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Deciding what to do with regards to careers and qualifications isn't an easy matter, less so with the whole 'economic crisis' jazz going on and the fight for jobs. After college a lot of my friends went to Uni and I felt pressured in to doing likewise. I opted instead to work for a few years, save money and then realised I still wanted to study. Not wanting the debt from living away, I stayed with my parents to undertake a degree with the Open University; it hasn't all been a positive experience, but I'm still glad I chose this as an alternative option that suited me and my circumstances better than a 'regular' uni experience.
... What Is The OU? ...
The Open University was born in 1969 and since then it has continued to expand and develop in to a huge alternative higher education hub that sets the trends and keeps up with modern technology in the quest for better 'distance learning'.
The OU describes themselves on their website as 'a world leader in modern distance learning, the pioneer of teaching and learning methods which enable people to achieve their career and life goals studying at times and in places to suit them'.
... Where & Who? ...
The OU attempts to aim for equality and diversity, offering most of their undergraduate courses without formal entry requirements, such as A-Level qualifications. I find this to be a really positive thing and provides another avenue for those who may have missed out on such education or grades.
To study at the OU, you can be in the UK or abroad because it's all done from the comfort of your own home. The hub of the OU is in Milton Keynes, but there are various ways for contacting the OU that are closer and more convenient. For example, there are regional centres and universities you can utilize for things such as tutorials and exams, details of which are sent to you closer to the time. They do try to ensure it's as close to you as possible, and with the popularity and expansiveness of the OU there should be something within reasonable distance.
There is also the option of transferring credits; I'm not entirely sure how this works but it allows the possibility of moving to the OU elsewhere if, for instance, you decide a bricks and mortar uni isn't for you.
... Bricks vs Distance...
There are a lot of positives and negatives for both options, so it really does depend on your circumstances, personal preferences and what you want to gain from it. In favour of the distance approach is : Lower fees if living at home (no Uni accommodation, which is a big bonus if you want cleaner study space!), organise your own time, save money on uni 'outings' and typical regular socialising, learn new skills and develop on current ones (such as time management, self-motivation). For me, the biggest thing was the money. I didn't want to gain a qualification only to gain a huge debt. Living at home meant I wasn't spending the same sort of money, and I was able to receive some financial help that I'm not sure I would have necessarily received otherwise. I also didn't really feel the need at the time to go to a 'real' uni. I wasn't in the stage of wanting to socialise lots, get drunk every other night, to feel like a student in the stereotypical sense. Basically, at the time I didn't think I'd miss these aspects.
The drawbacks are as numerous: Less support, less socialising if any at all, less opportunities to 'get involved' (such as uni events, helping with a uni magazine or whatever else), less feeling of being 'a student' etc. This is just to give you a basic idea, but they're the type of things you need to weigh up and it's not always an easy choice.
... What's On Offer ...
The Open University specialises in degrees, and they have a good range of undergraduate degrees in various subjects. Details of all courses, as well as ideas of career paths, is on the website.
I studied Psychology at undergraduate level to end up with a BSc Hons degree. I considered the OU in part because I knew they offered accredited and recognised degrees (such as by the BPS) so it counts as a 'good' and 'real' degree, for those who may wonder about this.
They did offer a good range of postgraduate degrees too, however this seems to have changed. Once the financial debates started to arise and pressure was placed on students and Universities, the OU had to cut some of their courses. This is something that really got to me because I was never made aware of this. Not until I wanted to look up the start date for a Postgraduate Occupational Psych course to enrol on that is. Many of these have been suspended until further notice, though if/when they will be reinstated is something they don't seem to know yet. The crux is, consider the OU for undergraduate but probably not postgraduate. It's a shame, even though I understand the financial 'crisis' is screwing a lot of things up, I would just have liked to have known this a little earlier or have been made aware this could happen; I'd planned my route and now I can't complete it, and I can't afford a postgraduate degree in a 'real' uni unless I want a bank loan, lots of debt from renting accommodation nearby etc. Alas, all good plans and all that!
The OU also has an 'Open Learn' facility which offers free courses. These aren't really qualifications as such, but they can give you a taster in to different topics and brush up your knowledge. I've started looking into or two HR-related free courses, and although I can't say I've 'achieved a qualification' at the end, it's stimulated my interest, given me an idea of what to expect, and improved my general knowledge within this area. It's also going to give me something to put on my CV anyway as a small note and is something to talk about in an interview when you lack a formal qualification or experience. Every little helps, right? ;)
... The Steps I Took ...
After deciding to start an OU degree, I was a little concerned that the process would be convoluted and difficult. Although some aspects were a little tricky to get my head around, signing up for courses once you know roughly what you're doing is fairly straightforward.
I knew I wanted to study Psychology and wanted it with Honours, so I worked out a study path. To get this qualification I'd need 360 points, but these needed to be taken from different 'levels'. The Psychology pages describe the types of courses offered and give you an idea of where to start, suggesting you ease yourself in with a taster or lower level at first. There are some compulsory courses you need to take for this qualification, and others which you can choose yourself from the relevant levels in order to make up the points. So, each course counts towards your qualification, and each course has a level and number of points attached to it, either being compulsory or optional. Once I figured out what was what I could build a path to this; I wanted to study full time and complete in 3 years, so I tried to put myself down for 3 courses each year and mix the higher and lower levels so I wasn't stuck with, for instance, 3 incredibly difficult and time consuming ones in my final year!
There's a time frame in which you can sign up for each course depending on its start date, and once you sign up you opt for your payment method. It's here where I requested more information because as I wasn't in work and was instead now a full time student, I was told I should be eligible for some support. You're given a booklet to fill in, which was tricky in parts because there's a lot of detail required that I had to find out. However, after completing this for each course it got a little easier, and it was worth it for getting a little financial help towards the costs. I was given a grant towards some costs and used my savings to cover the rest. Unfortunately, by the end of the three years all of my savings had gone and I was in debt to my parents having been turned down for a bank loan, so looking in to a student loan is definitely something I would advise! I didn't want to at the time, not liking the thought of debt in the slightest, but if it would have taken away the stress of the past year I would definitely have considered it. There's a lot of information you need to gather whilst choosing and signing up for courses, but the good thing is that there is help available for this, both on the website and through asking questions online/over the phone.
A few weeks before the start of the course you get through all the relevant confirmation letters regarding the course and finances, and then you get a nice big delivery in a box of all the books you need. Unfortunately, because I studied quite a few higher level courses that lasted the year's duration, these required a couple of deliveries. At the end of the three years I've still got all of my books and materials from the OU - they're taking up a LOT of space in the garage! So be prepared, but don't be overwhelmed.
... Financing ...
As I've said, you can apply for financial help with undergraduate courses. It depends on your circumstances (ie. If you're working, claiming benefits, what you have in savings, who you're living with etc). You get a pack to fill in and they'll let you know if you're entitled to receive a grant or support payment towards the cost of the course you're applying for. When I studied, it was a case of there being certain amounts allocated per year, though things may have changed with the 'financial crisis' and changes to Uni fees recently.
... Support ...
The OU boasts about it offering great support because, obviously, you don't get the same sort of atmosphere or real-life interaction as a bricks and mortar University. I wouldn't say I've been too impressed by the 'support' offered, which was a downside when struggling through courses.
For each course you are allocated a tutor, who you can contact usually through email and phone. There will be details of tutorials on your student home page, which range in frequency. Some of my courses had just one or two tutorials, others had them, for instance, every month or two. You should be allocated one nearest to you within your regional area. I only ever attended two tutorials, both of which were a 40 minute drive from where I was living at the time; it was nice to see a few other course buddies, though there were only 4 of us there. Unfortunately, aside from the 'social' aspect, I found them to be a waste of time. I didn't learn anything and the activities during the two hours from 7-9pm weren't helpful to me. I never went back. If I had questions I'd rather just email my tutor, and felt okay in learning everything myself from the textbooks and online.
There are also some tutorial type days, which take up around 9-5pm of the day. For me, that would have been just over an hour's drive and I wasn't convinced it would be beneficial, having attended two rather pointless tutorials, so I never went to a day school. However, that's not to say that some people won't find this useful, so it's good to have the option.
As for the tutors themselves, they can be quite hit and miss. I've had one or two that have been lovely; quick to reply, give useful feedback and generally be pleasant. I've had one that was awful and had to request the OU to swap him for someone who actually marked my assignments on time, responded to emails, and gave responses other than one word answers. I've not really found any, except perhaps for one, that
... What You Get ...
A huge brown box arrives before your course is due to start, hopefully giving you at least a week to familiarise yourself with what you've got and what you need to do. For my course, I received a lot of text books and some DVDs, which usually contained activities and recordings that either went with the reading or were used as part of an assessment piece. I also received a standard OU DVD with some software on and another with a specific piece of statistics software that I needed for my course (which worked well and I was very pleased not to have to pay extra for this!).
The textbooks themselves are good quality, however they're not perfect. I've noticed some errors, some omitted info like references, and some aspects that weren't explained very clearly. On the whole, however, they provided very good resources to use, and they had to be used a lot because each assessment piece involved their use.
The DVD with general software included a StarOffice package, which is a free alternative version to word. So if you don't have standard MS Office, or lack, for instance, Excel or Powerpoint, you can use this version rather than have to fork out for Microsoft. I wasn't very keen on StarOffice, and although some people find it suits them, I guess I was just too used to Microsoft to use it because it just didn't seem to be as easy to use or effective.
I also received a timetable for each course outlining what materials should be read and when, and when assessments were due. There was also an assessment booklet and check sheet to ensure I'd received everything in the package I was supposed to get. When using it for the first time, you also get information on signing up to use their online system, which includes an online library, mailbox and forums.
Further materials are available on iTunes and also YouTube, illustrating that the OU is firmly footed in modern technology and trends.
... Online ...
The OU website is always changing and developing, but it roughly offers a hub to everything a potential and current student may need. If you want to find out about the types of courses, financing options etc when looking at signing up for the OU it's all on there, as is information on who to contact with any queries. For students, it offers a specific student homepage which you will need your username and password (you get this in the post) too sign in with.
The studenthome area gives you access to each of your courses so you can get online versions of everything you get in the post (ie. PDF copies of the textbooks, an online version of the timetable etc) as well as access to the course forums. There's a newsfeed you can keep an eye on, and you'll also need to keep an eye on the tutorials information section if you wish to attend these as not all tutors seem to keep you informed of them!
I found the forums to be a bit hit and miss. Sometimes it was nice to speak to others on the same specific course, to share our thoughts and concerns. Other times, it was just a mess of confusion. With the assessments, there were many instances where a question wasn't very clear, for instance, and we weren't sure what was being asked of us. I'd speak to my tutor and she'd say one thing, then other people on the forum would talk to their tutors and they'd all say something else! The key is just to focus on what your tutor says, if it's them that will be marking it. I don't like that there was often so much confusion and contradictory information; I like things to be straight across the board when it comes to what we all need to do and what is actually being graded etc. I also found there was a lot of censoring going on, with forum 'moderators' often taking away posts that they thought were too closely discussing the assessments. Most of my assessments were long essays rather than short answers, and discussing these and what the question was asking for was what I thought the forums were designed for. I understand not giving 'answers', but simply discussing what was being asked of us shouldn't cause a problem because we wouldn't have had to do it in the first place should the questions and the materials have been accurate! Anyway, rant over.
... Exams & Assessments ...
This part varies depending on your chosen subject. For the courses that added up to my degree, some involved exams and others didn't, all involved several assessments throughout the course and one involved just one online submission at the end because it was a short course. Details of what's required come in the post and can be found online.
I've already briefly discussed my annoyances with the assessments not always being clear and getting contradictory information on what was being asked of us, so I'll leave that there. Exams for me tended to take 3 hours but enough information was provided so that I felt confident in knowing when it was, where I was going, what facilities were there etc. They ranged in distance from me, one being a 1hr drive, another being only 5 minutes up the road after I moved to a different area. They seemed fairly well organised (though not with the seating arrangements in the hall!) and quite formal in the sense that you know you're sitting something important as you would at a 'real' university.
... Grades & Qualifications ...
The grading system for the OU seems to differ from 'real' Universities, but I can't really comment on the divergence as I don't know too much about either! I can say that for assignments marked by your tutor (which is most except end-of-course assignments and exams), he/she will have her own preferences and style whilst sticking to marking what's in the marking scheme. You usually get feedback online, so you'll get the Word document back with comments all over the place. I actually quite like this because I can see specific areas that I've done well on or that I need to improve. You also get an assessment sheet with your grade and general comments. Some of my tutors haven't been that helpful in terms of constructive criticism, other have been and I've been able to take what they've said and use it for future assignments. One guy insisted on doing it by hand and posting it to me, and it always seemed to arrive far later than the 2-week time frame for receiving assignments back; I couldn't read any of his scrawl and when I was able to decipher it (by asking someone else!) it wasn't helpful in the slightest. Needless to say, this was the tutor I asked to swap for someone else!
You can keep track of your grades online and also use a prediction tool that takes your previous overall grades and asks you to predict what you'll get on your next courses to give you an idea of what your overall Degree grade will be. At the moment I'm just waiting for my last course grade back, then I'm all finished and due to graduate in a few months. I used the prediction by hand calculation which tells you what grades they take and how they use the scores to calculate an overall grade. I didn't find this easy to do and I'm not convinced I've done it accurately, but I've been predicted a good grade - fingers crossed I haven't miscalculated the prediction too badly!
As for the degree ceremonies, I can't comment too much as I haven't been to mine yet. I do know that you get a choice of different locations that you can (and should because there could be lots of people applying for places) pre-book your place a few months in advance. Each region has a different number of specified guests per person. For instance, if you want to graduate in Cardiff, you can take up to 4 guests and pay £16 per person you take. I don't like the whole price-per-person thing as paying for transport there is going to cost enough for the three people I'll be taking, but I'm still really looking forward to the day. You can hire your gown online and pick it up from the graduation place, which I still need to do but have been avoiding as I think this will cost around £50 to hire. Yet again, more additional expenses. The downside, from a personal point of view, is that they don't do the whole mortar board part! I was really looking forward to having a cap and being able to throw it in the air like you see in the films. But alas, it's not part of their normal dress code. I may be the only one there wearing one, as my boyfriend has offered to lend me his for the day (possibly because he knows how ridiculous I will look being the only one there with one!). We'll have to see how that goes...!
... In A Nutshell ...
The Open University is strong competition to a bricks and mortar University, offering a reasonable alternative for those whose circumstances and personal wants and motivations are suited to it. It's got its positive aspects, but it also has, from my experience, its not-so-good points that can really cause frustration and a sense of being alone and quite hopeless. Having said that, if you're passionate enough about doing the course, which I was, the end achievements and sense of accomplishment will hopefully be worth the hours of hard work and frustrations!
Overall... A worthwhile alternative to a 'normal' Uni that's worth checking out, just be aware of its flaws! [Also reviewed by me, Cazkins, on DooYoo]