I can’t really feel like I am on the home straight yet, but maybe it is just coming into view. I have just submitted my final piece of coursework for H817 and “only” have the final, independent piece of work to do. I will then start H818, The Networked Practitioner in October and, all being well, will complete it next April. H818 is my final module in the MA in Online & Distance Education. So now feels like a good time to take stock and reflect on the journey so far.
This will be my second Masters degree. I earned the first one, in Hebrew Studies, over twenty years ago. I absolutely loved it, but a good knowledge of biblical Hebrew and the Dead Sea Scrolls is only an asset in two or three professions, and I didn’t follow any of them. I still have a fascination with the subject, and am still proud of the research I did on the archangel Gabriel – I bore anyone who will listen with my findings every Christmas – but it has not made much difference to any of the various jobs I have had.
Online and distance education is also an area that fascinates me, and which does overlap with my current job. So this time round has been a very different sort of study and a very different experience. On the one hand, I have learned at first hand, as so many have before me, just how tough serious part-time study is. Make no mistake – part-time study is definitely the hard way to get your degree. I never realised how easy I had it as a full-time student, when I could organise my time more or less as I pleased and could fit rowing and the various other things I did around my studies without, in truth, too much difficulty. Since that time, I have got married, had children, acquired a demanding job, a mortgage and all the other usual things. Study now is about discipline and making tough choices. There are evenings I cannot relax and chat, and weekend days where I cannot take the children out. Just as painfully, there are times when I have to submit work that is “good enough”. I know it could be improved, but I have done what I can in the time available. If you are going to complete your degree, these things are essential. My day job is to run a part-time degree programme and I see my students grappling with many of these issues. I can honestly say to them I know what it is like and I can help them from my experience.
Having said that, the upside of studying a subject relevant to your job part-time is the overlap you get between work and study. I have studied many topics which have then been invaluable in my job, to the extent that I sometimes forget how much I have learned from my course over the last couple of years. Topics like how to reference properly, approaching reflection in a structured way, eportfolios and how they can be helpful, cost structures of e-learning – these have been informed my work greatly and, of course, my work has also informed and enriched my studies. I really understand the point made by Dr Etienne Wenger, which I have previously written about, that someone studying part-time remains a part of their professional community of practice, whereas someone studying full-time may well be divorced from it. That is certainly my experience.
Ironically, my studies have been more relevant to my job than I could have possibly predicted when I began the programme. When I started, the bulk of my job was to write material for some of our courses (face-to-face and online) preparing trainee accountants for their professional exams, alongside some teaching. I had also carved out a secondary role championing and investigating the use and impact of new technologies on our business. I had relocated out of London to the Midlands, taking advantage of the flexibility this role gave me. As I wrote in my introductory forum post then:
“There are lots of reasons why I am doing the MA. Although I have worked in education for some years, I have had very limited training in the theory behind it and best practice. This is particularly true of distance education, which fascinates me. It is also clear that this sort of qualification is becoming much more important in the new BPP.”
At the time I was writing that in the autumn of 2011, I did not know that a small team in our parent company, Apollo Global, was starting work on a new approach to education – something more student-focused, career-focused and scaleable than anything currently available in higher education. I first heard about this project the following March, when I was asked to be part of the team in BPP working on the validation of the new programme. Then it was decided the programme would be run from Birmingham, my new “base” office. The following May, I became Programme Leader of a brand-new degree programme and suddenly I could put into practice many ideas from the course. In fact, I would go as far as to say that I would have struggled to make the transition from Professional Education to Higher Education if I had not been studying the MA.
Some might ascribe this to fate or providence, neither of which mean much to me. But I do see it as an example of serendipity, of joining the dots with hindsight, which Steve Jobs described so powerfully in his famous Stanford address (an address, by the way, which has influenced me hugely and I would recommend you view this, if you haven’t already). I guess the gist of his argument would be something like this – following the things you are passionate about can often have results you never imagined.
I ought to mention what I see as one of the other key benefits of the programme – it gave me the push to start blogging properly. This is also something I have written about before, so I won’t dwell on it here. But I stand by what I wrote them – I love writing and blogging feels like an ideal way for me to write. I also feel like I am really just getting started after two years.
Which brings me on to a little niggle that is growing in my mind. The course has been great for my blogging because it gives me a continual stream of new ideas, topics and articles to write about. But what will become of my blog after the MA is over? Stopping it is not an option. I think the clue comes in a phrase I used in my latest Twitter description – I have come to realise I am an “obsessive learner” (in fact, I think this idea is key to the whole concept of being a professional, but that will be another post). And, luckily for me, there are now more ways to learn than ever – inside or outside educational institutions. There are blogs, open source journals, videos of talks and many more, and now there are even MOOCs as well. I am itching to try a couple when my degree is over. I hope my blog will continue to be a tool I use to help my learning, and of course if anyone else finds it useful or interesting, that’s a bonus.
So did I have any idea what I was getting into two years ago? Not really. It has been tougher than I imagined and had some unexpected impact. But has the experience of going back to study been worth it, despite the pain? Absolutely.