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Expert Advice On Getting The Most From Your Online Postgraduate Course

Dr Holly PrescottDr Holly Prescott is the Postgraduate Recruitment Advisor at the University of Birmingham – here she gives students essential advice on how to get the most out of your distance learning postgraduate program.

Distance learning allows students to study most (or all) of their course without attending the campus of the institution at which they are registered. The ways in which distance learning programs are delivered are varied, depending on the institution and the nature of the subject. For instance, many distance learning programs use online portals to give students access to recorded lectures, discussion boards, reading lists and other course materials. On some programs, you will communicate with faculty and other students via email, electronic forums, video conferencing, chat rooms, bulletin boards, instant messaging and other computer-based communications. Some courses, however, may offer more sophisticated modes of distance learning; for example here at Birmingham, candidates on our Advanced General Dental Practice MSc by distance learning perform work on special prosthetic teeth, which they then post back to the School of Dentistry to be assessed!  Many distance learning courses also provide some face-to-face delivery as well such as an annual visit to your institution, book weeks, residential schools, weekend classes and face-to-face tutorials.


Checklist to get the most out of your distance learning program

Here's a checklist to make sure you cover all your bases when studying an online postgraduate program.

Find out in advance exactly how your course will be delivered and, if there is taught material, how this and its delivery will be structured (will you, for instance, have a topic to cover every week, with guided reading?).

Find out if and when you need to be on campus for any face-to-face teaching or visits, so that you can plan this into your schedule. It often helps to have the opportunity to touch base with other students on your program and/or your course leader or supervisor, so do take these opportunities if you can.

Make sure you have access to all the portals and virtual learning environments that you will need (correct username, password details etc.) and that you have/can use all of the required technology (e.g. will you need any software, like Quicktime, to access online lectures?).

Find the details of IT Services/ Tech support who can help you if you have a problem, especially if you are studying a course that heavily relies on internet delivery.

Find ways to connect with and discuss course materials with other students on the course, especially if your program involves little or no face-to-face delivery. Using discussion boards or setting up a Facebook group for your course can help you to share resources and ideas and feel less isolated.

Ascertain an idea of how accessible your course leader(s), tutor(s) and/or supervisor(s) will be, make sure you have their correct contact details and don’t be afraid to email/call them if you have any difficulties.

Combination of motivation, discipline & determination = the key to success

Distance learning requires self-discipline, responsibility, motivation, determination and good time-management, so it is worth thinking about whether this mode of study is for you, or whether instead you need the structure and discipline of attending classes in a certain place at certain times every week, with the same group of people. Distance learning is nonetheless a valid and flexible alternative, especially for those who have a very clear idea of the subject area they want to study, the research project they want to undertake or the specific qualification they need to achieve, but who are prevented from attending their institution of choice due to other commitments.

Distance learning success

Choose a course that you are genuinely interested in and that will sustain your interest. This is especially important if you are building distance learning around full- or part-time work and other responsibilities such as family life. It has to be something that makes you want to pick up those books when you get in from a full day at work, or after (finally) putting the kids to bed!

Get an idea of the time commitment required each week/month; use this to make a provisional schedule for yourself and be disciplined.

Don’t beat yourself up if you fall behind: accept that you are a busy person with responsibilities to juggle and take positive action (i.e. schedule in time to catch up).

If you are going to be doing most of the work for your course at home, create a study space for yourself so that you have somewhere dedicated to study and can store books and other materials.

Use your contacts: perhaps your course leader(s) or supervisor(s) can put you in touch with useful contacts who can offer anything from work placements and shadowing opportunities (probably most relevant for professional qualifications)  to journals and conferences that may be interested in your work (if you are taking a distance-learning PhD, for example).

Other tips for getting the most out of your distance learning program

Utilising what's on offer at your university will play a key part in the enjoyment and success of your postgraduate distance learning program.

Make sure you have access to as many resources as possible, especially if you are not going to be able to visit your institution very often to use the library, copying facilities, and so on. For example, registered students in the UK can often obtain a SCONUL card which offers access to other UK academic libraries, if you have a different institution close to you.

Become au fait with your institution’s e-library resources; for example, learn to search for online journal articles and how to navigate e-books if you are unable to visit the library in person.

Find out what support is available and how you can access this as a distance-learner. For example, if you are returning to education after some time, your institution may have academic writing support to help you get back into the swing of writing essays, referencing and so on.


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