In this post, Brendan Owers, a Learning Technologist at The University of Edinburgh’s Usher Institute, offers insight into his experience as a part-time online Masters student…
Earlier this year, I was invited to share my experience as a distance online student with the next cohort studying on the MSc programme, Blended and Online Learning, that I have just finished (whoa – never did I expect myself to be writing that sort of statement). I started jotting down notes but thought ‘hey, let’s make it into a post that I can share after, maybe others will find it useful’. It would be good for me to reflect on the past four years too. I’ve listed a few reflections at the bottom of the post, which may serve as useful tips for future students.
What were my motivations?
In short, in early 2015 I was looking for formal education opportunities. I had been a Learning Technologist for almost six years in a number of roles and my previous education was in Multimedia Computing (focussing on Web Development). A colleague pointed me in the direction of a programme that seemed to fit. I took an instant shine to it based on the course overview and module titles; there were topics that not only sounded interesting but were relevant at the time (and still are today) and were areas that I was keen to explore. I enrolled and got accepted; yay!
The first interaction on the programme was attending a welcome webinar. I remember watching the number of participants joining rise, which increased my nerves and lowered my confidence. As folk introduced themselves, in the back of my head all I was thinking was ‘don’t balls it up, you’ll get caught out’. I was sat listening to everyone introduce themselves and talk through their experiences and motivations, thinking to myself ‘how did I get accepted on this programme?’ I later found out that that feeling is actually a thing. For many studying online, it is a new experience and the programme team were great at fostering community within the cohort. If you’re feeling anxious or lack confidence, that’s a normal feeling and others are probably feeling similar. The best way to overcome (or ease) the feeling for me was to talk to others (kudos to my badass mentor at work at the time, you know who you are!).
Once I got through the first few weeks, those feelings soon morphed into excitement; being able to get started with something new, looking for opportunities in my own work that I could align to the areas I was exploring.
I won’t go into every detail here but this is just to say it was great to collaborate with such a diverse group of students throughout the programme. The main engagement came through the discussion boards and this is where the different experiences, backgrounds and perceptions from others studying made for an enjoyable learning environment. This was something I don’t think I appreciated at the time, but reflecting back on this makes me realise it was really valuable.
A hurdle I found difficult to get over was time management. Like most, studying in this environment will be another commitment to an already busy schedule; family, work etc. Once I found a routine that worked for me I was able to get into a rhythm and not feel rushed or that I was falling behind. My routine was to stay late in the office a couple of nights a week; this time was usually scheduled to work on assignments or engage in the discussions. I was able to fit literature reading into my calendar throughout the week and on the weekends, accompanied by alcohol (we have two children under four, so making it past their bedtimes is a celebration in itself).
Assessments and deadlines
With regards to assessments, the programme is designed to allow you to apply your learning directly to your practice, so finding projects that will benefit your own work is encouraged and will make things a lot smoother. In the first year, a lot of my assessment submissions were real-life practices that are still in use today. I struggled with this in the second and third years as I moved into a role that wasn’t directly related to learning-technology, which made finding links more difficult.
If you stay up to date and regularly engage with the course materials, these won’t be an issue. Obviously things that are out of our control come up. If falling behind is a likely outcome, it is important to get in touch with the team as early as possible, as they’ll be able to help.
What I learnt about myself…
In the webinar, my supervisor asked me what I have learnt about myself. I hadn’t really thought about that much, I had always shared the theoretical and practical experiences I had learnt and applied. For a start, I would like to think I am better organised (my wife will be chuckling at this point if she ever stumbles across this). Time management was a tough one to crack, especially as most will likely have other commitments outside of studying and it’s all a balancing act (which I think was the name one of the groups I was in during first year!)
A lot of the critical skills picked up during the research methods module, and more so in the dissertation, are skills I didn’t realise I apply to my work most of the time. Being open to hearing different sides, finding faults in interpretations and arguments, and supporting my own arguments with evidence is something that I didn’t really know much of (if anything) before the programme.
Most challenging part?
The research methods module. I was out of my comfort zone on this one, but in reality being out of your comfort zone provides the greater reward. It really helped better prepare me for the dissertation the following semester.
Short useful notes/tips
- Ask questions, don’t stay quiet. Others are probably thinking the same – don’t be afraid.
- Set aside study time in the calendar – for me it was staying late after work at least once a week (I had a quite a good view too to help distract me).
- Find a reference manager that you like early on.
- Printing out literature and reading it at ‘snack time’! – TM Julia Fotheringham!
- Engage with online discussions. Follow/subscribe to the ones you’re engaging in; daily roundup email notifications were great.
- Make the most of the resources available to you; both in course and as a student at the institution.
- Chat regularly with other students. This was really useful for me towards the end of my final year; I wish I had done it earlier.
- Buy this book: Getting Critical: Pocket study skills (not affiliated!).
- And lastly, enjoy the experience.
Williams, K. (2009). Getting Critical: Pocket study skills. Macmillan Education UK.