general education,  higher ed,  OU,  personal

What I learnt from being a student

The Student

Yesterday I submitted the thesis for my MA in Art History at the Open University. I completed the MA in History a couple of years ago also, so I’ve had about four years of experience of being a part time student. At the risk of being like one of those ‘woke’ pieces where proper students will scream “yes, we’ve been saying that for years!’, here are some of the things I’ve (re)learnt, from the perspective of being an educator while also studying:

Everyone should do it – I don’t mean study a subject for career development (although that’s nice), the content isn’t the important part. Do it for the experience of being a student again. Particularly if you’re developing online or part-time study then definitely do it (and hey, we’ve got lots of nice courses at the OU in all disciplines).

Small stuff is big – for all the talk of revolutionary pedagogy, personalised learning, disrupted education, what really matters most of the time is the straightforward, everyday matters: do I know what I should be doing at any given time? Can I access the material? Is it clearly written? Can I get support within a reasonable timeframe? Is it set out so I can plan my time effectively?

Don’t design for the perfect student – I’ll be honest, I was not a model student. I was what is often termed a strategic learner. Partly (and a tad ironically), work pressure at the Open University meant my study on an Open University course was compromised. I needed to find the most effective path through a course (basically focussing on assessment). But that is not to say I didn’t get a lot from it, so ensuring there are paths through the course that don’t assume full capacity but are still rewarding is essential.

Engaging and challenging – apart from the small things mentioned above, what I also wanted from my course was for it to be challenging (in that it made you think about things differently, for instance the first block of the Art History course really dismisses the whole ‘lives of famous artists’ approach to art history, which is the naive view I had of it). And I want it to be engaging, in that there is enough there for me to dig into (without getting lost). I’ve mentioned before that I came to like assessment because this forced me to engage with the content and bring it together. So it’s not just about making sure as educators we cover topics A to E but also that the student wants to learn about them.

Give me a reason to interact – given my time constraints, I didn’t do much interaction in the forums. And this was fine with me, I was glad the course didn’t make lots of interaction compulsory just for the sake of it. But also without a major prompt to do so, it was easy to avoid interaction all together, and if this was my first time studying, that would be a shame.

It made me vulnerable – and not in a cute puppy way. I am from a science background and so don’t have any art history knowledge. I was therefore winging it a lot of the time, and didn’t have the vocabulary or the depth of knowledge most of my fellow students had. I would have been reluctant to have been forced to display this scarcity of knowledge in the open, so I was grateful for a closed environment, and careful feedback from tutors to scaffold my learning. Having said that, I think some of the stuff I’ve written is mildly interesting, so maybe we could have found ways of sharing it more openly. But the important aspect was to be reminded of how vulnerable the whole learning process is.

Looking over those, I have a renewed appreciation for why education is often perceived as being conservative. I wonder how many radical educational change gurus have actually been students (particularly in an unfamiliar subject) recently? Which is not to say students aren’t up for trying something new, but often in a limited, controlled manner. And my take away as an educator is that we should focus on improving these elements rather than demanding their wholesale replacement (but that’s always been my line I guess). Also, breaking news – education isn’t broken, kinda works ok, and is rewarding. I don’t expect that’ll be a headline anytime soon though. Seriously though – as an educator, the best thing you can do is go study again. Mind you, I’m looking forward to spending my Saturday mornings just listening to vinyl and looking wistfully out of the window again.


  • Jim Luke

    Excellent stuff, Martin. It’s a very helpful reminder to me as I’m looking to do a major course revision. It’s a lot of the little stuff that really mattters – knowing what to do, ease of navigation, finding the right balance between too much and too little scaffolding, etc. Thanks.

  • Ruth McFarlane

    I wholeheartedly agree. I am loving my own study. Always have done. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to work at the OU.
    Happy wistful window gazing. How long until you embark on your next module ?

  • GillMarshall

    I agree with every single one of your points in this. I’m just about to embark on the final module of my MAODE – this is my fourth year of studying and working full time and part time – I’ve enjoyed and hated every minute – particularly hated my huge propensity for procrastination. But the assessment has been the key point that makes you focus and think and bring it all together, as you say. Given lack of time I’ve also had to be strategic and have often wished I could do the courses full-time and engage with all the materials – but the fact that I work in the field has meant I could wing it up to a point. It has given me good insights into the difficulties of attempting to collaborate online and most of the time I’ve just dipped in and out of the forums – however this makes me feel guilty as, come the assessment, reading through forum threads is often a good way to catch up on areas that I’ve skimmed or missed completely – so I’m grateful to my industrious forum posters. This may not be relevant to undergrad modules though as we don’t always link forums to specific activities like they are in this MA – doing this give students a good resource for revision.

  • Ekkehard Thumm

    Fully agree, Martin. As a student, you don’t always want to experience the latest in educational research; just getting to grips with the subject and juggle your life around it can be enough of a challenge.

  • Ellen

    Do ALs really forget how learning makes students feel vulnerable? I never got that impression during my studies at the OU.🙂
    Or is this in your role as module developer?
    Anyway, a good recap on life as a part time student and key points to keep in mind.

  • Dr Wendy Maples

    I organised my staff development (for myself and for others) on the principle, which I took as established in the field in general, but neatly articulated by Greg Benfield: [that] to understand what it means to be a [n online] student, [you need to] BE a[n online] student. Of all the important points made, Martin, the one about vulnerability is probably the most important. Deep learning involves baring your soul, or your heart, or your weaknesses and is scary! Fortunately, there are some wonderful tutors — and courses — out there that recognise this, as well as the importance of the content/format. 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

  • sue watling

    There’s no substitute for experiential learning – I’ve been recommending for years that staff who teach and support learning should ‘go do a MOOC’ to see how it feels – however, time pressures etc (and maybe some digital shyness) means the first time this often happens is when enrolled on a course for real. The greatest influence on my professional practice was the OU MA Open and Distance Learning many years ago – not the four first four modules – excellent as they were – but the final two when my course resources arrived in a cardboard box! I hadn’t realised the modules were not yet online. Over the next few months I learned more than I’d ever expected about the advantages of online education…

  • Tony Toole

    Quite a coincidence Martin – I recently completed a CertHE in Art History at Oxford and then a year of an MSt in the History of Design for the same reason. It’s really important not to forget what being a student is like (or rely on experiences that are decades old) when promoting new ways of doing stuff with technology in education.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *