Chris Sturley is studying for an MA in Theology, Mission and Ministry from the Common Awards suite of degrees.
My experience of being a (not completely) distance learner.
In earlier years, the term “distance learner” conjured up a picture of someone with keen sight and very long arms. However, I am aware from my working life that distance learning can be a boon to those with some resources at hand, but who are geographically remote from the teaching site.
I was already familiar with distance learning both in concept and technology, so I was eager to embrace the experience. Comprehensive information was provided by the Cambridge Theological Federation (CTF) about minimum computer equipment and network requirements. Although the advice stipulated a wired connection, I have been using a wireless router without problems (but check your own set-up!) The software supplied is Adobe Connect which is easy and intuitive to use. The Connect “window” provides a virtual classroom with a display area for teaching materials, a section showing real-time thumbnails of everyone linked to the session (including the tutor), and an area for entering text messages. It has easy controls for the webcam and microphone, and a “raised hand” button enabling class interaction. A trial run proved the feasibility of the system.
Distance learning has its own discipline. Apart from the online lectures, nothing is scheduled, so learning activities must be well organised. As a retired person, I am at home much of the time and subject to many distractions. Apart from the ready availability of food, drink and electronic entertainment, there are the necessary domestic chores to be fitted around study. I also enjoy music and the arts, and my wife likes me to spend time with her as well!
One necessity, which is insisted upon by CTF, is a reasonably-well stocked theological library within fairly easy reach. Fortunately, I have such a resource within half-an-hour’s travel.
My practice has been to try to avoid 24/7 in front of the computer. I often download reading material on to a tablet and then retire to a comfortable place to work through texts and make notes. When planning assignment work, I like to use mind maps. I have found the technique helpful in organising ideas and sources; plus a mind map can be a “silent mentor” once assignment writing begins.
In the two distance modules I have completed so far, various presentation and student engagement formats have been used. Commonly an online lecture is delivered (sometimes in person, sometimes via a video), although this is really a seminar with student input — a significant and welcome factor. Discussion topics are usually seeded with questions or some “homework”, and the success of these sessions is down to reading and study carried out beforehand by students. In my experience, this obligation has always been honoured. At other times, responses of two to three-hundred words have been required as input to a discussion forum where students help to build each other’s understanding through reflection and constructive criticism.
In all these activities the subject expertise of tutors has been conspicuous, along with their desire to ensure student development through both assurance and assistance. Having been a teacher, I know there is a fine line between welcoming contributions and correcting error: the tutors have walked this line with both sensitivity and success.
Now to explain the ‘not completely’. Before I enrolled fully on the MA, I took an intensive (week long) module at Cambridge as a “taster”. This, I feel has given me the best of both worlds. Although not all will be able to take advantage of such an opportunity, I feel that a “blended” approach like this can add spice to the learning experience!
Throughout my studies so far I have felt valued, and been encouraged and extremely well supported by the previous and current Directors of Studies at Wesley House, and by the current Manager of Postgraduate Programmes at CTF. It has been an enriching and challenging adventure in learning, and one which has helped my faith (as well as my understanding) to grow.