Thursday 20 October 2016

What is it Like to Study With the Open University?

What is it like studying with the Open University

This is one of those posts that I've been sat on for a while, trying to post it at a seasonal time. However, I'm so out of touch with UCAS deadlines and school leaving times that I haven't been sure when to post it! Seeing as I've just completed my first week of my third year of study though, there seems no time better than the present. Read on to find out the basics of studying with the Open University, how it compares to a bricks-and-mortar university, and my general thoughts on the whole process...

Disclaimer: This is not a sponsored post or an advertisement in any way, shape, or form. My main reason for writing this is that before studying with the OU I knew little about what it would entail, and I found the information offered by the OU before studying more than a little bit vague. Having completed two years of study, I now understand why this is - the OU is so flexible that everyone's studying experience will be very different, depending on the subject you pick, the level you're studying at, and whether you have any work placements as part of your course. I'm studying an undergraduate degree in the humanities area, so all written below will apply to this. If you're looking at studying post-graduate, or in a different subject area e.g. science, then you may find the structure of the course completely different, and it is well worth discussing with the OU how your course will work before enrolling.

Before Studying...

Open University degrees are made up of three levels. These levels are equal to one year of university study, so level one is year one, and level two is year two, etc. Each level is made up of two modules, and how many modules you choose to study at the same time determines whether you study full-time or part-time.

You can decide to either study full-time or part-time. Each module lasts about 9 months (a 'school year'), and you can either choose to study one module a year, or two at the same time. I studied my first two years full time, and whilst I'd recommend it for level one (the marks of which do not count towards your final classification of degree), it can get pretty hectic if you choose to study full-time from level two. The workload increases, but more than anything it's just trickier to balance assignments being due in at the same time and tutorials clashing, which happens if you tend to be studying two modules within the subject area. Of course how much time you're able to dedicate to studying depends on personal circumstances, but it's always better to give yourself more time than you think you'll need.

You can enrol online or over the phone. Personally, I enrolled online but only after chatting to one of the administrators over the phone, who I've always found to be super helpful. Even if they don't have an answer for you, they give you a date by which they will get to back to you, all of which so far has been followed through (which is more than can be said about other companies that I've spoken to in the past!).

The degree programmes are super flexible. Seriously, I've been to my share of university open days (some for me, some for other people), and the nature of the OU means that their degrees have the most flexibility when it comes to choosing what you want to study. Within humanities, you can choose to study major-minor degrees with two subjects e.g. History and English, specialize in one subject only, or if you want, you can choose between any humanities modules throughout your three levels and end up with a degree in 'Humanities'. This flexibility is great when you want to study subjects that you wouldn't normally get paired together, however can definitely lead to confusion in knowing and understanding what your end qualification will be. As I've studies mostly Art History modules, with some general humanities modules, my degree will be in Humanities (Art History).

The first level of your degree will be in general studies. The first two modules (both level one modules) of any humanities degree (except for language degrees) are in general humanities. This means that the modules contain all of the subjects within the humanities area; English, History, Classical Studies, Art History, Music, Philosophy, and Religion. This is great in opening your mind to other subjects that you might not have thought you would enjoy reading about (I found philosophy and religion particularly interesting), and is a nice way to ease yourself into studying with the OU, as these modules are easy to follow and are very accessible. However, if you are already certain on what subjects you want to study, these modules can be quite frustrating - nearing the end of level one I was definitely looking forward to just studying art history! It can be quite hard to motivate yourself to study the sections which you have no interest in, especially if you're motivating yourself to study at home.

What is it like studying with the Open University

In the Thick of It...

You'll get course books through the post and you will get crazy excited about this. The main Open University course books come as part of the tuition fee you pay (which, although cheaper than bricks and mortar universities, is hardly a throw away sum), but you will probably have a list of set books which you will have to buy on top of this. It all depends on your course how much extra reading is required, but studying through the Open University is always likely to involve a lot of reading.

The work schedule is planned out in advance. You can access a calendar type schedule with the work you are expected to complete within that week, although you can also see the work load throughout the entire year. The same goes for assignments; they are all released at the start of the year, with the dates that they have to be electronically submitted by. All this means that it is easy to plan your workload, and if you know that you have got a couple of weeks where you're going to be unable to do any work, you can skip ahead and try to complete a few weeks work ahead of time.

Get prepared for a lot of reading! I mentioned this above, and whilst it all depends on your subject, I think it's safe to say that if you're studying in the humanities area, your studying will involve a lot of reading. Which makes sense, because you're not attending lectures, talks, or seminars on a weekly basis. Typically, I have to read one chapter of an Open University course book a week, paired with two additional chapters of outside material, as well as the odd extracts from anthologies (this is whilst studying part-time, so one module). It can be hard to hype yourself up for it, but I have to say that once I start reading I often find myself doing more than I have planned for each session, because the material the Open University picks is very interesting and highly accessible to read. I can't stress enough how important it is to study something that you have a real interest and passion for - it makes it easier to commit yourself to the workload, and it's actually very enjoyable. One further plus for reading rather than note-taking at lectures is that it can be done at your own pace, and there's no danger of missing anything.

...Although other ways of learning are encouraged too. I pick fun at the DVDs Open University supplies with each module, because they are definitely a little old-fashioned. However, with a lot of subjects there's actually no need to refilm them, because the information they provide is excellent which is worth putting up with the 80s music for! The OU are also constantly updating their resources and modules, with a lot more activities now online, such as tests and the forums. The forums are definitely underused, through no fault of the OU, but are a great chance to talk to the students who do use them.

What is it like studying with the Open University

Tutorials happen on a monthly basis, or sometimes on a bi-monthly basis, depending on the structure of your course.  In my first year, my monthly tutorial was about 30 minutes down the road, because with the compulsory general modules there is a need for lots of accessible tutorials. However, as the modules get more specific there are less students studying each one, so tutorials are a little further away. They are generally based in the big cities across the UK, which isn't so bad for me as the travelling only takes just over an hour to get there. However I know of people who don't fall easily into a catchment area and have a lot of travelling to do to make it to a tutorial.

Having said that, the tutorials are always really beneficial, and are a chance to meet your tutor and fellow students face to face. They are especially useful before an assignment is due in, as your tutor can give you a little more information about what they specifically expect to be included in it. If you can't make a tutorial, the notes are usually posted up in the forums afterwards, but I honestly don't think these are as useful as attending the actual tutorials.

The OU is always constantly updating their way of doing things, and a recent example of this is with their system for tutorials. You used to be given a set tutorial to go to, but now you can choose which one works best for you (although it might not be with your own tutor).

If it ties in with your subject, there may well be a school trip! Or 'study visit', whatever you want to call it. These are usually once a year, and might be a little further to travel than the tutorials, but are a great chance to actually experience some of the theory covered in the course books. Also, who doesn't love a school trip? I can only speak of the ones I've been on, but if they're to a place that normally requires an entry fee, for the purposes of the Open University visit, you won't have to pay (result!). I can't speak of theatre visits or music concerts however, so these might be a little different.

Exams? Essays? Dissertations? Sorry to be vague, but it all depends on your subject and the modules you pick! Out of the modules I've completed, all of them have coursework made out of assignments and essays (typically 6-8 a module per year). The length of these assignments grows throughout the year, so the first two of each module are shorter ones to ease you back into studying. Level 1 modules typically have smaller word limits that Level 2, and Level 2 smaller than Level 3, but the types of questions you'll be asked will always be roughly the same (e.g. compare and contrast, discuss, etc).

As for exams, it's as simple as some modules having them, and some not. One of my Level 1 modules did, and both of my Level 2 modules did, but neither of the Level 3 ones I plan on studying do. A frustrating thing with modules with exams is that in order to gain a certain mark in that module, both the exam result and assignment results have to be over a certain amount to get that classification. E.g. both exam and assignments have to have a score above 80 to be a distinction; if assignments are scored at 90 but the exam is 70, the lower mark of the exam will mean your grade will fall to a pass. The fact that these scores are not calculated as an average means that modules with an exam are typically harder to do well in.

In Level 3 modules of a humanities degree, you may get the chance to do an 'independent essay', which is basically a dissertation style essay. But again, not all modules offer this, so if you want to write an essay on something you're passionate about, make sure you check the module information before choosing it.

General Thoughts...

Dedication is key. You've got to want to put the work in on your own time, otherwise you won't pass or enjoy your studying.

It can be easy to isolate yourself. Unless you're a more outgoing person in real life and on the forums, it can be pretty easy to feel like you're alone in your studies. Something I'm really working on this year is to ask for help when I need it, and to be more involved in the forums, something which was hard to do when I was studying full time, but which I definitely have the time to do now.

The FOMO is real. If you're in a position where you could have gone to a bricks and mortar university, then you will likely wonder if you've missed out by not going. But the truth is when enrolling I made the best decision for me at that time. And I don't let that niggling voice in my head detract from how much I've enjoyed studying this way, which is a lot.

It's a really rewarding way to study. Getting a degree is really rewarding in general, and seeing all your hard work pay off is a great thing. Studying with the OU is a lot of work, but the independence in your studying gives you space to learn a lot about the way you work, the processes you enjoy, and the best way to motivate yourself. Regardless of your final degree classification, it's a rewarding experience that teaches you more than the content covered in your course (end cheesy music).

What is it like studying with the Open University

Anything else?

I'm well aware that I haven't covered everything here, but I'm also aware that this is already a rather lengthy post. Instead of going into too much detail about the process, I've tried to focus on things that I wanted to know before I started studying, just as some basic information about my experience studying with the Open University.

If you've got anything else you'd like to know drop me a comment, and although I can't guarantee I'll know the answer (especially about other departments) I'll try my best! I'd also love to hear about any of your experiences with the Open University!

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