Back to university

An accurate depiction of lecture halls in 2020

When I started my Open University degree in 2015, nobody could have predicted that 5 years later, online study would be pretty much the only option across the whole of the UK. Open University must be leading the way for many other universities in how to move all lectures and activities online… Perhaps now OU will start getting some of the recognition it deserves.

The concept of online study always receives mixed reviews: some don’t class it as a ‘real’ degree, others think it’s easy. But when it comes to an employer interviewing one candidate with 6 years’ work experience and an OU degree in contrast to another candidate who spent three years sleeping their way through lectures, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out who they’ll choose.

I chose to study Psychology and, by taking seven years to finish my BSc, continue to meander my way through all kinds of different sub-disciplines – much like a 7 course taster menu – to decide which area I could see myself pursuing a career in. I’ve also experienced three very different job roles since 2015, identifying what I do and don’t want to do in the future 9-5. By comparing areas of study and work that I love (and most definitely hate), I’ve got a strong idea of my strengths and weaknesses and where these are best utilised professionally.

Joining the OU just after leaving sixth form gave me the headspace to focus on developing a career but without the all-encompassing ‘university experience’. There was no way Freshers Week and I would have ever worked out. Instead, I worked in a beautiful local cafe in Devon before getting my first ‘proper job’ at a Sixth Form, so really, there was no escaping education at all back then. This role taught me so much about the education system: how teachers really are just people (although it was still weird having the people that were my teachers becoming my colleagues), the challenges students go through each day and how beneficial strong networks within an educational setting can help them, and also that educational psychology – where I’d envisioned my career taking me – most definitely wasn’t for me.

Moving through my degree, I’ve been exposed to subjects that have sparked a huge passion within me. This is the beauty of OU: you learn at a time of your life that works for you, and you have the desire – and maturity – to continue to do so. Right now, starting my fifth out of sixth year, I’m excited to continue to learn and cultivate the niche part of Psychology that I’ll stay excited about.

I’ve met an incredibly broad range of people through studying with the OU – an experience somewhat limited at brick universities because you’re surrounded by people who haven’t really created their identities yet. Working with such different types of people is eye-opening and useful for understanding different perspectives: some students are in their 70s and bring a wholly unique perspective of the world than I could ever have thought of. Others are parents whose children have left home, who are looking to pursue a career at a time of their lives which is right for them. Some are disabled and not able to attend ‘brick’ universities. This diversity is incredible and a refreshing part of the university experience.

Nevertheless, OU study still has its challenges. There is little option to work with other students and the idea of brainstorming is almost non-existent because of minimised face-to-face interaction. Facebook groups and forums do help, but there are fewer ‘eureka’ moments that only truly come from engaging in literal discussion on a topic. It’s easy to forget that tutors and other students are people behind a screen, because – as we all know – words online can be taken in the wrong way. This becomes especially true when an assignment comes back with ‘constructive criticism’ that only reads to be harsh without the verbal communication needed to explain its meaning fully.

In the current climate where nearly all university students are interacting with their studies online, I hope there is a change of perspective of the hundreds of thousands of students – and tutors – who’ve always learned or taught in this way. I hope students consider how the convenience of OU study could improve their opinion of academia and perhaps open doors earlier than they’d be opened should brick university remain the only option. Mostly, though, I hope OU students get the respect they deserve from their brick university counterparts. Now, we’re all in this together.