This post is from Ruth Tudor (@AuntyOof). She is a pastoral support tutor in an institution supporting students from further education through to higher education. All her higher education has been achieved through part-time distance learning, including her research degree on Care Experienced Students which she is currently writing her thesis for.
I left school with few exams under my belt and what I had, the grades weren’t great. I definitely wasn’t going to university, so off to work I went and picked up SVQ level qualifications along the way. Since then, I’ve barely set foot inside a classroom as a student, only as a teacher. Eventually I got bored with my dead end ‘career’ and started investigating the Open University. I wanted to work and learn at the same time. I had a mortgage and other financial outgoings, I couldn’t afford to study full-time. I also didn’t have the confidence to study full-time. I was in my mid-thirties I didn’t have the courage to walk into a classroom full of teenagers. I also lacked confidence in my academic abilities. I had left school with few qualifications I didn’t think I was clever enough to go to university. If I was going achieve a university education the OU was the only way I could do it.
Learning to deal with feedback at a distance
I was a different way of life for me, writing essays, learning to reference but I was lucky in that I picked the right subject for me and although it was all new to me, I enjoyed it. What I did have to adjust to was the tutor feedback which came back in written form. I had to learn to read and understand what my tutor was writing, I had to learn to accept that although I thought I had written a masterpiece I hadn’t and there were things I could have done better and there was always the knowledge that I could contact my tutor for additional support if needed.
Finding my secret weapon
I also discovered a talent for being organised I never knew I had and it turned out to be my secret weapon. I don’t think I could have survived if I hadn’t been able to get myself organised around my shifts, running a house (and then boyfriend, now husband) and fitting in the study. For my first year there were face to face tutorials – 90 minutes away so that was a Saturday in the big smoke every month but it was worth it to get the time with my tutor and guidance for the assessment. Some people find it hard not being physically guided in what to study, luckily, I settled into it.
This was my life all through my degree and then my Masters – on a whole different topic as I didn’t fancy the Masters in my field. Masters study was hard work. My path to my Masters wasn’t as smooth but I still managed to pass. By then more work was online, less face-to-face tutorials and I definitely found the jump from undergraduate study to postgraduate study harder. I had to learn to write differently but never had any problems with the reading and research side of things.
Developing a distance learning skillset
There are important skills to be learnt for part-time distance learning. Organisation is perhaps one of the most important. Life will get in the way: work, kids, caring responsibilities, your health so it’s important to set aside our study time every week. You also need to be prepared for good weeks and bad weeks. Some weeks can be hard and you will wonder why you are bothering and other weeks you will sail through. Then there is assessment (or feedback) anxiety and waiting for the results. We all feel it. No matter how long you have been studying you still want to know how good (or bad) you did. You need to be disciplined, motivated and determined because there is no-one to tell you to sit down and study, you are responsible for your learning. However, the skills I learnt at undergraduate and Masters level have helped me manage my research degree.
Doing the doctorate
After completing my Masters, I wondered if I should do an EdD? Why not, the pinnacle of my educational achievement. Back to the OU and here I am in my final year, writing my wee socks off. I would be lying if I said it hadn’t been hard work and lonely. I’ve had to work hard at building up my networks, particularly online and during a pandemic but isn’t that what Twitter is for? Friendly stalking of academics? Working and doing a research degree is brutal but it does let me consider my research alongside what I do for a living, practice what I preach even. I think the discipline I have built up doing my Undergraduate and MA has stood me in good stead for doctoral study but it still hasn’t been easy. I have my submission dates but other than that I am left, home alone, to work and study, during a pandemic. I have a WhatsApp group with my peers and it’s a lifesaver, I have a critical friend who promises me I can pass this – all people I have met during my online life at the OU.