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Writers have the details at their fingertips

From E-Learning V

Fig.1 Moon phases in May 1917

Studying with the OU for the last four years it soon become natural to conduct online niche searches for books and papers related to course work. You learn also how to tag, store and gather the information and ideas that you find: this is one answer to that, a blog that serves several purposes, not least as a learning journal and e-portfolio.

Searching for the obscure, that essential detail that forms such a vital part of the sensory palette used by the writer, is as easy to find and just as necessary. This morning I stepped out one May evening in 1917 and wanted some hint of what I’d see, hear and feel: a few searches and I can see a waxing moon at 10.00pm on a cooling evening as the temperature dips below 12 degree C, and the noise, in this instance of thousands of men in Nissen huts around a camp soon giving way to a robin trilling and burbling in the trees and the sound of the sea washing against the Channel Coast.

These details are far more than accessories that overlay character and plot; they are what gives it credibility. Writing on and as the Great War rages requires significant care. The wrong detail will throw a reader, worse I’ll end up in a conversation about my claims. Posting a piece of fiction some years ago an irate reader told me what I’d said was rot and went on to correct me – I had been writing fiction. I’d said that a character called Gustav Hemmel changed his name to George Hepple and fakes his own death – the reality is that he went missing over the English Channel in his plane.

THREE HOURS working on writing fiction, five days a week, is the goal . The OU will have me for TWO hours a day (averaged with longer stints at the weekend). That’s the plan.

Reflections on postgraduate learning, online or taught

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Fig. 1. Ironically, given what I am writing about below, this book is recommended (though not compulsary) reading for the Open University (OU) module H818: The Networked Practitioner. I could only find a print version.

I’ll add notes to this blog (which I use to aggregate notes and as an e-portfolio, not just as a shared or private journal-cum-log) as the differences between the online and ‘traditional’ learning experience dawn on me as I do two in parallel.

An MSc in Development Management (a convenient way to be recognised for a collection of education and further modules on e-learning that I am doing with the OU) 100% online … except for the above book.

An MA in British First World War studies (with the University of Birmigham) 97% lectures and tutorials on campus. (There is online support, an online library and database, but books and 100 year old archive as physical artefacts in collections are the primary materials)

Actually there’s a third comparison I can make – that of ‘corporate learning and development’ which the other week with the E-Learning Network included something neither of the above formats offer – ‘social learning over an excellent buffet lunch’. (see below for my view of campus fodder).

Time Managment

The ‘traditional’ seminar or lecture forces your hand somewhat – you have to be there. Many these days are recorded for you and put online, though mine will not be. I’m inclined therefore to take either a digital or audio recorder along to record these things. I have, just a couple of times over three years, got behind with the online course as I kept putting it off.

Travel … and the associated cost

It’ll be around four hours door to door once a month. This means getting up at 4.30 am. Not of course something someone in full time tertiary education needs to do. Off peak, unless booked well in advance it’ll cost £74 return … £24 if I stick to exact trains. Lunch I may have to take with me as the campus only had premade Spar sandwhiches at every outlet.

Nodding off

After lunch on my MA induction day I did something I remember last doing in double Geography on a Friday afternoon with ‘Dusty Rhodes’ – I sat at the back, cupped my hands over my eyes as if in deep thought … and grabbed ‘forty winks’.

Something, however common to many people on any part-time distance learning course is ‘the early morning shift’ – putting in 90 minutes or so before breakfast.

Library Services

While this and other support services are offered to us on our VLE it was invaluable to to have a person run through it as a presentation in person. This kind of stuff should be given a linear expression … a mini-module for newcomers and as a refresher. All I’ve done, two years after the event with the OU was a webinar on using RefWorks.

People ‘in the flesh’

It was obvious as we gathered in the hall below the lecture rooms that the group of mainly male, mature students were turning up to the same gig. A handshake, a look in the eye and after pleasantries about where we had travelled from we got straight down to what MA were were doing and why: First World War, Second World War or Air Power. Meanwhile online, as many have been ‘gathering’ asynchronously online saying ‘where they have come from’ i.e. their last module, nerves and who they already know. No handshake, some faces, but not all, and largelly female. What these have in common is that human desire to find something in common amongst strangers. Doing a head count I’d say the ratio of male/female for war studies was 80/20 … for the MA in e-learning modules it would appear to be close to 30/70, perhaps 40/60.

Tutors

In three and a half years with the Open University I have not met any of the Master of Arts in Open and Distance Education (MA ODE) tutors or moderators. I wouldn’t even recognise some of them if I met them. In some cases I might know the voice. The ‘Chair’ of each module is the intellectual powerhouse, with tutors as moderator-cum-markers can be professors, not necessarily with the OU, or ‘fellow’ students who are a few steps ahead having completed the MA ODE. At the University of Birmingham the ‘intellectual powerhouses’ are our tutors and they were out in force – which given the subject matter included two retired Air Commodores.

Learning that is ‘any time, any where’

The MA ODE can be studied any time, any where – though in practice it is studied evenings, weekends and vacations as students tend to be in fulltime employment, those with children, during the term at least, may have some semblance of a ‘student day’ if they can settle down each morning. The MA WW1 is strictly confined to a Saturday, and not just one lecture, potentially three or four. There are Tuesday evening talks which I will never make and can only hope will be recorded and put online.

What does any of the above say about:

opportunity
motivation
support
retention
the traditions of learning
the subject matter
formal postgraduate learning for mature students in the 21st century

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Fig. 2 The First World War archive at the university of Birmingham

This would have been quite impossible online – handling archive 90-100 year old materials from a university collection. I was particularly taken by the personal diary and several hundred photographs of an officer who was posted widely during the war, from the Western Front to Malta, Italy and Egypt. The original artwork of Louis Raemaekers also impressed and inspired, while the actual typed up letters of cabinet ministers reasly brought home the opportunity to ‘turn to original sources’.

Online vs. Face to face Learning

I’ll add notes here as the differences between the online and ‘traditional’ learning experience dawn on me as I do the two in parallel. Actually there’s a third comparison I can make – that of L&D which the other week included something neither of the above formats offer – ‘learning over a good lunch!’

Time Management

The ‘traditional’ seminar or lecture forces your hand somewhat – you have to be there. Many these days are recorded, though mine will not be. I’m inclined therefore to take either a digital or audio recorder along to record these things. I have, just a couple of times over three years, got behind with the online course as I kept putting it off.

Travel … and the associated cost

It’ll be around four hours door to door once a month. This means getting up at 4.30 am. Not of course something someone in full time tertiary education needs to do. Off peak, unless booked well in advance it’ll cost £74 return … £24 if I stick to exact trains. The last train home was heaving. I could and did ‘work’ the entire journey whereas home is a constant distraction.

Eating on campus

Lunch I may have to take with me as the campus only had premade Spar sandwiches at every outlet. A jacket potato or pasta would have been better.

Nodding off

After lunch I did something I last did in double Geography on a Friday afternoon. I sat at the back, cupped my hands over my eyes as if in deep thought … and fell asleep.

When to put in the hours

Something, however common to many people on any part-time distance learning course is ‘the early morning shift’ – putting in 90 minutes or so before breakfast.

Library Services

While this and other support services are offered to us on our VLE it was invaluable to to have a person run through it as a presentation in person. This kind of stuff should be given a linear expression … a mini-module for newcomers and as a refresher. All I’ve done, two years after the event, was a webinar.

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