of 20 nouns throughout a seminar, but if I were to ask you that list a year or two later, it wasn't very important to you, so you probably wouldn't remember it. So how do you move material you've memorized from short-term memory into long-term memory?

BRAD The key is to actually use it. If it's not something you can use in daily life, then write about it. If it's not something you're going to write about, then just review that list a week later, a month after that, and a year after that. At that point, the facts are there for good.

MARY Here's the question. If liberal education is defined as having the time to reflect on things, then how does accelerated learning fit into the picture of becoming a wise, reflective person?

BRAD Great question! I get this question all the time. In every one of my seminars, people ask, "How can you prove that the guy who got a degree in six months is equal to the guy who got his degree in four years?"

MARY That's not exactly my question, because I'm not necessarily convinced that the guy who took four years learned anything either! [Laughs] What I want to know is this. I have no problem with you whizzing through calculus or physics or English grammar . . .but what about whizzing through history, philosophy, or theology?

BRAD What we're trying to do with accelerated distance learning is shorten the time you're spending in the classroom or with the schoolbooks, disconnected from real life. You're going to be able to shift all that time to learning from real life. Students who use this method are going to pursue volunteering, foreign missions trips, travel. Maybe they'll do an internship, an apprenticeship, or start their own business. That's where they're getting deep insight and reflection into the meaning of all that they've studied.

MARY I'm going to challenge that. My experience in business is that it does not lend itself to reflection. Rather, it lends itself to frantic activity, just trying to tread water and keep up with the work of the business.

BRAD In the kinds of experiences I'm talking about where you're learning through real life, you're not starting a company to provide for your family or pay for a new car. You're engaged in that work experience primarily as a learner. You may not be getting paid at all.

I shadowed a Christian businessman to learn business management techniques. I was just taking notes the whole time, reflecting on the techniques I saw him using. I worked as an intern for my state representative, primarily taking notes, listening, watching, observing our political system from a hands-on viewpoint. When I was on the mission field, I was engaged in voluntary work projects. There also was a lot of time for examining my own theology and learning how to communicate biblical principles effectively.

The main purpose in these real-world experiences is that you go with a learner's heart. If you make your purpose clear to your mentors from the outset, it will be far more effective in making it a good learning experience.

MARY Is it while you're working on your degree that you're doing this real-world stuff, or after you have your degree? When does this happen?

BRAD You could do it simultaneously. You could do the real-world stuff beforehand or afterwards. Everybody is unique.

MARY That's a politician's answer. If someone wants to do their degree in six months, I'm willing to bet they won't be spending a ton of time running around shadowing businessmen, etc., while they're trying to spend all that time on their courses. It seems to be either/or. You can either crash through your courses at the fastest speed possible or you can be trying to have rich real-world experiences. I don't see them as being simultaneous.

BRAD Here's how it could be simultaneous. Let's say you only have a couple hours a day to do your coursework. You have a full load, so you're using these accelerated learning techniques to do it quickly. During the daytime, you're participating in internship opportunities at a more leisurely pace.

The idea of acceleration is not that you have to complete your degree in six months. The idea is that you increase your learning effectiveness so the time you need to spend studying is much less.

MARY Brad, tell us about yourself and how you go into this.

BRAD I am the oldest of eight children, ages 5 to 24, and have been homeschooled from the very beginning. My mother got into homeschooling in the late 70's when hardly anyone had heard of it. She read some books (The Way Home by Mary Pride and Better Late Than Early by Dr. Raymond Moore) that really influenced her. So she and my dad decided we needed to give homeschool a try. They fell in love with it, so we went all the way through high school.

MARY What curriculum did you use?

BRAD Primarily the Advanced Training Institute curriculum. She started out with a collection of Writing Road to Reading and other materials, then transitioned into ATI when I was 11 years old. We also have a family orchestra, where we all play different instruments, and that's fun.

I began internships and volunteering for Christian ministries at the age of 16. I was still homeschooling at this point. I spent time on the mission field and did a lot of travel in the U.S. with my family, playing our music. At the age of 17, I spent three months working with a builder and helped build a house from the ground up. The focus of this experience was learning how a house is built. My parents encouraged me to get a broad foundation of practical experiences.

I spent time working with my dad in his company. For about five years, from the age of 17 to 23, I was really involved in our family business, doing sales. Gold and silver jewelry; we'd do fundraisers for businesses and hospitals from coast to coast. That was part of my education.

At the age of 18, I did an internship with my state representative for a couple of months. Then I interned with a number of Christian businessmen, shadowing them in their businesses and watching what they did.

MARY How many credits did this real-life experience end up earning you?

BRAD I really only did one course where I got credit for Life Experience. It was easier for me to take exams than to prove I'd learned it through real life. I certainly could have done that, but it wasn't the most time-efficient way to do that.

At the age of 19, I went to the Philippines for four months, to a Christian ministry that works with the urban poor in Manila. I had taken a couple of smaller trips, to Taiwan and Philippines for a few weeks first. I worked with a Christian consulting company on how to train companies in using character training in the workplace. Then I went to China at the age of 21 for six months.

I never anticipated needing to earn a college degree. I thought I would just get the education I needed through internships and apprenticeship. As I told you, I pursued a lot of hands-on learning experiences and independent study, but I wasn't getting college credit for this. I wanted to start my own business someday, and thought a college degree would be irrelevant.

However, when I was in China teaching English to Chinese students and studying the language and culture, which I got into through a Chinese friend in Hong Kong, who I met through email, then I realized that the Lord was calling me to long-term service on the mission field and that yes, I would be using my skills as a means of ministering. In order to do that effectively and build these relationships it would be important to have a college degree as a credential that would be universally understood and accepted. The culture of the Chinese people is a lot like our own in that they emphasize education. In fact, they emphasize it even more than us in the US. They look at Bill Gates, who dropped out of Harvard to start Microsoft, and consider him a failure. Degrees, schools, education, that's everything. In order not to spend the first five minutes of every conversation with Chinese people explaining why I wasn't "properly educated," I'd go through the process of earning a degree.

When I came back, I started looking for opportunities to earn a degree. I knew I didn't want to spend four years on campus, and I certainly didn't have $100,000 to do this, so I began to research alternative methods.

I read the testimonies of several people who'd actually earned degrees through distance learning. I contacted a couple of schools that specialize in distance learning, and at that point realized this would be a great opportunity for me. Shortly thereafter I enrolled in Thomas Edison State College and started earning credits. After less than six months of taking exams, independent study, online courses, and portfolio assessment, and spending less than $5,000, I graduated with my fully accredited bachelor's degree in International Management..

At that point, I wondered, "Why didn't anyone tell me about this wonderful opportunity? I wish I'd known this when I was 15 years old!"

MARY Where did you come across all the material about accelerated learning which you used to complete your degree and which you included in your book?

BRAD That was before I went to China. My purpose was to learn the Chinese language and culture, so some friends directed me to these accelerated learning materials, which I used to master the Chinese language in six months.

After I got my degree, I began working on writing a book. I had five interns helping me. Somebody donated a desk and computers and office equipment and phones . . . . even an office and a car! The Lord really provided. We incorporated Global Leadership Institute as a 501 (c) (3) organization, and it published the book under its division Global Learning Strategies.

Now already hundreds of people have heard about this method, and I've been contacted by a lot of homeschool groups to do seminars and workshops. I now have a weekday two-hour seminar, and an all-day Saturday seminar for those who have more time, I criss-cross the country doing these seminars and also speaking at a lot of major homeschool conventions. This has all come about since June of 2001.

My future plans are to develop a service for students who are interested in pursuing internships and life experiences from a Christian perspective that will help them connect with businesses and ministries that can provide these internships and experiences. I also would like to work with Christian ministries and universities, developing college-level distance learning programs.

MARY Now, the biggie: why should anyone bother to learn these accelerated methods and distance learning options? Don't most people just pick a college and go there?

BRAD There are so many traps in the traditional college scene today, and I have heard so many testimonies from those who have been caught in them! Financial indebtedness, having to confront the hostile worldview of professors who are diametrically opposed to what's been taught in the home, the waste of time wading through classes where the teacher reads from the textbook, peer pressure to do drugs and other unsavory activities. Mostly it's a waste in many cases of up to six years of your life (since that's how long the average college degree now takes to complete). And as far as all the wonderful college opportunities, in real life most campus-based students don't avail themselves of the hand-on real-life opportunities available, such as junior year abroad or internships, both of which can be pursued at far less cost through accelerated distance learning.

I'm not saying campus-based education is useless. For those pursuing a very technical degree, such as nursing or civil engineering, campus-based education is still a must. But even these students can accelerate a portion of their studies through accelerated distance learning techniques.

Accelerated distance learning truly is for everybody. Even those bound for a traditional college experience should investigate these techniques, as they can prevent your "four-year" degree turning into a six-year ordeal, and can put money back in your pocket and time back in your schedule, so you can concentrate on making the most of your college experience.

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