Saturday, 27 September 2008

On Being An Open University Student

I started studying with the OU as a means of filling the empty hours in my life after my husband died.  I still worked full-time, but I found it difficult to cope with the lonely evenings and weekends, and after two of the most important people in my life at that time spoke to me within days of each other about finding something to fill some of the time, I started to think about what I might do.  Neither of them suggested anything, so the decision had to be mine, and after a few months I came to the conclusion that the thing that most fitted the bill for me was to find a course with the Open University.  At that time, I had no real thoughts of working towards a degree, that came later.  I sent off for a prospectus read it from cover to cover many times, and eventually settled for S103, the Science Foundation Course.  When I announced that I had decided to study with the OU, both of the people who had suggested I find something to fill in the hours were shocked and both commented that this was not what they had in mind.

That first year of study was difficult.  It was a long time since I had left school and getting into a routine of sitting down to a couple of hours study each night after work was not easy, but after a couple of months it became easier.  Some parts of the multi-disciplinary course I loved, but some parts I found almost impossible to understand.  I had studied physics and chemistry at GCE O-level, but these areas were almost beyond me at undergraduate level.  It wasn't only the fact that they were much harder than I remembered at school, the subjects themselves had moved on significantly in the intervening 30 years.  However, the biology, oceanography, geology and cosmology were easier to digest.  

I survived the tutor-marked assignments (TMA) quite easily, but I knew that the exam was going to be a different thing altogether.  Trying to revise for an exam when you suffer from depression and extreme anxiety is not easy.  However, I managed to answer as many questions as I could in the first part of the paper and the requisite number in the second part and I just had to hope that it was enough to get me a pass.  At that time practically all OU courses started in January/February, and had their exams during a two week period in October; marking all the exam papers must be a logistical nightmare.  The problem with an exam in October is that it means the results are released just before Christmas, so the wrong result can really put a damper on things.

As luck would have it (okay I worked pretty hard too) I managed to pass all the courses that I took and at the end of six years I had earned myself a BSc (Hons) degree.  It wasn't a brilliant degree, but it was a degree nonetheless.  However, by this time I found that studying had become a way of life, in fact, it had become more than this, it was an addiction.

Since then I have undertaken some study at postgraduate level, completed a short course, the result of which I will get just before Christmas, and I have just started the OUs new Arts/Humanities Foundation Course.  Fortunately this course does not have an exam, so that is one less thing to worry about; then it's one more course and I will have earned another degree.

One of the best things about the OU is the quality of the course material they provide.  Some courses require you to buy a few set books, but in the main all the material you require will be provided by the OU.  In addition you will have access to a tutor who will provide guidance and tuition for certain parts of the course at periodical tutorials.  The OU is broken down into regions and each region will have a number of facilities that they use for tutorials.  Your tutor will also mark your TMAs and provide you with feedback for all the work that you submit.  When your course materials arrive it's like having Christmas several times a year.  Few courses have all the materials delievered in one go, for example the course that I am doing at present has four mailings spread throughout the year.  Each mailing date is approximately one month before the material is needed, so it is unusual to not have it ready when you need it.

As the years have progressed, the OU has embraced more computer technology for its coursework and these days it is possible to complete a course without ever having to write any notes (there is now a computer application provided to do that for you), go to a library to look for reference material (the OU has a fantastic online library that is there for all students to use 24 hours a day, 7 days a week), there are course forums, many course websites have all the course material in pdf format, so that you can access your books wherever you can access a computer, and many courses have an electronic TMA (eTMA) system for submission of TMAs and even for end of course assessments (ECA) in some cases.  This is a marvellous development because it means that assignments are no longer held to ransom by this coutry's sometimes appalling mail service.  One other benefit of everything being online is that you get access to your results a few days quicker too as you no longer have to wait for that letter from Milton Keynes that has to fight with the rest of the Christmas mail, although many long courses no longer start in January with an October finish, so this means that results come out at other times too.

Well that's the serious side of being an OU student, but there can be a lighter side too.  Unfortunately, it is usually because of other people's failure to use a little commonsense that leads to these funny occurrences.  Some of the funniest things can be found on the various forums that each student has access to, although the practice forums, and the forums that are set up for each course, which only students for that course have access to can be the best.  Most OU students could be classed as mature students, although the number of youngsters who chose this method of getting a university education is getting more each year.  Many see the benefit of taking a little longer to get their degree, but being able to work full-time while they do it.  And there is no doubt that many employers are willing to sponsor their staff while gaining qualifications from the OU.

So what sort of things happen?  Well, many new students commit the cardinal error of jumping into the course material without reading those all important bits of paper that also come with the mailing.  So the forums get littered with questions about "What is a dummy TMA?" (it's explained in the booklet about using the eTMA system); "I can't find out who my tutor is?" (it can be found on your course website, and you will receive an email giving his/her details sent to whatever is your preferred email address); and "Please help, I'm stuck on the first assignment" (this is before the student has read the course material that is required for the assignment, before the course has officially started, and also about five weeks before the first assignment is due).  But there can be lighter moments too, because on every course there will be some with a wicked sense of humour, so that you get things like "What are we going to do for Fresher's week then?" and amongst those on my course a Facebook group has been set up for those who are over 40 years of age, and yes I am a member of it.

So, you can see that there is a lot to being an OU student.  We may be spread all over the country, and we may never meet more than a handful of the other students on the course that we are studying, but there is a camaraderie that is unique to this very special institution.  And it is quite amazing how many people with mental illness study with the OU because it helps them to survive through the bad periods.


Lemon said...

Thanks for reminding me that I need to choose my next course! Yay - I'm so excited!

I wonder if the people who started it ever thought the OU would ever be quite as big as it is? It is definitely an amazing institution.

There and Back said...

^^^ Agreed; the OU is fab!