I had the mixed experience of using distance learning to obtain my high school diploma after dropping out. I was successful, and it was nice that such an option existed, but to call it a drag on the soul like a million demons trying to yank me into hell would understate it.

Even though it had a positive outcome, it was an overwhelmingly negative experience.  It soured me on distance learning like soaking Tangfastics in pickling vinegar.

I thought advances in technology would change my mind, but after becoming more familiar with the ethos of the Open University, I realised I was wrong. It’s less about the medium of communication, and more about the quality.  And the structure.  And even the intent.  Okay, look, it’s that there is communication.

It’s really not appropriate to say why I chose the Open University, as I wouldn’t be doing this without it.  The Open University convinced me that I could do this.  (Okay, I probably would try it again at some point, as I started in California, but I was dreading it.)

Here’s what helped convince me:

  • Support
    Mostly I mean the tutors. Previously, when I had questions, I basically talked to an administrator who could help insomuch as telling precisely where I could place my study materials.
  • Study Materials
    Look, I don’t care if they’re online or in a book, what I care about is that I don’t have to go around finding them myself, whether at the bookstore, the library, the school’s office, or lost in the post.  People bang on about the quality of the study materials, but I currently don’t know anything about that.  All I know is that they provide all of them.
  • Part Time Student Financing
    Not really anything to do with the Open University, but the UK government allows part-time students to arrange for student loans, now.  Okay, it may have been better a few years ago when the tuition fees were a fraction of what they are now. And yes, I could pay out-of-pocket, the fees are definitely low enough. But it’s nice that I can put it into a manageable payment and eliminate a barrier that would otherwise exist for me, but not an 18 year old.
  • Everything can be done online
    I know a lot of Open University students like that it doesn’t have to be online, that you can go to tutorials and get face-to-face help. But I just want to put my head down and get on with it. I’m pretty anti-social as it is.  As in withdrawn and introverted, not as in ASBO and Stella Artois. But I mean TMA submission and such. Aside from 4 day schools if I choose the networking route, I don’t think anything can’t be done online.
  • Structure!
    Not just structure, but what appears to be a scientifically created one.  Each module has a number of credits (typically 30, 60, or 120), which generally map to 10 hours of study, over 8 months.  So the recommended 60 credits per year at part time study is 600 hours of study over 8 months (or 36-38 weeks), or about 16 hours per week. The module is then mapped out according to these 16 hour weeks to provide for time to study materials, prepare Tutor Marked Assignments, and so on. So you know exactly how far ahead or behind you are at any point in the module.
  • Feedback
    Closing the other end of my biggest problem with distance learning is that you get feedback on any assignments within two weeks. And I’ve seen some examples of the feedback. I’m sure it will often be down to the ability of my tutors to convey, but the structure for the feedback is good. It’s useful.

All of that’s great, but it does (of course) still leave the biggest problem of distance learning up to me to solve: Motivation.  Finding and keeping that is a constant struggle in distance learning. Many future posts I’m sure deal with this.

This is  a record of my journey from start-to-finish in obtaining my BSc (Hons) Computing & IT degree from Open University. I thought it’d be nice to start with how I ended up on this path. Time will tell how far along it I manage to go.

I dropped out of a US high school in the middle of the 11th grade.  That’s a year and a half before graduation for those outside the US.  (Compulsory education laws can vary state-to-state, and are subject to religious freedoms.  Typically, however, it lasts until 16 years of age, even though secondary education lasts to the year students turn 18.)  It’s difficult to discuss, but the short version was that I was depressed.

My next educational stop was admittance to the ‘local’ community college.  (Again, there’s a cultural divide in describing the US education system to some others. An American community college is a public institution of higher education which mainly grants two-year degrees called associate’s degrees, which are primarily a foundation to a four-year bachelor’s degree at a university. They also tend to offer a limited number of bachelor’s degree programmes like universities, or adult education programmes for obtaining diplomas or continuing/further education.) College was great for me emotionally. However, in addition to being expensive, it was also about forty minutes away by car. When I lost my transport, my commute became two 90 minute bus journeys every day, often for a single 30 minute lecture.  It ground me down to the point that I eventually quit that, too, and I entered employment.

My first job was as telephone support for an online service in the days before the World Wide Web. It was a good education in data communications and paid good money, especially for a drop-out.

This led to my next educational stop: distance learning to go back and get my diploma. I was able to do so in short order whilst working, but I despised distance learning at the time. I would buy, collect, or be sent materials, get a sheet of paper telling me what I had to learn, then I showed up for an exam. It was dehumanising, but I was successful.

I thought that was going to be the end of my education. I couldn’t make enough money and have enough time to attend university classes, and I certainly wasn’t going to go back to distance learning.

By 2012 I was married, living in Southern California, and in a great career as a network engineer. I investigated the possibility of distance learning, and found that the Internet had really revolutionised it. It was attractive enough that I thought I’d give it a go again.  I researched my options, and found the programme I wanted to follow.  It was a few months before I finalised my enrolment. (These British spellings are killing me.)

I had been enrolled for all of about a week when our lives were forced to change.  The immigration laws for the UK were being changed rapidly. Soon, it would be a requirement for my wife to be living in the UK and making around £20,000/year for six months before I could move there.  If we left immediately, however, we could use our current earnings as an indication of our earning potential in the UK to prove we wouldn’t need to go on benefits, and we could move together without being separated.  I had promised my British wife that we would move to the UK before we had children old enough to go to school, so we had no choice but to pack up our lives, withdraw from University, and move to a different continent.

A few years later our son did start school, and I finally had time to enroll at university again. This time I was excited to find Open University. Much more discussion is included in subsequent posts, but the short version is that it’s perfect for my life.  My career was already well established over here, even if I was working about 65 hours a week.  I was sure I could talk them into giving me a break for study time.

Between the time I contacted Open University and the time they called me back, my company went out of business.  And didn’t pay me for my last two months of work, taking £6000 of my money with them. At Christmas.

I found employment again quickly, but my path back to education was blocked again, just as quickly.  This time by good news, though; my wife was pregnant with our second son.

He’s still a baby, but we’ve managed to schedule our lives in such a way that I have enough time to finally study a degree at Open University.  Time to give it another go.

As I already know what I want to do with my life, I’m going to get a degree in my current field. I’m studying for the BSc (Hons) Computing and IT (Q62) degree from Open University. Another entry probably holds more details on why.

I suppose the one thing still missing from this entry is why it’s important.  It’s not.  At least not objectively.  I have a great job, make good money, have a home in a great location, am blessed with a truly special family I love to bits … Getting a degree isn’t going to make my life any better. It’s just something that’s of great importance to me personally. Part of it is being an example to my children. Part of it is out of respect to my dad. It’s something that’s been left undone, though. Like my diploma, it’s something I need to go back and finish.