The Perils of an Online Higher Education Program – Day 131

Wednesday 18:38, Old Bethnal Green Road, London

I’m now almost half way through year 1 of the Open University MBA program. As with everything now a days, it has flown passed. One blink, and it’s Friday already. Two blinks, it’s April. For me this could be seen as a good thing, as it means the end of year 3 will hit me before I even know it and I can go back to waking up after sunrise as opposed to two hours before it. And I’m not taking about British Summer Time.

Going back to university and in particular, doing this MBA, has so far been a mixed (but very good) experience. I think I’ve totally underestimated how much of a commitment it really is, and I’ve now realised that I’m much more of a slow learner than I’d like to admit. During my previous two degrees I was a full-time student which meant I could dedicate myself wholeheartedly to studying and learning. This time around it couldn’t have been more different. I constantly have an internal battle with myself about whether I should do something and if so when. Every hour is crucial, whether it’s work, study, writing or socialising. Indeed, I’m quickly becoming the master of time efficiency, albeit I have to admit I cherish the moments when I ‘treat myself’ and do something complete non-sensual like playing the new version of Candy Crush Soda. Pop those bottles!

As you all know, the OU MBA is a part-time online course. Not only is the subject matter completely alien to me (having studied developmental biology previously), but the part-time nature and the online element is as foreign as well. Whilst I can get my head around the part-time nature of the course, and I think I’m doing ok with the subject matter, I’m still struggling with the whole online thing.

Here’s why:

I know it’s kinda obvious but it’s incredibly lonely to do an online course. There are no teachers, no real, physical fellow students, there’s no cafe you can go to and hang out and connect and network with peers. In other words, there’s no physical human interaction. Instead there’s a virtual equivalent of almost everything: e-mail, webinars, online activities, you name it. At the OU we have it all.

Or do we?

There are around 350 students in my year. We’re scattered all over the world but the great majority are based here in the UK and in Europe. For practical reasons, we’ve been subdivided into groups of around 15-20 students and have been assigned a tutor and a tutor group forum (TGF). The tutor is a part-time associate lecturer who has a full-time job, meaning the ‘contact hours’ are greatly reduced to zero. It basically consists of a few emails every other week, and of course the marking and providing feedback on our assignments. The quality of the tutors varies greatly and I’m lucky that mine is pretty good.

The TGF is an online forum designed to facilitate interaction with our tutor but also with other students. Sadly, this has been my greatest disappointment so far. Our tutor encourages us to share insights and knowledge here but there’s only ever a few individuals who contribute. I’ve made active contributions from day 1 really, but I’ve now gotten to the stage that I’m tired of starting discussions and only get a few other people posting. Mostly I get ignored.

As there’s no requirement to engage with any of the teaching material apart from the essays, I can only assume that people are either not interested in participating or simply don’t have time. This is where the OU could improve. A friend of mine used to lament whilst we were both students at Oxford that the bar set by her tutor was very high. Here, students were given a topic to read up on and all of them were asked to prepare a presentation for next week’s tutorial. However only one student was selected to present and they were only told who at the tutorial itself. While this method is definitely hard core it ensured that students get the maximum of their education and it’s not surprising and a bit of an understatement to say that Oxford graduates are a successful bunch of people.

Anyway, back to the OU’s TGF.

What’s interesting is that as a result to the lack of engagement and interaction and also for just gauging the interest, a fellow student set up a closed Facebook group a few months ago. Not surprisingly it pretty quickly filled up with a selection of individuals who were keen on creating a network that.. well, worked. Coincidentally it was the same individuals who were actively participating in the TGF.

This group has proven to be a life saver. Everyone is open to discussion and we all support each other, both academically and morally. I’ve learnt lots by chatting with other students and feel that this group has indeed replaced the need for physical interaction and the OU’s non-functioning TGF. I may never meet the 50 odd individuals knowns as ‘For anyone studying B716 with the OUBS from November 2014’, but they sure are making a difference in my life.

Candy Crush Soda

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