The Eternal Student

As those of you who follow me on Twitter have noticed recently, it’s not just our students who are taking exams. I’ve been making steady progress through the Open University’s offering of modules and am (slowly) working towards two different degrees.

Why would you do that?

The first question people tend to throw at me is why on earth I would do that. My students wonder if it will end in promotions and pay-rises (short answer: no, it won’t). My colleagues are sceptical of how I find the time. My friends point out that I already have a Maths degree (how forgetful of me), so why would I want to study it again?

To be honest, my main motivations are personal interest and the need I have to keep my brain ticking over on something challenging. I’m not a chess player or crossword solver and I don’t play bridge with the neighbours. I actually enjoy learning. A secondary benefit is that I can share what I learn with my students and make their experience of school all the more diverse and interesting. And yet another benefit is that it reminds me what it’s like to have to learn new material, balance my workload and to prepare for examinations. My students like hearing how I get on, we can talk on common ground about the best ways to learn and revise and one student even lent me a calculator when I needed it. Nice role-reversal there!

As for the promotions and pay-rises. Well, we all know teaching doesn’t work like that. As a classroom teacher you work your way up the rungs of the pay scale. Want more? Then you have to move up into management and, I would worry, be further removed from your subject. I think there is little financial gain from completing a second degree although it could perhaps make you an appealing candidate to a potential new employer if you were looking to move. In fact there is quite a cost attached to studying, more on which later.

No more beards and blackboards at 2am

If you enjoy learning then the Open University can become a bit addictive. They offer everything from languages and arts courses, through to sciences and maths and even management and IT modules. I started out nearly 3 years ago with a short course on Forensic Science. Before I started, all I knew about the OU was that they used to take over BBC2 in the middle of the night so that bearded men could mutter away about advanced calculus or renaissance art.

Things have moved on considerably: the course books are of an excellent standard, they make very good use of their VLE platform (essentially Moodle) and they provide online tutorials, face-to-face tutorials, and any additional computer software and DVDs relevant to the course of study. They also typically provide PDF copies of their resources so that you can carry them around on an iPad etc – perfect for a bit of studying while supervising some reprobate in detention. For my language course they even made the audio resources available through iTunes as well as on CD.

Two degrees?

I have perhaps bitten off more than I can chew here, but the modules you study slowly accumulate until you have met the requirements for any particular degree. I therefore have two ‘pots’ on the go: one for an Open degree and one for an MSc in Mathematics. The Open degree is unique to the OU and essentially allows you to form a Bachelor’s degree out of any of the modules they offer (provided you have enough credits at each level).

So far in the Open degree I have Forensic Science (Level 1), Beginners’ Chinese (Level 1), Applied mathematical techniques (Level 2), and Graphs, Networks and Designs (Level 3). I’m about a third of the way there.

In the MSc, I’ve taken Variational Principles, Fractal Geometry and just last week I sat the exam for Coding Theory. That’s three out of six modules completed, although the sixth is a dissertation.

But you already have a Maths degree!

People who haven’t studied Maths can never quite appreciate how diverse a subject it really is. I had this conversation recently with a colleague who teaches Accounting. Apart from professional exams and learning a load of legislation, Accounting is essentially a finite game. Maths doesn’t really work like that. Moreover, throughout my degree I focussed on pure mathematics (and even there I was more in favour of analysis than algebra). Moreover, I have never formally studied any statistics. (I did enjoy taking a MOOC last summer: Biostatistics bootcamp – I’d recommend that to anyone teaching S2 or higher.)

I’m using the Open degree to study applications of mathematics across mechanics, statistics and decision maths (along with languages and some science for sh*ts and giggles) and the MSc to see if I ever feel like doing a PhD someday.

Money, money, money

I’m sure part of the OU’s popularity, aside from the convenience of studying alongside working, was the value for money it offered. Sadly, they now have to charge similar fees as standard universities. The MSc is quite standard: each module costs something like £750 making for an approximate £4500 cost for the whole qualification. The undergraduate modules are the ones that have been hit hard and the prices have effectively tripled. A standard undergraduate module used to cost £450 – exceptional value for money, I would say – but now costs £1350 which is prohibitively expensive.

I was fortunate: starting my Open degree two years ago, I am on the ‘transitional’ arrangements meaning they will honour the lower prices until August 2017. However, that means I need to cram about 200 credits of study into two years while working full time if I don’t want to remortgage the house to complete the degree! Watch this space…

Think, Pair, Share

  • Is there something (not necessarily mathematical) that you always wanted to learn?Or are you looking for some specific subject knowledge development? Take a look through the free MOOCs offered by Coursera, EdX, FutureLearn etc.
  • If you are a maths teacher, then two especially relevant MOOCs are Nottingham Uni’s Assessment for Learning in STEM and Jo Boaler’s How to Learn Math for Teachers and Parents.
  • Are you completing a degree alongside teaching? How do you manage your workload? And do you talk about your own studies with your pupils?
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