It’s almost been a full week since the beginning of term and everywhere I look on social media, students far and wide are settling back into, or starting their studies at their respective institutions. Whilst there are so many stories about exciting and new experiences, ranging from the seriously academic to the outwardly crazy, there’s also a lot of apprehensive and overwhelmed individuals who’ve taken to social media to ask advice and look for support. One particular thread that I noticed whilst scrolling through my Twitter feed was related to the Open University. This individual asked for tips on how to feel less isolated while studying and being an OU student myself I felt that I could offer some useful and honest advice, hence the purpose of what you are currently reading. So what follows is my advice on how to keep yourself motivated and connected to other students whilst studying with the Open University or any other Distance Learning provider.
Distance learning equates to lonely learning? On the contrary, I have found that throughout my nine years of study with the Open University not once have I ever felt in anyway isolated or alone. The beauty of the OU is that it gives people an opportunity to fulfil their dreams and ambitions when perhaps the time wasn’t right at an earlier stage of their lives. It offers the unique option to study for a qualification whilst balancing a busy work schedule, family and many other life commitments. But despite this ‘balancing act’ the OU experience need not be a lonely one. Although the OU is at heart a distance learning institution, in this modern age we live in its not really that different to what many refer to as a ‘brick’ university (that is an institution with a campus which students attend). Look at it this way – in a so-called ‘brick’ university students attend lectures, tutorials, seminars (call them what you will), they interact with like minded peers, they have direct engagement with their tutors etc, they submit assignments and sometimes sit exams. At the Open University students attend tutorials, they interact with like minded peers, they have direct engagement with their tutors etc, they submit assignments and sometimes sit exams. The only difference with the Open University is that in most instances this student engagement is facilitated by electronic platforms which include online meetings and email communications (to name a few). Ok, granted, to many people this is very different to the face to face engagement of ‘brick’ institutions but there’s no real reason this should be detrimental to a student’s experience or wellbeing. Let me explain by using some examples of the way the Open University interacts with its students.
Forums are fundamental to your learning experience in my opinion. Most Open University modules have this type of online based facility and for me personally they function as an online digital campus where students and tutors can meet and engage with each other, just like ‘brick’ universities! In my earlier modules my experiences with the module forums were hit and miss but this was only because I did not see them for what they were and embrace them. In the past few years I have gained more confidence and developed more rounded and focused ideas about my particular area of study purely by actively engaging with other students online. I’ve taken the time to understand the nature of the forums, I post regularly on various topics and I use them as a way to make my learning active. Some forums have particular functions, perhaps for assessment purposes whilst others can be places for general chit chat. Either way, forums provide a vital point of connection with other students in the same boat. Over the years my interaction through the OU forums have made me part of a learning community and I’ve gained some friends simply through logging on and getting involved. There’s nothing to be scared about when using the forums. No question or comment is ever stupid and when you see those individuals who seem to have lots to say, don’t let this put you off! Everyone has their own ideas and at the same time everyone has gaps in their knowledge and understanding; by posting in the forums you might just find that you plug that gap with new and interesting material which results from the participation between members of the group as a whole. At first it might be daunting, but take my advice and don’t overthink it! Hit the ground running, jump in with both feet and post when you have something to contribute, it’s a great feeling when you are part of an online community.
So, what else is there? Well the online tutorials using adobe connect are great in my opinion! Ok there’s always that one time when the software goes a little haywire and you get unexpectedly kicked out of the group or sometimes you can’t even get in! But think about the realities of attending a face to face tutorial? What if you get stuck in traffic on the way, what if you can’t find the venue and then if you do, you get lost in the maze of corridors? These physical barriers are no different to the occasional electronic glitches that affect us all from time to time and more often than not the system runs smoothly, plus when you get into your online tutorial group the experience is just as good as any face to face event. The long and the short of it is that there’s nothing you can’t do in an online tutorial that you can do in a face to face one. In my experience the online tutorials are often better attended than the face to face ones and because of this you get to meet more students who are studying the same module. They offer a great opportunity to interact with others which in my view really takes the ‘distance’ out of distance learning.
Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snap Chat etc, etc, etc. Love it or loathe it social media is here to stay so why not take advantage of it. Now I’m not suggesting that every OU student, or student of any institution for that matter should use social media, particularly if you aren’t comfortable with such online interactions, but for those who are then it’s a fabulous and free way of building up confidence, increasing your online presence and meeting new people. Social media has the potential to connect you to so many more people that face to face interactions at a university campus ever could and through this medium you’ll have almost unlimited access to a wealth of knowledge, support and advice. Of course it’s important not to get too carried away with social media and always read posts critically, but if used correctly it’s an invaluable tool to keep you motivated and feel less isolated.
What you’ve read above are just a few examples of how the Open University engages with it’s student body and I can assure you that if you are feeling in any way isolated, then there really is no need to feel this way because there’s an entire community of like-minded people out there ready and waiting to bring you into the OU fold! Don’t suffer in silence because you are not alone. Remember that you can speak to Student Support for advice and if you are having trouble with any IT related issues then the OU IT Helpdesk is always available.
So, my final words, one OU student to another, get involved! venture into the forums, attend that tutorial, get to know your fellow students, arrange meet up’s, but most of all enjoy every moment of your OU journey.
P.s – If you don’t already then you can follow me on Twitter @classicalfix