Some years back I went to Birkbeck College to study for a postgraduate certificate in higher education (PGCE in HE) for the simple reason that the OU didn’t have one of its own. Rather than having a PGCE in HE, the OU has a programme (called Aspire) which enables tutors to make submissions to become fellows of the Higher Education Academy (which was something that I had already achieved through an earlier pilot version of the programme).
I enjoyed the Birkbeck PGCE in HE. I especially enjoyed the classroom teaching where the lecturers presented some really useful background information about the HE sector that I was missing (despite having been working in HE for quite some time). I also liked the fact that it introduced really useful bits of education theory that allowed me to make sense of the design of some of the modules and courses that I had been working on. To put it simply: I found it useful.
After finishing, I asked myself a simple question: what next? Or, what else could I study?
I did a few internet searches and found some part time master’s programmes at nearby universities. The programmes I were looking at were about higher education and education management.
There were a few reasons why I started to look into this area: I’ve found myself in a position where I’ve been doing more and more management ‘stuff’, and I felt as if I ought to get more of a thorough grasp of what I supposed to be doing. Plus, I was inspired by one of the tutors I have been working with who appeared to have formally studied both further education and higher education as a subject. Another argument was: more education is good, right? The stuff that I learn might be useful in my job.
One institution where I didn’t immediately look was the institution in which I work. After some investigation I realised it was possible to take the credits I had gained from Birkbeck and transfer them into an MA programme (I didn’t realise I could do this!) I then realised that I could study a 60 point postgrad module that had the code and title: EE812 Educational Leadership: exploring strategy, and then finish with a postgrad dissertation module.
What follows is a quick blog summary of how things are going. I’m currently mid-way through EE812 module. There have been some ups and downs, and I don’t (yet) know how everything will end (since I’ve yet to complete the final tutor marked assessment and the end of module assessment).
I’m sharing all this since it might be useful for someone (and also it will enable me to straighten out some of my thoughts about what I’ve learnt).
Preparing to study
After realising that all the study materials were only available online (and we were not going to be sent any books) I decided to order a print on demand copy of all the module materials. I also realised that there was a ‘reader’ textbook that was connected to the module. Although all the papers and readings from that book were available through the module website, I decided to order a copy of the textbook, Education Leadership: context, strategy and collaboration, from a second hand bookshop so I could have my own copy (and underline stuff easily).
After getting these two things sorted, I realised that there was something else that I could do that might be useful.
Preparing my Kindle
About ten years ago I was given a first generation Amazon Kindle by a family member who wasn’t using it. Over the years that I’ve had it, I’ve only used it a handful of times. I remember that I once used it to download some OU module materials, but after doing this as an experiment, my Kindle sat, unused and unloved on a shelf whilst I got on with other things.
After a bit of internet searching, I realised I could download all the unit materials from the module website to my PC and then transfer them to my Kindle by sending them to an email address that was linked to the Kindle. I found out what this was by logging into my Amazon account, and clicking around until I found a section called ‘manage your content and devices’, clicked on the devices link, and then clicked on ‘Kindle’ to find the email address (which ends with ‘kindle.com’).
You can download the module materials by clicking on the resources tab on the module website, and choosing ‘downloads’. This presents different types of documents that can be downloaded, such as PDF versions, ePUBs, Kindle versions and Word documents. To download all the Kindle versions, I clicked on the Kindle ebook link, clicked on ‘select all’ to choose everything, and then clicked on ‘download selected files as zip’.
After I had downloaded everything, the next stage was to send everything to my Kindle email address. This isn’t, however, as easy it sounds, since there is a maximum limit of the number of Kindle files that could be sent in one go. To work around this, I emailed the Kindle files in batches of 10. If you Kindle is connected to WiFi, you don’t have to do anything further; in under a minute (with my internet connection), the Kindle received and installs all the Kindle files.
The final step was to sort all the module materials that have been transferred to the Kindle into some sort of order. I like to sort everything out into ‘collections’ (which is a bit like a folder). I create a new collection called EE812. I then move each bit of module materials into this new collection. After I’ve finished doing this, I turn the Kindle WiFi off (to save power), and I’m ready to get reading.
Sorting out my study files (and stationary)
When I started, I had one lever arch file for everything: the print-on-demand module materials, and all my accompanying notes.
After about a month of studying, I realised that this wasn’t working; I needed a second lever-arch file that could be used to hold the printouts of readings that were referenced from the module materials and downloaded from the university library. I figured out that it was useful to write the activity number for every reading on top of every paper, so I roughly know what it was.
Figuring out a study approach
When I first became an OU student, one of my tutors set an exercise that really got me thinking: take a blank piece of A4 paper, divide it up into days of the week on one axis, and hours of the day on the other. Cross out the hours on the day that you were busy, such as doing work, travelling to work, having dinner, and socialising. The hours that you have left could (potentially) be hours where you could fit your university study in. I remember realising that there was not enough time to fit everything in, and I had to stop doing something.
I managed to be pretty organised during my first time around, but this time I’m finding it difficult to find the time to read everything that I need to, and to think about how the readings relate to the things that I do in my day job (which is a bit part of the module). I tend to ‘snatch’ periods of study, but manage to find chunks of time on the run up to the TMAs. I’ve also developed a habit of carrying the reader textbook to most places, along with the Kindle so I can read on the train as I travel to and from meetings (if I’m not too tired, of course).
There used to be (and, arguably, there still is) a part of me that can easily became somewhat grumpy if the term ‘strategy’ is mentioned in a meeting.
I think my grumpiness stems from a perception that this is one of many ‘business terms’ (or terms that sound ‘business like’) that can be used to bamboozle or obfuscate. It can also be considered to be meaningless if used in the wrong context. I may also be grumpy since it presents hints of future change, and no one likes change.
In some respects, I feel this grumpiness is in itself changing. I think it’s changing into a curiosity that is more rigorous than is used to be before. Whenever that word is dropped into a meeting, I now ask myself (and others) the question of: ‘what do you mean?’, and also ‘why is it important?’
In some ways, I’m not really the perfect student for EE812, but I don’t think that matters. The perfect student might be someone who is a deputy head or a subject leader at a primary or secondary school, or a senior manager at a further education college, or some other institution. This said, the discussions and readings that are presented, do still feel broadly appropriate for higher education.
One of the things that has been really interesting is that the module has sharpened my awareness of the different management and leadership actions that are happening around me. A part of this comes from the assessment approach that the module adopts. The assessments requires you use and apply your context to demonstrate your understanding of the module materials.
The module presents different perspectives about what management and leadership is all about, and I’ve recognised some of the approaches that some of the different leaders (both current and previous) have applied.
One really interesting consequence of the study is the reason for different institutional units or initiatives are now becoming clearer to me. The module talks about professional learning communities, and I can see that these do exist (in different forms) within the institution.
Like so much of learning, study can give you a vocabulary and a framework to both explain and understanding things. If it has sharpened my thinking, it has also sharpened my ability to see the good and the not so good.
There’s also another consequence: there is a lot of change happening in the university at the moment, and some of it can seem a little overwhelming on occasions. Unexpectedly (to some degree), I’m also a part of that change too. I’m using the study as an opportunity to figure out what some of that change might mean. In doing so, I guess I may become more prepared, and more able to speak about it too.
Unpicking the challenges
Other than studying for my PGCE at Birkbeck College I haven’t done any formal study of Education before. Education isn’t my ‘home’ discipline (Computing and IT is), which means that I’ve been a bit outside of my comfort zone.
One of the hardest things has been understanding the requirements of the assessments (and I don’t think I’m quite there yet in doing the kind of writing that is expected of me), and doing all the reading.
There is a lot of reading: there’s the module materials, the set text, and all these papers, and we’re encourage to go find even more. Some of it can be pretty hard going, especially since I feel that (on occasion) I’m not especially well versed in the conventions of the discipline. There are two examples of this: the first is about what ‘theory’ is, and the second is about terminology and the use of language.
The term ‘theory’ seems to be used quite a lot. I came to the module with a scientific understanding of what is meant by theory, but I soon came to realise that ‘theory’ in this module roughly means: ‘an idea about something, or a way of looking at something’ which has been suggested by an academic or researcher. What we have to do as students is connect our own educational setting to the different theories that are presented through the module. There lies two significant challenges: doing the thinking (to make the connection), and doing the writing (to present the connection to your tutor).
One of the terms that appears very frequently is ‘normative’; anything and everything could be normative; it’s a word that seems to find its way into every unit of the module. Initially, I had no idea no real idea about what the various writers were trying to say!
A further challenge, and a fun challenge, is that we had to design and run a short pilot research project to study educational leadership and management. This bit of the module appears to begin to lead us towards the dissertation, and closer into the world of the different ‘theorists’ that are written about. In some respects, this bit of the module is all about providing us students with a bit of academic training about how to do research into this very specific field of study.
A few months ago I bumped into one of the module academics at an internal conference. I was asked whether I was enjoying the module. At the time, I had ‘module anxiety’, which meant that I was fretting about the second TMA, and this makes me fear that I might have come across as a little grumpy on that occasion.
As I move towards the third TMA, I read a paper in the reader text book which made me think: ‘actually, I quite liked that one… and there’s a lot in there that I recognise.’ Although I’ve got a long way to go before getting to the end of the module (and I’ve yet to settle into a regular study rhythm, despite having passed the half way point) I finally feel as if I’m settling into the module.
Thank you for sharing this. The Open University provides the opportunity for us all to gain a Masters in a world where most of us are struggling to maintain our own personal and professional lives on a daily basis. The aspects you discuss and 'anxiety' is something I think we all face. I don't usually get grumpy (until an hour before submission) but I eat my body weight in 'essay food'. It brings back the memories of studying at the RNCM where the focus was much more on 'doing' than writing or 'thinking'. I agree with the term theory and trying to use it for and against certain points. I have even sat here at my desk arguing with myself about the points I'm trying to argue
This year, I have had a student pass away (aged 10) and last Sunday my good friend and colleague passed away, this week will be her funeral and it's always a difficult time saying goodbye. I really resonated with the perfect student part of your writing and dread what my tutor actually thinks about me, but only I know and the nearest around me understand what has been quite a difficult year. The last TMA I received a respectable mark and despite this, I spent the following few days after submission worrying about what I hadn't done.
Lastly, the thing I hadn't realised more than now, was that the tutor groups and way the OU works is quite supportive and even more so with our research projects. I am more inspired after the last TMA and trying to get to grips with TMA3. The more I read, the more I feel overwhelmed and distracted. It's crazy working more than full time and undertaking this module. I started off in September part time (for study purposes) but have found myself collaborating more and filling up my time even more!
Happy Sunday to you!
Always an interesting read and timely for me as I decide whether or not to study and train for a PGCE in FE over the next two years. I'm sure life used to be easier for the last generation - you had the occasional fork in the road. Me? I keep ending up at a mini-roundabout of choices.
Very interesting reflections, Chris. As a soon-to-be student of OU's BSc Computing & IT, I stumbled on your blog and then I see you're pursuing the Masters in Education! Like you, I studied a PGCE and was surprised those credits could count towards an MA. It's great because the credits cut off a whole chunk of the Masters, which is hard enough anyway when trying to fit around work and life. Since I'm doing Comp & IT, I'll wait a while before doing the MA but it's great to read how you're getting on with EE812, the problems you've faced, and solutions you've found. Your tip about the Kindle is useful for any kind of studying - it's good to be able to carry our course notes around to maximize study time, especially with the amount of reading that has to be done! Since Education is MY "home" discipline, I can tell you, the field of education is all about theory... and pedagogy... and theoretical pedagogy and pedagogical theory - that is, of course, when it's not about strategy! But since you've come to Education from a scientific background, the thing to bear in mind is that (as you've probably noticed) most things in Education are abstract. Educational theorists take the intangible (how people learn) and try to give it form. But doing so can only be achieved to a certain extent. It's like the difference between a diagram of an atom and what an actual atom looks like. It is a strange discipline! Anyway, I look forward to reading more of your thoughts on EE812. Best of luck with your upcoming assignments!