Open University Study: Circumstances

Since becoming a carer, I’ve studied many modules with The Open University. There have been many reasons why I’ve chosen to study. If you’ve read my posts on my journey as a carer, you will know that my father passed away while I was in college. The difficulties that I experienced in coming to terms with this loss resulted in my grades slipping, and my interest in education waning.

I think it is fair to say that the college in question, which shall remain nameless, provided very little support to me during this time. Their primary concern was getting me back into lessons, and not whether I was emotionally ready to be there. I left with some decent grades at A-Level, but I know I could have done better were my head fully into it.

When I became a full-time carer, I suddenly found myself with a lot of “free” time. It’s hard to explain to people who have never lived this situation. My job is a 24/7 job but that doesn’t mean that I don’t get quite a lot of free time. My mother requires help moving about, she needs me to cook for her, to prepare drinks for her, to handle all of the household chores. She, of course, does not need something every minute of every day. I think this may be why people misunderstand our role and have the view that we’re somehow taking the piss. I have to be able to help my mother at any moment, day or night, and I do work hard. However, it doesn’t mean that I always have something to do.

Jennie Lee Building Open University
Jennie Lee Building at Open University Main Campus in Milton Keynes

Wanting to “Do” Something

There’s only so long you can feel stimulated by watching movies or playing video games. I found that I started craving something to keep my mind more active. There didn’t seem much that I could do, though. I couldn’t work because leaving my mother alone for more than an hour puts her in danger. At the time, I neither had the skills, the capital, or the ideas to run a home business. Now I feel I have the skills and ideas, but not the capital. Blogging was a relatively newfangled idea back then, which I didn’t really understand and nor did I believe I had anything interesting to say. Of course, you might feel that I still don’t have anything interesting to say!

I started to focus on one of my biggest regrets, which was not having studied at university. I felt I was smart enough but it just hadn’t happened for me. One night, during a bout of insomnia, I started looking through the Open University website. Before the night was through, I was registered on a course!

Early Experiences

My first course was a social sciences course. I’m not sure why I took it but I did find it interesting. It was a level one course, with several electronically-submitted TMA’s (Tutor Marked Assignments) and one final handwritten assignment in place of an exam. Being a level one course there was only one outcome, a Pass or a Fail. I passed.

I received a big-bulky text book, a leaflet giving instructions for each assignment, some audio CDs and a DVD. All of the course materials were provided, and my tutor linked to some recommended, but optional, books available on Amazon in the welcome message.

I never attended any tutorials due to not being able to arrange care for my mother. The tutorials were also a fair distance away. On this particular course, they were held fortnightly on a weeknight. Other courses have tended to have one or two day-schools that last for five or six hours.

The course content was interesting, well-written and thought-provoking. I dare say that both it, and materials from subsequent modules, have helped shape my worldview. Interaction with the tutor was generally handled via email, although you did have the option to talk on the phone. On many courses, an online forum was available in which the tutor would submit topics for discussion.

Robert Hook Open University Milton Keynes
Robert Hook Building at Open University Main Campus in Milton Keynes

Not Like a Normal University

It seems obvious but I doubt you can equate the experiences of students with The Open University to those of a normal brick and mortar university. You have deadlines for your assignments, you have various styles of lecture, lots of reading to do but it is almost entirely distance learning. It requires some self-discipline. I’m not sure what I originally expected looking back, but it soon became apparent that I couldn’t wing my way through these assignments. I had to make an effort. The average module requires roughly sixteen hours per week in time investment, and you’re provided with a weekly checklist to help you stay on-top of your studies. During periods of difficulty, you can request extensions on most assignments – except for final assignments, except in rare cases.

The social aspect of university isn’t missing, but it’s different. Nowadays, people tend to setup private Facebook groups to chat with other students. In the early days there was a dedicated chatroom for students but that was scrapped due to the “behaviour of some participants”. Students are grouped into regions, so you may find that some students in your Tutor Group live locally but most live fifty or more miles away.

There are various student groups you can join, such as the OU Students Association. You used to be able to setup private discussion forums on the OU system itself but they scrapped that recently.

What Open University Study Did For Me

The first, and most important, thing Open University study did for me was to give me a sense of purpose again. I know, I’m a carer, and that should be enough, but it wasn’t. Too often, I found myself drifting through my days. I’d make mum’s breakfast, vacuum, tidy up, make lunch, help her to the toilet, take a break for a couple of hours, do some more chores, make dinner, help her around again, take another break, get her ready for bed. Rinse, repeat. Day after day after day.

As I mentioned in the second part of my carer’s journey, I didn’t particularly like my previous job but there was something about having set-tasks that gave me a sense of fulfilment. In my role as a carer, I found that I was no longer using my brain. I felt like it was going to mush; that it was being wasted.

Thanks to Open University study, I was given a chance to re-engage my brain, think critically about things and work for my own betterment.

Studying also helped me gain a sense of achievement. Receiving good grades made me feel good. Getting poor grades made me resolve to do better. There’s an almost-narcotic effect that comes with achieving good results. Perhaps it’s because whenever I got a good result, I could share it with my mother and make her proud of me.

Can’t Forget the Skills!

One of the biggest fears in my life currently is what happens to me when my caring days are over. I don’t really like to talk about it but mum’s condition will not get better. Her time on this earth is limited. One day, I’ll be required to face the big, bad world again. For those interested, I’ve semi-fictionalised my fears about this prospect as a screenplay, which you can read here.

I can’t imagine many employers would be eager to hire a woman with next-to-no work experience and relatively few qualifications. I’m under no illusion it’ll be easy but at least I have some decent qualifications backing me up now, and I believe that Open University study shows a desire for self-improvement.

It’s given me some confidence, because I’ve gained new skills. Studying with The Open University has meant that I’ve had to learn effective time-management and organisation. I’ve had to be self-motivated, and I have had to study alongside my everyday work. Additionally, the subjects that I’ve studied are varied, requiring me to adopt different approaches and exercise different skill-sets to achieve good grades on.

I truly believe this improves my future prospects for when my caring days are over.

Helping You Study If You Wish

In a future post, I’ll discuss how you can get into Open University study for yourself if you desired to and were eligible. With the tuition fee changes (yeah, thanks for that!), it can seem extremely intimidating to take on such a huge amount of debt. However, it’s still not impractical for those who want to gain some qualifications, give them a focus beyond caring or simply try and expand their social circle during what can be a desperately lonely phase of their lives. So stick with me, and I’ll update soon.

Thanks for reading.