Succeeding in postgraduate study
Succeeding in postgraduate study

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Succeeding in postgraduate study

10 The nature of distance learning Master’s study

In this final section, we will introduce you to some aspects of studying for a Master’s by distance learning, consider some misconceptions about distance education, and end with a visual summary on the nature of distance learning Master’s study.

The presentation below provides an overview of distance and online learning (what this involves, how it works), looks at the benefits of flexible study, and considers some of the pros and cons, and the pressures of studying online. View this now, before moving on to the next session.

Download this video clip.Video player: Session 1, slidecast 2: Distance learning Master’s study – what does it involve?
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Transcript: Session 1, slidecast 2: Distance learning Master’s study – what does it involve?

Hello and welcome. This slidecast will give you a brief overview of studying for a Master’s degree by distance learning – what this would typically involve and how it works.
We examine distance and online learning, and explore some of the benefits, the pros and cons, as well as pressures of studying online.
Let’s begin by exploring what we mean by ‘distance learning’ and how this relates to ‘online learning’.
Traditionally, distance learning was considered as an instructional programme of study for students separated by time or physical location from instructors or ‘tutors’. In its earliest forms, tracing the roots back to the first half of the 20th century, correspondence tuition in the form of written letters was also considered a form of ‘distance’ learning. In parallel with the development of technology during the latter half of the 20th century, distance learning quickly evolved to include pre-packaged text, audio and video recorded resources, typically studied by individual learners. Direct ‘face-to-face’ interaction with instructors and other students was limited, and if offered, was often restricted to a select number of tutorials, day schools or residentials. Through the development of the internet, digital technologies and virtual learning environments, distance learning has taken a significant leap forward in its evolution, allowing rich interactive, immersive and engaging learning experiences that now frequently surpass those within a traditional classroom-based setting.
While physical or temporal separation between the instructor and the learner remains a defining feature of distance learning, the term itself would seldom refer nowadays to learning and teaching provided solely through printed, text-based and other materials that are mailed to students through the post. Instead, with the development of online technologies, it is now commonplace to associate distance learning with tuition that is delivered via an online virtual learning environment or ‘VLE’. Tuition can take several forms, including stand-alone distance learning - for example courses using educational media that are offered entirely or exclusively online; and blended or hybrid learning, where students participate in ‘face-to-face’ sessions (such as a traditional lecture, or a tutorial in a ‘classroom’ setting), work with printed text, related materials (a course book for example), and use distance learning to supplement classroom instructions, or vice versa. The development of social platforms, online forums, audio- and video-conferencing technology, and the requirement for group work as part of practical and professional skills training, has meant that distance learning can no longer be viewed as an isolated learning experience.
Control of the pace of learning by the student, rather than the instructor, is another defining feature of distance learning. In terms of delivery, tuition can either be ‘synchronous’ or ‘asynchronous’. Synchronous tuition allows participants to interact simultaneously. This is also referred to as ‘real-time’ or ‘live’ tuition, and is often delivered through teleconferencing, web conferencing or live exchanges on internet forums. This has the advantage of being immediate. Asynchronous tuition does not require simultaneous participation, and is in this respect more flexible in that it allows students to access the tuition, for example a recording, or to interact with a learning resource in their own time and according to their own schedule. This allows the student to select and pace their own learning.
OK, so what are the benefits of studying for a Master’s degree through part-time distance and online learning?
Well, the flexibility that these modes of part-time study offer, mean that you can fit your studies around your family, work and other commitments. It is however, important to stress that studying while working or taking care of the family can be tough, needs commitment for success, and will require you to keep your study goals firmly in focus. In terms of the more general options for flexible part-time study, some universities and colleges offer degree courses delivered via evening and weekend classes, day release or study breaks. Some course providers offer a combination of online and offline classroom-based work, with regular assignments and tutor support. A few course providers offer full degree courses, including Master’s degrees, entirely online. The Open University is the largest provider of distance and online-learning degree courses in the UK, serving students across the globe. Tailored and accredited courses are developed by teams of academics, educational technologists and media specialists. Working with external assessors, employers, professional bodies and industry specialists ensures that OU courses meet the highest standards for quality assurance.
OK. So let’s take a closer look at how it all works.
Most course providers will assign you a tutor or study adviser who can be contacted by phone, email or online. You can expect a range of study materials, usually a mix of text, audio and video resources, structured to guide you through your course. You will typically be using an interactive ‘virtual’ learning environment, with online discussion forum, activities and learning tools, but additional ‘face-to-face’ sessions and ‘day-schools’ may also be offered by some providers.
You should expect computer-based work, and online activities. These may also be accessible on mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets. You’ll be expected to have some understanding of word processing and related software and how to make the best use of these programmes. Course providers will give you access to study resources – library, textbooks, audiovisual or other materials on specific programmes. Motivation and a certain degree of self-discipline are essential, as you will need to keep to a schedule, and are expected to plan and manage your studies. Support will be available to help you when you need it.
Now studying for a Master’s by distance learning is, by its nature, quite different from undergraduate study on a campus. You will be communicating with a tutor and other students via forums and an interactive online space. Some students do work in study groups, and meet frequently online outside of tutorials and ‘regular’ study hours. However, you should expect to put in some independent study hours yourself. Up to 600 hours of study would typically be expected for a 60 credit course, spread over the duration of the course. To give you an example, for a 60-credit course running over say, a 30-week period, this would mean that you should plan to study for up to around 20 hours per week, which roughly equates to 2 to 3 hours each day, bearing in mind that the pace or intensity of study may vary from one week to the next. The hours that you will have available to socialise may be limited, and you may find that other people may not understand just how much time commitment online learning requires of you. So be sure that you are well-prepared - plan and manage your time!
Let’s take a closer look at some of the pros and cons of distance learning.
The flexibility of study and the ability to fit your study around your lifestyle and schedule are a clear advantage. You can also study remotely anywhere that has an internet connection, and use new e-learning technologies. It’s affordable – you won’t need to commute or relocate – so there are no additional accommodation costs. You can also work and develop your career while studying. You can combine academic and vocational learning with your work, further your employability and transferrable skills, and kick-start or further develop your career. You will have access to, and be part of an extended and vibrant community of students and professionals from around the world.
In terms of points that you should bear in mind, a key aspect concerns social life, which is mainly or solely online, through social platforms and audio and video-conferencing, rather than campus-based, so there is little or no ‘face-to-face’ contact with students. Working while studying takes commitment – you may need to juggle your existing commitments, and have a suitable study environment. If you are entirely new to distance learning, it may mean that you will need to factor in additional time to adapt to the different ‘virtual’ learning environment, and to using new learning technologies. Do keep in mind that online Master’s degrees are not a ‘soft’ or easier option – standards are equivalent to campus-based degrees, and Master’s degree programmes will have specific entry requirements. However, do ensure that the institution you are intending to study with has degree awarding powers or is otherwise validated, and that your qualification has the necessary required quality assurances and professional body recognition, where relevant.
And as we have seen, distance-learning Master’s have their own set of pressures, which should be noted.
You will need to be self-motivated and committed to your study, to set your own schedules to ensure that your other commitments don’t impact on your study; to develop and maintain good study habits, and keep your focus on your goal. The skills that you develop as part of this process, and this includes good organisation and time-management skills, will further support your functioning as an independent learner. While there is a great degree of flexibility in how you manage your study time, it is important to emphasise that distance and online degree courses deliver structured learning, and are usually run over a defined period. You will still need to meet assignment deadlines, attend synchronous online tutorials, and occasionally take part in forum exercises and other assessed activities which are not synchronous, but are timetabled, so do expect to plan and manage your time well.
The Open University has a wealth of experience in supporting postgraduate students on PhD programmes as well as on distance-learning master’s courses. The OU has awarded more than 90,000 postgraduate qualifications, and offers certificates, diplomas, and taught Master’s degrees in a wide range of discipline and specialist subject areas.
If you’d like to know more about the current postgraduate offer, please visit the website -  details can be accessed using the URL provided here.
That brings us to the end of this presentation.
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