I enjoy receiving replies to these emails from students as distance teaching can be just as isolating for the tutor as the student, and getting feedback from others is encouraging, whether the student is asking for support and guidance or just acknowledging your contact.
I am absolutely delighted when students ask about my mental health (I have bipolar disorder) as this signifies to me a world where barriers are breaking down, and disability is acknowledged as a part of identity, not a stigma or tragedy.
So my wish in the coming year is the building of positive, supportive relationships within the university setting, with openness and acceptance of difference.
Yesterday it hit me after several intense days of writing; I guess it comes to all doctoral students at some point and those of us doing professional doctorates alongside our day jobs probably experience it more than most. I'm talking about the desperate question of 'Why am I doing this to myself?'.
It's a natural question to ask, after all, I work 32 hours a week as an Associate Lecturer (AL) and the professional doctorate is a four year programme so little different to a more conventional full time doctorate schedule in terms of deadlines and completion. It is very much full on and has to be done alongside my other commitments which also have firm deadlines (I marked nearly 100 assignments in November at approximately 20-25 hours a week).
I don't need to study for a doctorate. I've been an Associate Lecture for 13 years and have no immediate plans to change that as working flexibly from home suits me and I enjoy the contact with students that such a role has. There has never been any pressure from the university for me to study for a doctorate either; it was all my own idea. I've never been one enamoured of status so that is not a consideration. So why bother?
Three of the modules I teach start with an assignment which relates to goal setting or reflective learning, and with very good reason. Having a goal in mind helps to build our resilience when times are hard and gives us a focus for the future, motivating us to overcome the obstacles that occur on the way. I am doing my doctorate because it is a subject that I am passionate about and a story that needs to be told. My research into supporting students with mental health challenges has the power to change lives for the better and that is what spurs me to strive towards the goal.
So how did I overcome yesterday's mental obstacle? Well, I took a break from study for the day. I went for a nice long walk, had a cup of tea and did some AL work instead. Today I'm coming back for a couple of hours work with a clearer, less stressed, mind and some new ideas for my assignment. Every day is a new day.
Have a good weekend.
I just posted my story in a module forum but I thought I'd post it here to encourage new students who are a little nervous about the coming year.
"It's not unusual for students on K102 to not have studied for a few years or to not have gone to college. Let me encourage you with my own story.
I left school after my O' levels to go on a Youth Training Scheme (YTS) scheme in a care home. But this wasn't the career I wanted as a child; I'd always wanted to be an English teacher. But such a job was completely out of reach for someone from a rough council estate in Luton in the 1980s. Whilst I wanted to be a teacher it was something I knew was out of my league, it was an impossible dream. I didn't know anyone who worked in a professional job; my father worked in a dairy factory, my mother was a canteen cook, and all my family worked in either factories, shops or child care. I didn't know anyone with a degree and my friends and boyfriend went on to do apprenticeships, even the ones with A' levels. Besides, my parents wanted me to get a job and pay rent so it was the YTS scheme for me. I lacked the social and cultural capital to make my dream come true.
So how did I get here, an academic working in Cambridge for the Open University? Well, my YTS placement was in a small private residential home owned by a lovely pair of best friends, a nurse and a home economist who had previous taught teenage mums, who saw in me a potential for reaching higher. Their support and influence enabled me to successfully apply for nurse training in my local hospital, which was an apprenticeship not a degree in those days. After qualifying a nurse I started an Open University module on research methodology, which then led to a degree and nurse lecturing. I now have two degrees, a Masters in Education and am currently doing a doctorate alongside teaching health and social care undergraduates.
So, I've gone from leaving school with o'levels to studying for a doctorate. Studying for a degree with the OU can change your life
Have a great year of learning.
Well, I'm now 15 weeks post-covid and I still have the post-viral symptoms of Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS). But my pulse is noticably improving, I am regularly walking two miles in the morning with a normal walking pulse. A brisk walking pulse should be around 110 and I am generally below that; if it creeps higher I stand still and it immediately goes down again which seems to me a healthy response (POTS symptoms tend towards pulse rates being stubborn at returning to normal). My standing pulse is also much better and I can go whole days with a normal pulse.
Absurdly, as my pulse has got better the lightheadedness has got worse. I am no longer having to take gasps of breath when seated as I was a few weeks ago but I definitely lightheaded more often and have 'brain fog', and more prone to morning headaches than before. Ironically, lightheadedness in POTS occurs mainly in a seated position and it is presumed to be due to pooling of blood in the lower legs at rest. The solution is to get up regularly and keep the legs moving while sitting. Good job my standing pulse has improved! I actually find it helpful to work while feeling like this as it distracts me, even if I am not as productive as usual.
I'm hoping all this is just a lag in my system as it gets used to me no longer having as much tachycardia. I'm going to increase the cardio exercise to see if this will stimulate my venous return more. I've also started on low dose rehydration tablets. When I developed POTS I increased my fluids dramatically as per the recommended regime but did not increase my salt intake alongside this as I appear to have a slightly raised blood pressure (BP) post-covid. But my GP is unconcerned about my BP and I'm wondering if my electrolytes are now out of kilter and if I would feel better with extra salt and minerals, as well as retain fluids better.
Anyway, the improvement in pulse rate seems like a positive step forward in recovery.
It's been over 12 weeks now since I developed Covid-19 and although I recovered from the infection in just over 2 weeks I still have the post-viral complication of presumed postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS). I've blogged already about some of my symptoms (as a lecturer in health I'm somewhat fascinated by how the body behaves!) but today I thought I'd focus on something I've only recently noticed - the affect of posture.
I noticed several weeks ago that I occasionally got mild air hunger (large intake of breath) when sitting at my computer, and that this apparently was common in POTS. It's a very odd symptom, given the condition, as the tachycardia occurs to improve oxygenation when standing. Clearly both responses are to improve oxygenation but they are very different.
But last week when I took a break from work/study, I found myself sitting at the kitchen table hunched over my iPad and getting increasingly lightheaded and gasping for breath. It was quite distressing as it felt like my breathing was deteriorating, when until then I had only noticed it getting better. I then realised that it improved with better posture, which would explain why I had it then but not sat on the sofa with the iPad in my hand. Interesting that it's positional, I thought, and carried on with life.
Then on Tuesday I did my yoga class. Until recently my post-covid fitness levels haven't allowed me to do a whole session without tachycardia but I'm now walking several miles a day and feel much fitter. I was pleased to do a whole class of mainly standing poses and have no tachycardia. But wait, I have postural tachycardia and can get a fast pulse just from lifting my arms up -why was it okay to do standing yoga? I suspected that the strict yoga posture was the answer and reflected on my walking tachycardia. I had noticed recently that my tachycardia when out for a walk is better when I'm thinking about it but my pulse starts galloping when my mind wanders, only that day it had suddenly leapt from 104 to 135 for no apparent reason. Was it because my posture dropped?
I tried it out today and worked really hard on my posture when walking; chest out, shoulders back and down. And my pulse stayed below 110 (normal walking pulse) throughout my 2 mile walk. Now, this might be because I walk slower when concentrating on posture but I've ordered a simple back brace and will explore this further. It might be a breakthrough at managing my pulse rate.
Today I walked for 2 miles with a normal walking pulse of below 110. Admittedly I had to slow down in the second half to maintain my pulse but I’m really pleased as this gives me hope that I can manage, or possibly even overcome, the postural tachycardia I developed post-covid. My missing sweating function is returning too (sorry if too much information).
But I have had tachycardia this morning as when I got dressed my pulse went over 120. And this is why postural tachycardia is such a debilitating illness for many people; it is at it’s worse when performing activities of daily living. I fully understand why some people struggle to get out of bed with it.
I first noticed my tachycardia in the second week of my covid symptoms when I had palpitations carrying the laundry downstairs - my pulse was 125. I get the same when hanging out the laundry or chopping vegetables (even in a seated position). Even difficult crochet raises my pulse! My 2 worse episodes of tachycardia have occurred when gardening, that magical combination of heat, exercise and lifting your arms up. The second episode resulted in a subconjunctival haemorrhage so my blood pressure is clearly shooting up too.
Now I’m conquering my venous return in my legs I’m tackling my arms with some Iyengar yoga; cobra and downward dog should be helpful as well as standing poses. My lungs are hating seated twists though.
Today my postural tachycardia seems much improved. It is normal both standing and pottering around the house and when I went for a walk it was within the normal bounds of light exercise (some rise is expected). What was most significant is that it dropped down to normal immediately on rest, which would seem to me to indicate a normal response to exertion. It even has slightly improved when walking upstairs, though it still doesn't like me raising my arms (getting dressed always causes tachycardia). I've also been less fatigued the last few days, despite walking further, and I managed nearly 2 miles this morning.
Obviously I know this might not last; I got covid nearly 10 weeks ago and know how symptoms vary from day to day. But these are all hopeful signs that my routine of increased fluids and increasing light exercise are helping.
My tachycardia is postural, my resting pulse is around 65 and it goes up to 90 when I stand up - when I first noticed it was up to 128 just walking around the house. It is exacerbated by exercise (walking upstairs can raise it to 110, going for a walk to 125, once 150), raising my arms (carrying laundry downstairs or sitting to chop vegetables raises it to 125, even brushing my teeth raises it), heat (gardening on a warm day made it 140), and eating (rise to 90 when seated). Alcohol sometimes exacerbates it, caffeine doesn’t and might well improve it.
The paramedic on my second trip to casualty did a seated and standing pulse and BP and suggested Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndome. I have since researched this (I am an ex-nurse) and it fits my symptoms and circumstances, especially as a post-viral autonomic response. I have instigated suggested lifestyle changes including increased fluid intake, slow transition on rising, wearing light compression running leggings, gentle yoga and taking a daily morning walk with regular rests and water.
I think water intake has had an enormous effect. Taking water 20 minutes before getting up in the morning has resulted in a normal pulse on rising. I can now, most days, walk around the house without tachycardia as long as I keep my fluid intake up. My morning walk pulse is gradually improving too. Arm raising is still an issue but I am aiming to increase my upper body strength with seated and supine yoga.
I have to avoid fatigue, though. If I push myself too far I can get fatigue for the next few hours or even the next day. The best solution for the tachycardia is to sit on the floor cross legged, that results in an immediate drop in pulse. If I am outside I stand with legs crossed.
Obviously I am in a better state than many people recovering from covid as I was not hospitalised and did not spend my symptomatic two weeks on bed rest so my body is not very deconditioned. I am well enough to do my usual online teaching job and carry out activities of daily living despite my tachycardia. But I thought I would share my experience of dealing with post-covid tachycardia in the hope that it might be useful for other people.
(Hopefully once I’ve beaten the tachycardia I can find a solution to my strange lung pressure issue! I can’t bear high air pressure and get air hunger, especially at rest. I’m hoping increased exercise will lead to greater lung expansion)
Today, for the second morning, I got up and did not have postural tachycardia. The key is to drink a glass of water 20 minutes before rising and to get up slowly, keeping the knees bent and slightly leaning forward.
I have also managed to walk around the house without getting tachycardia, there's a small rise in pulse going upstairs but within normal limits. As long as I keep my fluids up I feel I'm winning the battle. Going for walks is proving more of a challenge, I'm trying to keep the pulse below 110 (for a gentle amble) and this is fine for the first 5 minutes; I slow and drink water when it starts heading for 110. It can suddenly jump to 120 and I stop and cross my legs over, as I know if it sustains at 120 it will trigger fatigue. It is so unpredictable, it can be 120 and then drop to 85 on standing still and then stays at 95. There seems to be no rhyme or reason. I'm guessing variations of fluid levels alter it. Last night it suddenly shot to 150 while walking despite me not feeling any different. I'm hoping that, just like my standing pulse has improved, my walking pulse will also get better over time as my venous return improves.
Then it will be upper body I need to work on. I currently get a rise in pulse every time I raise my arms, even brushing my teeth gives a slight rise and getting dressed also triggers it, let alone doing the laundry or sitting to chop vegetables. But I figure upper body strength will be helped by Iyengar yoga and I need to practice getting back to standing poses to get the full benefit. At the moment at home when I get tachycardia I sit crossed legged on the floor and it returns to normal - I managed to play boules sitting down at the weekend
This morning I stood up and did not have tachycardia. I even managed to walk to the bathroom with a normal pulse. Admittedly it did increase when I brushed my teeth (and more so when I got dressed). But this is quite a development. Let me explain.
On the 17th March 2020, a couple of days before lockdown, my 15 year old developed a cough. Just a mild occasional one, not a hacking cough, but the warning signs were there and we went into isolation. He never developed more than this mild cough, though it went on for at least 6 weeks. Several of his friends also had it and apparently a parent of a fellow pupil had a positive covid diagnosis.
The next day I had a cough and sore throat so called in sick. I had mild fatigue but never developed a fever. I felt better after a few days and told my manager I would be back after a week and I duly returned to work. Later that evening I developed shortness of breath and chest tightness. This later developed into a central chest pressure where it felt I might stop breathing, exacerbated by exercise. But on day 16 I felt better. On day 17 I even phoned a student and a work colleague, with just mild shortness of breath.
On day 18 it all changed. I was overcome with extreme fatigue and shortness of breath on exertion. Over the next few days I developed anxiety and panic attacks. Then the fog lifted and I realised that what I really had was tachycardia. I had tachycardia when standing up and moving around and it seemed to be getting worse. It appeared to be autonomic, as I also developed a severe aversion to food which was clearly not gastric; I had to do breathing exercises in order to eat. Eventually I could stand it no more and went to casualty.
After a thorough check up all they could find was sinus tachycardia with a mild rise in blood pressure. The doctor suggested maybe a mild myocarditis which would improve on bed rest. As one of my bloods was slightly raised I was started on anti-coagulants and would have a lung scan to check for a clot on Monday.
The next day I felt awful, presumable due to the anti-coagulants. I spent the day in bed (where, incidentally, my pulse stayed in the 60s) but got up in the evening. I had a massive surge in pulse with chest pain and resultant panic attack and ended up in casualty again. Here an x-ray was taken and the doctor reassured me that he did not think there was anything wrong with my heart or lungs (I think he thought I was just an anxious patient, a common problem for tachycardia patients but I am also bipolar which colours perceptions).
The lung scan was normal and the doctor in the acute admissions clinic sympathetic and interested. I’m on a waiting list for a 24 hour ECG and echocardiogram.
The paramedic earlier had told me he thought I had Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS) and I looked it up; it fitted everything I was experiencing. The tachycardia on standing and moving around, exacerbated by lifting my arms (chopping vegetables gives me a pulse of 125!), the shortness of breath and chest pain, even the panic attacks. Over the next few weeks I recognised other symptoms such as tachycardia after eating, heat intolerance (my record tachycardia was 140 on the VE bank holiday due to gardening in the sun) and air hunger when sitting and concentrating. It is now 8 1/2 weeks since I developed my assumed covid symptoms yet I’m still recovering from the experience. The prognosis for POTS due to a post-viral Dysautonomia is generally good and I instigated rehabilitative techniques early, an advantage of being an ex-nurse who uses cognitive behavioural therapy daily to manage mental health. But I’ll discuss that in another thread.
My ability to write an assignment would improve tremendously if there wasn't a 15 year old downstairs shouting at his computer/friends.
It has just started to pour down too, and my cabin fever (due to broken toe) fills me with the impossible desire to go for a walk in the rain. Though I'm less enamoured of the fact that the storm appears to be interrupting my internet access.
Oh well, back to work.
Unless you are someone with a mental illness, it can be difficult to comprehend how stress, anxiety and depression are so intricately linked and why it is so difficult to manage.
Yesterday morning I received a phone call to tell me that a close family relative was seriously ill in hospital. I am very experienced at dealing with anxiety-inducing situations so set about limiting my risks. I contacted my husband so he was aware, fulfilled my duties in contacting further relatives and then looked at my workload. I decided that my marking workload was manageable for the day and that clearing it would be a good move in case I needed to take a break. I kept my evening appointment and informed my manager of my situation. A phone call from another relative late in the evening informed me that the situation was much improved and was no longer as serious as first thought. A win-win for me, you might think, with improved outcome for said relative and mental health well managed.
Except today I have depression. Only mild depression, my bipolar disorder tends to swing its extremes more in the other direction. But depression, none the less, and clearly a response to yesterday. Luckily I am in a situation where I work flexibly so I can take a step back from work temporarily if I wish; other people have a much difficult time without family and work support. But it does make me reflect on the fact that even good management of stresses won't necessarily prevent a poor mental health response.
A well meaning friend recently said to me that mental health was caused by society and that what is needed was to support people to change behaviours (they also mentioned trusting in God and I pointed out that my mental health has never negatively impacted on my faith, and perhaps the church might approach Christians who have experienced mental health challenges to learn from them about keeping faith when times are hard). But, much as I believe that society does impact on mental health and that behaviour change is important (my doctoral research looks at motivational support for people with mental health challenges), there is a risk in blaming the person here. Behavioural approaches are very helpful, in my experience, but the mental illness is still there and needs managing; it doesn't go away. I can get by without medication as I have an unusually supportive and flexible lifestyle but for many people this isn't a possibility and I think people often underestimate the impact of daily stresses, from minor work or home challenges to the big issues of loneliness. Things build up and even a small thing can trigger a major response. One of my main stressors is conflict as I have social anxiety.
Onwards and upwards. I start the day by giving thanks for the health of my brother and now I'm going to spend some time reading some papers for my literature review.
Back at work this week, doesn’t time fly? Whilst it is great to have a couple of weeks off (though I did manage to do a bit of checking emails and mark a few stray essays), I do like going back to the usual routine of work and study. Structure plays a big part in my management of my bipolar disorder and several weeks of family visits, parties and general social interaction, coupled with a disrupted routine, are always unsettling for me.
A nice week back as well, with no marking or tutorials, and just planning and admin to do. This has given me the opportunity to get stuck in with my doctorate studies so I’ve completed the module 3 work on reviewing literature and formally started my literature review for my research. Two days of searching and I have 15 articles/theses/books, half of which I already had! I knew the subject of mental health in distance education was poorly investigated but I had hoped for a bit more. The key issue was separating out generic articles on supporting health and wellbeing in higher education from those concerning students with established mental health challenges within distance education, the latter being the area I am interested in. Now I need to get to work on summarising these articles, identifying themes and then going forward to the next round of searching. I need to look further into motivational support for students with mental health challenges but suspect I will need to look more generically at motivational support in distance education.
Well, it has been a quick 2 months! I’ve done a residential
weekend, two modules of study, two seminar forums and submitted a 500-word
assignment on context and ethics. I admit the writing was a huge slog but I’m
loving the doctorate programme; it’s such a great opportunity to explore a
subject I'm passionate about.
So, what are the key things I’m taking from my studies so far?
The module on developing as a researching professional has given me the idea to write a chapter in my thesis on my own reflections as a researcher with mental health challenges, adding my own perspective to the student voices.
Looking at the context of my research has enabled me to reflect more on who else is involved in my research and at what stage. I have established contact with several stakeholders, and this has helped me to identify potential issues and priorities within my proposal and enabled me to clarify key issues within it, as well as opening opportunities to share my work with my colleagues. The chat with a member of the Learning Analytics Department has enhanced my perspective on the importance of data analytics in my research, and the resources available to support me.
The ethics section of the module has highlighted the need to communicate my research to my colleagues and answer any questions they may have as their students may be participants; I had previously focused my attention on ethics just in relation to participants and the research community. I have started to address this via forums and meetings.
I’m using this month to catch up on some reading, update my development plan and get to know some referencing tools ready for the literature review module in the new year. Scary but exciting.
What is it with starting something? I have several important bits of work to get done in the next 10 days but it can be such a struggle to start something. I need to set myself some small, achievable goals. So, aim to get 4 essays marked this afternoon, for instance, or write 500 words of my assignment today.
Now, which do I want to avoid most, the marking or the assignment?
This assignment is harder to complete than I thought, and not necessarily due to the content. November is a busy time for ALs, virtually all modules have assignments due then and it is a tough schedule to work with, despite planning ahead and only working part time.
In spite of this, I have really enjoyed this term. It has reinforced my identity as a researcher within my own field and helped me to clarify what I want to achieve from my research, enabling me to develop my ideas on how to achieve this. The professional framework plan has provided me with a structure in which to develop goals within a manageable timeframe.
The discussion on macro context made me explore further into the government’s influence on higher education provision. Obviously, I was aware of the impact of politics on curriculum from my Master in Ed studies but I hadn’t looked specifically at mental health. I was surprised that meso was considered a neglected context, as my meso context is a central part of my proposal, and this made me reflect more on how the OU is a very different environment to other places of higher education and how working for the OU reinforces my own values in education and forms its own ‘bubble’. I thought writing about the micro context would be easier, it is, after all, where I spend my working life. But in many ways this makes it more challenging as I realised a lot of what I do is not tangible. But that, obviously, is one of the reasons why I am doing my research.
Completing this assignment will feel like a firm step on the path to achieving my doctorate and it is good to get into the writing early.
I have just finished prepping my first assignment marking for K220 Death, dying and bereavement and it has brought back the memory of last year's marking when I felt so privileged to read my students' reflections on their own experiences. Last year it was a very moving and beautiful experience (some accounts had me in tears) so I am very much looking forward to marking this year's submissions.
Now, back to my own, far less beautiful, assignment writing for my prof doc.
Last week I was completing the module on the context
of research. What a rabbit hole the macro section turned out to be! I was aware
of my need to discuss government frameworks and policy in my research, most
specifically the emphasis on value for money and student outcomes but actually
trawling through government websites trying to find it seems an endless task. I
did find some useful documents on government aims, though these were usually on
higher education as a whole rather than distance learning. But there were a few
helpful ones on mental health provision and I was especially pleased to find a
reference to the social model of disability as that will link well to my
discussion on the context of disability in society. That was something I found
missing in the module materials on context, that as well as professional and
government frameworks there might also be societal ones. I intend to put my
research into the experiences of students with mental health challenges within the emerging emancipatory
model of disability and it was useful to note how government policy was influenced
by disability theory.
I had a mammogram yesterday, just a routine call up because I am 50. The leaflet that arrived with my appointment was very detailed about the pros and cons of screening, as a part of the informed consent. I found it an interesting read as we explore the ethics of screening as part of K219 'Critical issues in health and wellbeing'. My husband was quick to ask how I felt about going for screening and whether I wanted to.
But I have no anxiety at all about health screening. My anxiety in my bipolar disorder is caused by unfamiliar environments and I've worked in health and social care, practice and teaching, for over 30 years. There is nothing unfamiliar about anything health related, I live and breathe it. I have no fear of dentists either, I see being jabbed with needles in the mouth as a parallel with me having spent years jabbing needles in people's eyes.
But, obviously, many people with mental health challenges do find screening a cause for anxiety. This is because people's experiences of disability and mental illness are individual and contextual. This is one of the criticisms of the social model of disability, that it sees disability in the form of barriers that society creates but neglects the individual and how they see the world. And it's the reason why I'm a fan of a more emancipatory approach, which promotes voice and participation. The social model is very useful for breaking down barriers, especially physical ones, but its time to empower disabled people to take control and this can only be done by respecting their individual needs.
Yesterday I decided not to study despite having a free afternoon. My doctorate was beginning to take over my every thought and my experience of hypomania tells me that I need to take a break. So I spent the afternoon on my spinning wheel instead 😊
Oh, and it was my 20th wedding anniversary so we went out and had a lovely dinner at Trinity. Where I may possibly have discussed my research with my husband. But I let him chat about work too.
Feeling much clearer in thought today. Rests are an important part of maintaining resilience.
I’m very much an aural learner; as a student I compose essays in my head while out walking (this is probably helped by the hypomanic experience of continuous mental discourse) and I struggle with visual learning. No mind maps or pictures for me, I write my plans out in a very linear way. When teaching practical tasks I mirror this by breaking them down into simple stages which are clearly explained. So, I went for a walk this morning and cleared a dilemma about my research cohort which has been bugging me.
I decided originally to use my K219 cohort as my participant group. This was mainly because it has a high number of students with declared disabilities but also because K219 offers an opportunity to support students who are just starting out at level 2 and are developing their independent learning at a post-foundation level on a more generic health related module rather than a specialised one.
But a few weeks ago, I started getting a few quibbles. If I target K219 students, I may have to recruit students from other tutor groups. We use group tuition on K219 and tutors know each other well so I would hope this would not throw up too many conflicts. But it does mean that I might be researching students whose full data I cannot access. The analytics database used in the university helps me to identify students who are falling behind and is a key tool in targeting students for support. Recruiting from other tutor groups means I will miss out on this data. I also don’t want to confuse students about who to approach for learning support.
I started considering using my other modules for recruitment. This would mean I could use available data to be responsive to students and fits in well with my action research aims. But it throws up its own issues; it will be more complicated as I will need to liaise across several module teams and a very large tutor cohort. It introduces students from a more diverse group; this might be beneficial in gathering more varied data but might also lead to fewer applicable conclusions. It all seemed far too ‘messy’.
So today I went for a walk and decided to embrace the issues raised by recruiting K219 students. My analytics data base provides an overall module picture and this can be using for targeting motivational support for students not in my tutor group. My own students will get individually targeted support. This comparison can form part of the analysis, as will the difference between own tutor and alternative tutor providing motivational support. It might draw up interesting discussion about who needs to provide motivational support to students with mental health challenges and how personal it needs to be in practice. I will need to be clear in my research information that I will be providing motivational support in the form of interventions but that students need to contact their own tutor for module support.
This has also made me think about other issues, such as personally addressed emails. I already send out weekly emails as a group email to my students with generic addressing of ‘Dear students’, these will continue and will also be sent to non-tutor group participants. The additional motivational emails will be personally addressed, allowing a comparison of student response to these approaches. I’ve also developing ideas on motivational presentations in the online tutorial room, including one targeting mental health while studying. My research data will focus on the interviews I have with students exploring what has been helpful in developing their independent learning.
Making a firm decision on my cohort allows me to step forward and plan my interventions with a target group in mind and a useful stepping stone on my research journey.
One of the tasks on the Prof doc programme was to write 300-500 describing your proposal. So here it is!
My research proposal has a working title of ‘How can students with mental health challenges be empowered to become independent learners within the technology-enhanced learning environment?’. It is emancipatory action research; emancipatory because it has an aim of giving a voice to a disadvantaged group, and action research because it will be undertaken as part of my work as an Associate Lecturer with the Open University. The subject has a personal interest for me as I have bipolar disorder and have a strong sense of empathy for my students who are studying whilst experiencing mental health challenges.
Technology-enhanced learning has the potential to make distance learning more accessible to students with mental health challenges as it offers a flexible format where the student has control over their social engagement and schedule. Consequently, more Open University students disclose mental health challenges than any other UK university (The Open University, 2018). But research by Richardson (2015) shows that students with mental health challenges are less likely to complete and pass modules than non-disabled students, though they attain just as good grades when they do pass. Distance learning can be isolating and people with mental health challenges may need extra support to maintain their studying progress and reach their goals. Developing the skills to become independent learners can empower students to take control of their learning, build self-confidence and achieve their potential.
Using a flexible and participatory voice-led approach within an emancipatory action research framework, my research will use case study interviews to investigate the learning experiences of students with mental health challenges, alongside individual study skills support which includes positive reflection. It will be collaborative, encouraging participation in decision making and seeking negotiated meanings, whilst empowering participants to take control of their learning and influence teaching with the aim of developing an inclusive distance learning approach which is beneficial for those with mental health challenges and potentially other students within the university.
I will use interpretative phenomenological analysis to interpret my results. This is a qualitative approach which examines and interprets how the individual makes sense of lived experience and is particularly helpful in examining complex and personal perspectives which are highly subjective. I will encourage students to review transcripts and my subsequent analysis, enabling them to participate in the research process as a form of transformatory critique to question knowledge and inform practice.
Whilst research into the technology-enhanced learning environment is a dynamic field, there is little research into how those with mental health challenges respond to and develop within this environment. By developing greater understanding of their learning needs, this research can influence educational policy and practice within the university, and in the wider academic sphere, so that module development and delivery is more inclusive and retention improved. As emancipatory action research, this research has application at grass roots level, providing the opportunity for students with mental health challenges to be empowered through participation whilst building on skills for independent learning.
The Open University (2018) ‘The OU has the highest number of students declaring a mental health condition in the UK’, University News, The Open University, Milton Keynes [Online] Available at: https://ounews.co/around-ou/university-news/the-ou-has-the-highest-number-of-students-declaring-a-mental-health-condition-in-the-uk/ (Accessed 14th October 2019)
Richardson, J. (2015) ‘Academic attainment in students with mental health difficulties in Distance Education’, International Journal of Mental Health, vol. 44, no. 3, pp.231-240. [Online] Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00207411.2015.1035084 (Accessed 29th November 2018)
During the Prof doc residential weekend I was able to attend a couple of sessions with a librarian which I found really helpful. I've been an AL for 12 years and during this time I have taught students how to do literature searches and completed my own for my history degree and master's research. But it was nice to sit down with an expert and explore the functionality of the library and the other resources available for research studies.
The session introduced me to time saving software for storing articles and referencing. I'm very much a creature of habit and am actually very good at manually referencing but it was time to up my game and I have now downloaded Mendeley as a tool for citations. An organised and easily accessed storage system for articles will make my literature searching so much easier for my doctorate.
The other bonus for the session is that I found an article which fits in perfectly with my research. It is 'Barriers to learning online experienced by students with a mental health disability' (McManus et al, 2017). A lovely article because it is so rare to find academic studies which are so close to my own (distance learning and mental health disability being a niche combination, unfortunately, that's why I'm doing my research) yet from an different perspective. This article focuses on identifying barriers whereas I want to overcome barriers and empower students so it gives a good background for my own research to build on. It also considers the social model of disability and its critics which is relevant to my own philosophical approach to disability. As the first article in my literature search it is an encouraging start.
So, tomorrow afternoon's work is to critically review the article.
Most OU modules start this week so it is always busy for an Associate Lecturer in the first few weeks of October but this year was extra busy for me as I started my Professional Doctorate in Education. Don't know what this is? Well, it is basically a part time doctorate for people in professional practice. Unlike most doctorates which are done at the beginning of a career, a professional doctorate is done later in a career within your own work environment. The OU offers a Professional Doctorate programme in Education or Health and Social Care http://wels.open.ac.uk/research/postgraduate-research/edd
The year 1 residential was last weekend and what an intensive time it was. Not only was it a fantastic opportunity to meet fellow students (it's a distance learning course so meeting others is a valuable experience) and to share ideas and interests, but it was a helpful approach to cementing identity at the beginning of doctoral studies. I was able to explore what it means to be a research professional, reflect on the ethics of research and learn more about critical review of literature. I saw a research project in action which had many similarities to my own. The library session was immensely useful; I may be an AL but it was very helpful to have one to one assistance from a librarian and to learn about relevant software to aid my studies.
Now I'm off on my research journey. I am lucky in that I have a firm structure to work within: 3 days of OU work punctuated by two days for study, an obvious necessity for a manic depressive who needs to plan her schedule clearly to avoid stress. There will be some overlap though as I am doing action research. My current working title is 'How can Students with Mental Health Challenges be Empowered to become Independent Learners within the Technology-enhanced Learning Environment?' but more on that another time.
Now to start my Researching professional development Plan.
Last summer I attended a Death cafe run by the Quakers at the Greenbelt Festival and ever since it has been my ambition to hold one at my free church. Death cafes are referred to in K220 Death, dying and bereavement, one of the modules I teach on. They are an opportunity to have a frank discussion about death in an informal environment, they are not a counselling session or necessarily an information event, but open discussion to encourage reflection on our perspectives and needs. The Anglican church has a similar programme called GraveTalk, which I have purchased the resources for.
So I was really pleased last Sunday to have a discussion with our minister about grieving and the need for churches to serve their congregation in facilitating discussions about dying. He is really keen that we explore mechanisms to do this and I discussed death cafes with him. My church has a scheme where members of the congregation can submit ideas for small groups that they can run for a term, these might be anything from a bible study to a knitting group. I now have this idea for the autumn of hosting a 5 week course which will be a sort of Christian death cafe, with frank discussion, a short biblical perspective and prayer. Currently my outline is looking like an introductory week, death, dying, grieving and resurrection. I'm now thinking about who to ask to co-lead with me and have a couple of ideas.
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