A few years ago when I decided to start over and embark on a retraining exercise in the form of a degree course, the Open University was a natural choice for me. I had studied with them before, making the tangle of course related bureaucracy just a little less difficult to wind through, and they were cheaper by far than the local ‘brick’, sit in style, attend every day, sort of university with real people and classes. I could learn in a flexible way, to suit my own lifestyle, which was handy given that I suffered a lot with migraines and headaches back then, and have a big Labrador that needs a good walk in the afternoons.
At first this all worked swimmingly, and the good old OU became an anchor for me in times of distress, like caring for my mother long distance for two years while studying the A275 and A330. That final year when my best buddy, Coco the dog was ill, and I couldn’t think through the fog of veterinary related melancholy that beset our little house, the OU got me though, and I cried all day for my graduation, then promptly started the MA.
For years now, if anyone has shown even the remotest spark of interest in university style study, then I immediately climb on my OU soapbox, extolling the virtues of what has become such a large part of my life. Truthfully, I always imagined myself to be an OU lifer, and my only goal was to one day help other students realise their OU potential too, just like me. Because at the Open University ‘where you come from, does not determine where you go’, and I absolutely believe that.
As a kid dragged up by a teenage mother with mental health problems in a run-down northern town, try as I might, the usual academic ritual of A Levels and University, just seemed beyond my grasp. I had to find a job to pay my rent for a start, so I was twenty six before I was able to afford the time or money to start studying in earnest, and I latched onto the Open University after seeing a few online adverts. Working long hours to make a career, meant that I never had the time to finish that first degree, but those few modules in computing and mathematics represent the hopes and dreams of my younger self, and the catalyst for my eventual resignation from a job where I felt unfulfilled and dissatisfied, in order to pursue this dream of education.
I used to think that I was the only one, but the graduation ceremony put me straight on a few things. So many people had worked for years and through all manner of adversities to achieve their qualifications, and it was humbling to be in the presence of so much perseverance and determination. That day, I came away believing in myself, believing in my student colleagues, and believing in the power of education to shape and to change lives.
This year though, the Open University has taken a hit in terms of student satisfaction ratings, and I can understand why. Truthfully, I don’t feel as satisfied on my course as I did a year ago, or two years ago. Some major changes have probably contributed to this overall dysphoria. First of all, all tutorials are now online via conferencing software that appears to have intermittent faults, resulting in some people experiencing technical difficulties at least some of the time, or even postponed tutorials. In addition, the module material is slowly being moved so that it is online, instead of being printed in those wonderful OU text books, which are so familiar to us old-timers.
In terms of the tutorials, I still remember when we had the opportunity to attend Saturday morning classes at the local university. This was a wonderful break in the usual OU routine, with the obvious benefit of allowing us to spend time with other students!! Sometimes OU life can seem very isolating, and I’m not convinced that the online forums, etc., are anywhere near as good at facilitating contacts and increasing our OU experience, as face to face tutorials. On the other hand though, it probably saves money, which helps the student in the long term.
As for studying module material online, I really don’t like this. I used to love the experience of my OU module books arriving, and opening the box to set out the year’s work. It meant that I could work anywhere, and at any time, which I think is part of the incentive of the online material, but in reality, laptops require power and internet, and are not always convenient to lug around. Maybe I’m a traditionalist, but give me a text book any day. It’s not so easy to hunt down references in the module material, and the downloaded versions are not always complete. For headache sufferers like myself, this feels like a huge mistake, and maybe one of the reasons why I’m starting to think of life outside the OU.
I always considered myself an OU lifer, but recently I’ve wondered about the benefits of a ‘brick’ university: the support, the careers advice, other people! At times it’s easy to feel like a faceless number in the OU system, and I think it can be difficult both to access and use their student support services. After completing my qualification last year, I had a very depressing and deflating interview with the OU careers advice team, which left me feeling like my qualification was worthless both within academia and outside of it. I guess that I’m just not feeling the love right now, but I know that I want to, so this OU lifer is hoping for a brighter 2018.