Hello all, it's been a while. I'm hoping to get some time for some travel and book reviews soon. Things have been taking off with my angel readings and baby keeps me on my toes! Hope you're all well.
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A thoroughly modern university: a student's eye view
flexible, study from home, high quality materials and tuition
less contact with tutors, need to be computer literate
Sporting FacilitiesVery limited
Shops & BanksGood
Cost of LivingVery cheap
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Most people in the UK have heard of The Open University, often from the high-quality documentaries produced in partnership with the BBC. However, how many people in the UK seriously consider it as a choice when deciding on the ideal place to study? I think they should: read on to find out why.
The Open University is as much a university as any in the UK. It consistently rates highly in student surveys and is very much a pioneer in the use of Virtual Learning Environments and e-learning. Its degrees are, indeed, “real” degrees, and it offers a wide range of qualifications from undergraduate certificates to PhDs. It offers as wide a range of academic subjects as you’d find in any other Higher Education institution: Arts and Humanities, Business and Management, Childhood and Youth Studies, Computing and ICT, Engineering and Technology, Health and Social Care, Languages, Law, Mathematics and Statistics, Psychology, Science and Social Sciences.
COULD THE OU WORK FOR YOU?
The main difference between The Open University and other UK universities is that you study part-time via distance learning, using text books, course websites and online resources, with optional tutorials and, for some courses, day or residential schools. You can decide yourself when to fit in OU work around other commitments. Your presence is not required in lectures and seminars each week, in fact there is no campus as such – The Open University operates from administrative centres around the UK. The other difference is the “open” aspect – for most courses, there are no entry requirements, though staff recommend that you start at Level 1 if you have never studied at Higher Education level before.
This provides access to Higher Education which some people would otherwise not have. There are many reasons why the OU might be for you. It could be that you work and want to keep working during your studies, so attending a bricks-and-mortar university full-time is impossible. It could be that you’re staying home to look after a family and want to study at the same time. It could be that you have a disability which makes getting around difficult so that home study is your ideal way. It could be that you never got round to doing A-levels or didn’t get the results you wanted. For younger students, it could be that you want to gain work experience during your degree study, or that you don’t want to go away from home to study.
Or, as in my case, it could be that you already have a degree and have had the “full student experience” of parties and living away from home, and simply wish to gain an extra qualification without all the other trappings of student life. Having already got an English degree and a PGCE under my belt, I started my OU study in 2009, during a career break from teaching; I was working in customer service and had a young child, and wanted to have a go studying the subject I loved teaching the most – Music – to improve my CV should I wish to return.
WHAT EVERY WOULD-BE OU STUDENT NEEDS TO KNOW
When you first sign up to an OU course, you should be aware that your course fees include tuition, the bulk of course materials, access to student forums, technical help and academic support. However some courses – and this is probably something I’ve noticed being an Arts student, but it may apply to other faculties, too – do require you to buy a number of set books in addition to the course materials. For my first course I had to buy four score books and two musical theory books, as well as manuscript paper. For my third course I have had to buy a reader, two quite pricey CD sets (which we then only studied snippets of, which was quite annoying) and a DVD. The majority of courses require you to have a computer and internet access as so much is delivered online and you’re expected to submit assignments online. If you are less confident with computer skills, therefore, you may wish to take a course locally before starting an OU course. Also be aware that if your course has a residential school, as my first one did, your accommodation and food is included in the price, but you pay for your own travel to and from the venue. The course fees are lower than most UK universities, and OU staff can advise you about available loans and grants to help manage the cost of study.
If you like being autonomous and getting on with something independently without too much interference, you are likely to get on with OU study. You do need to be self-motivated and strict about making sure you put aside enough time to study. My current Level 3 course demands at least 10 hours of study a week, and I have set aside 2-3 whole days to work on each assignment. If you lack self-discipline and organisation skills, think long and hard before committing to the OU! You’re not alone, however. Support staff around the UK can help with most problems, and you will receive your local team’s number with your first batch of course materials.
I am also very happy with the standard of tuition and dedication of the tutors I have had. On my first course, my tutorial sessions were lively and interesting with plenty of practice of skills learned on the course, and my tutor responded to emails or missed phone calls within 48 hours every time. On my current course, I couldn’t be happier with my tutor. He is knowledgeable and gives excellent constructive criticism and advice, and is very sympathetic to my circumstances (I have an autistic little boy and life is not always smooth sailing) in terms of granting extensions when needed. As for the tutors I met on residential school, they were accomplished and inspirational musicians who were also able to communicate good practical advice for lowly students! I realise that there is probably some variation between tutors, but my experience has been that the general calibre is very high.
Once you are registered for an OU course, you will have a Student Homepage which displays when you sign in to the OU website. This contains details of qualifications you’re working towards and courses you’re currently signed up for. When a module “opens” (usually about a week before its official start date), a module calendar will appear on your homepage, along with links to a course-specific forum and a tutor group forum, online activities, research resources, and the online TMA (tutor-marked assignment) service.
If you want to chat with other students, the forums are very useful, and tutors sometimes use them to provide e-tutorials, so it is advisable to check in at least once a month to make sure you’re not missing useful teaching. I find them easy to use – I am very internet-savvy, but then for those who are not there is a technical help number you can ring if you need a little help to get started. The research resources are extensive, but can be tricky to use. For my current module, there are a number of different resources and I’ve found it challenging getting to know what to use to locate different items. However there are tutorial activities available which will appear on your module calendar if relevant to your course, and this is more of an issue at Level 3 – I didn’t need to use any such resources on my Level 2 module. The online TMA service works very smoothly and there are full instructions provided on using it in the OU Assessment Handbook – I found that after the first time or two I didn’t need them. It certainly saves waiting for assignments to come back in the post, which I had to do on my first course where most exercises involved writing music by hand! Another useful feature is the assessment calculator, where you can enter your current and estimated TMA scores to get an indication of your course result. You also have an OU email account, however I have not used this – it is not obvious how to access the mails, and your OU email address is a string of letters and numbers which is not easy to remember or give to people, not to mention that it’s nowhere near as versatile and easy to use as something like Hotmail! Other than that my only grumble about the Student Homepage would be that it’s a little bit too full of information, and it can be tricky to lay your hands on just what you want – and that’s coming from a computer-literate person, so if the computing side is new to you, you may find yourself having to spend some of your precious study time working it all out.
I must emphasise that OU study is not an easy option – it is every bit as challenging and more as studying with a regular university. Aside from having to manage your time yourself, the amount of reading material in the text books is significant. It replaces the lectures and seminars you would attend at regular university, and overcompensates somewhat! Material within one course can be written by various authors who are experts in their own particular topic, and I have found, particularly on the first course I did, that I really enjoy the writing style of some, and find others copious, repetitive and dull. However the overall content of my courses has been stimulating and fascinating. Text books include activities for you to do, sometimes directing you online for a particular task. With my second course, a short Archaeology course, in particular, I found that you were constantly jumping from text book to reader to course DVD-Rom to course website, which was very time-consuming. I enjoyed the course, but I had to modify my study strategy to do all the reading for one chapter THEN all the computer work, to make it manageable for me. You should also be aware that assessment is frequent – on my first course, nine assignments and an exam in nine months – and demanding. It is not possible for most subjects to get a degree without sitting an exam, and you do need to keep on top of assignment deadlines and not let things slide too far. You will work hard as an OU student, but the rewards for me have made it worthwhile. I learned more about Music – and retained it better, as I have found when drawing on my knowledge and understanding since – in my first 60-credit (equivalent to half a year at university) Level 2 course with the OU, than I learned about literature in my entire third year of my English degree.
A few pitfalls to mention: I have known OU students who have signed up for a Level 2 course despite not having studied at Higher Education before, and from what I’ve seen, it doesn’t work out. The Level 1 courses offer more study skills teaching and study support, and besides the Level 1 foundation courses are now becoming a compulsory part of most qualifications. Do be aware that for vocational subjects like Sport and Fitness, Nursing, Social Work and Childhood and Youth Studies, there are work-based entry requirements and you need to be working in the relevant sector before you can study it with the OU. Finally, I would also recommend that you really think about what to study. Given the time, energy and brainpower required, and the fact that most OU students already work or look after a family and do their study in their spare time, I would say it’s absolutely essential to study something you enjoy. I haven’t fallen foul of this as such as Music is my biggest passion and I’m nothing but glad that I chose to study it, but I did do a short Archaeology course just for personal interest which straddled the Science and History faculties. Obviously, as an Arts and Humanities person, I had no problems with the History content, but the Science content gave me an absolute headache and sometimes it was like wading through treacle. And that was at Level 1! Be warned!
IT COULD CHANGE YOUR LIFE…
Finally, what has being an OU student done for me? I can’t begin to tell you how much confidence it has given me, not only in my musical abilities but in myself in general. When I attended the summer school on my first course, I saw myself, and others saw me, as a musician for the very first time. This gave me a huge lift in self-esteem at a time when both my career prospects and love-life had taken a nose-dive. It inspired me to join a community choir and I went on to shine there. It has also allowed me to explore subjects – Music and Archaeology – which I left behind for English the first time around – a second bite of the cherry, so to speak. It’s not so much the Music Diploma I will (hopefully) be able to put on my CV come December, but the high-level organisational skills and personal attributes I’ll also be able to list: I don’t think I’ve ever been able to describe myself as a “self-starter” before! For the first time, too, I have been a high-flying student, getting firsts for a number of assignments and able to contribute genuinely unique ideas. It’s impossible to tell whether that’s because I picked the wrong subject first time around and I have more flair for Music than English, or whether it’s because of the particular style of teaching and learning at the OU, or a little bit of both. But whatever the reason, studying with the OU has really opened my eyes to what I can achieve.
I’m only leaving the OU at the end of my Music Diploma because I have an opportunity now to study an MA in Education with Edge Hill University following their Return to Teaching course, which makes more financial sense than doing the OU’s MA in Music, Education or English (besides which, how could I ever choose?). But don’t discount me from returning to study something else in the future or even tutoring for the OU! Distance learning isn’t ever going to be for everybody, and you do need to be computer-aware before studying, but for me, The Open University has been a life-changer. I do hope reading about my experiences helps you decide whether it could be for you, too.
For further information do visit the highly informative website at: http://www.open.ac.uk
NB - This IS a positive review. On the specific criteria, the accommodation and nightlife are not relevant to the OU so I could not rate them. The OU does offer a Student's Association and some virtual societies/clubs but obviously I have had to rate this as limited, because the OU is not really about social life!
I have noted "shops and banks" as good because the OU does have an online webshop and a linked bookseller, Eddington Hook. I have also rated the cost of living as "very cheap" for the reason that you can continue working alongside OU study and simply live at home.