In Part One of this blog post, we explored the opinions of a mature student studying for a Phd at Lancaster University; in Part Two we will consider the views of Janine Brown, a mature student studying for a Psychology Bachelor’s degree with the Open University. The Open University is the biggest online provider of university-level courses and a great option for anyone wanting to complete distance learning. Janine Brown is in the first year of her degree.
Challenges faced by older learners
Janine recognises many of the same issues voiced by Denise in Part One, stating that older learners have often been out of education for a long time and that this has probably been her greatest challenge. “I’ve found it hard to adjust to the routine of study again, as I’ve been out of education and working for a long time now.”
Another challenge for Janine is the type of study programme she has chosen – although online and distance learning works brilliantly for her in terms of scheduling and fitting around other responsibilities; she has found technology to be a challenge. “It’s not just using new software which can be difficult, it’s not having 24/7 access to a computer. I don’t own my own computer and have been relying on the library to access the internet and write my assignments.”
The Open University has agreements with local libraries to allow their students to use the computers for a limited time each week. Janine feels the agreed time is not enough, which amounts to 10 hours per week. “I need more time to do my work and I need technology to be available at all times.” Janine is now planning to buy a computer to make her learning experience easier, but even with student discount this can be an extremely expensive item for someone in full-time education.
Support from the supervisor
Janine credits her supervisor for being understanding and supportive, saying, “Recently I had to deal with some personal problems and I knew I wouldn’t be able to submit a formal assignment on time. I contacted my supervisor, explained the situation, and she was able to organise for me to have extra time due to special circumstances. I can’t thank her enough for that, as she helped relieve stress at an extremely stressful time.”
As noted by Denise in Part One of this blog post, mature students often have extra responsibilities, such as caring for family members and needing to make last minute changes to their schedules. A supervisor that understands this is essential to their success.
Health and wellbeing initiatives
Health and wellbeing is important to Janine, who feels an understanding of this is crucial to being a good counsellor or therapist – the role that she would like to gain following graduation from her psychology degree. Universities that provide physical learning environments often have well developed health and wellbeing initiatives in place, especially as a rise in mental health issues among students is currently a major point for consideration. But what about institutions that provide a purely online experience?
Janine believes the Open University do have good health and wellbeing policies in place, ensuring that students are informed by providing information in their student starter packs and pointing them in the right direction to access help pages on the website. “I also feel that if I needed some time away from my studies to focus on my health and wellbeing and the need was urgent, I would be supported by the university.”
Technology and library access
Overall, Janine and Denise both had many positive things to say about their learning experiences, although it would seem that online providers may have some more work to do to ensure that their students have proper access to technology and should not be made to rely on having their own computer.
Technology may have to go in for repair or be replaced, so students always need to be able to have access to technology outside of their homes for appropriate lengths of time. Universities should consider providing mature students with more significant access to technology and digital resources in local libraries – they need to increase student-library time for each learner, or they need to consider opening their own libraries withy good representation across the country. These libraries could also serve local communities and improve awareness of the work that the Open University does and raise its profile, as well as allow the institution to expand into other areas of learning.
Basic skills training on key software and applications such as Microsoft Word and Excel should be offered to mature students at a low cost. This will enable them to feel confident is using technology to complete research and assignments and will get them off to a running start.
Providing a social network
Physical universities should consider providing special social events only for mature students – this will help them to meet with others their own age and make meaningful connections. This should be done ahead of the course starting, as Denise stated that she felt attending university for an induction helped her to settle in, but also throughout the first year to provide students with as many opportunities to make friends as possible.
Considering ways to involve the families of mature students in social events could be another great option, as this will allow them to make connections without losing precious family time. Providing students with creche and childcare options will also help to alleviate stress and allow students to focus on their studies.
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