Monday, March 13, 2006

Open Universities Australia: 2

I’m now into Week 3 of my philosophy unit and just starting to settle in. The first week was an introduction to the online process, and the official lecture period started last week, though the beauty of studying this way is that you can listen to the lectures and participate in the "tutorials" (ie. online discussions) whenever you want.

Here, for the record, is the story so far:

- The study materials arrived a week early (they were due a week before the start of semester, called a "study period" at OUA) and I was really excited about it. But the mail arrives in the middle of the day here, and I made the mistake of setting the envelope aside, unopened, so I could take a more leisurely look at everything that night. Somewhere during the afternoon I got scared about opening the envelope at all. (I don't know how or why I've become such a twerp, but sometimes it seems like I'm scared of everything, even good things.) Curiosity finally took over though, a day or two later, and revealed a Student Information Handbook, some form letters, and two CDs, one containing all the lectures, and the other the software which might be required for accessing online study (Adobe Acrobat Reader, QuickTime, and Shockwave/Flashplayer) and a list of Frequently Asked Questions. The material came from Macquarie University. I don't know what role Open Universities Australia (OUA) plays in setting these things up, but it seems that all study is conducted through the individual universities themselves. I've got a Macquarie uni email account, access to the Macquarie Uni library, the course is run by Macquarie uni staff... So far the only thing to come from OUA is the confirmation-of-enrolment letter, so I'm guessing it acts as a type of education broker or agent.

- The first problem: the CDs wouldn't run automatically when inserted in the CD-ROM. No problem though, because there were instructions for opening them through "My Computer" on the desktop.

- Next problem: I couldn't access the Macquarie student portal. Some of the relevant addresses in the study materials package were wrong, and it took an hour or two to find the correct place to apply for my password to login to the site. When I finally got the password and tried logging in, it wouldn't work: incorrect password. Tried again. Incorrect password. I knew it was NOT incorrect, so I left it for an hour and tried again. Incorrect password. Gave up and tried again the next day. Incorrect password. Sent an email to IT help and waited for a day or two to be told I should be using the password I HAD been using. Tried again. It worked. (And no, Caps Lock hadn't been on, if that's what you're thinking.) That afternoon a letter arrived to tell me my password. Thank you, I thought. Very timely.

- The unit has its own web site, providing access to the study guide, lecture notes, reading lists, assorted helpful bits and pieces (a calendar, a timeline, space for notes) and a discussion board. We're required to listen to each week's lectures on CD, read the lecture notes, go through the readings available online from the library, and discuss the topics via the discussion board, where participation is compulsory and worth 10% of the unit's assessment.

- Next problem: (and according to one of the students it happens every study period) the readings weren't available from the library. The clued-up student had saved his own copies before the end of the last study period, and kindly made them available to the rest of us by posting them as attachments to the discussion board.

- Next problem: making comments on the discussion board. This is similar to making blog comments, thank God, so at least I know how to, but it was weird at first too, and continues to be so still. I posted my first question at the end of Week 1, feeling okay about it, but then in the hours and days later I got scared about going back to check the thread. I kept avoiding it, and getting more nervous about going back, and the longer it went on, the worse it got. In the end it took me five days to get back there. And it wasn't that I was worried my question might look stupid, or that I lack confidence in my own ideas, because if anything I'm overly confident in that department and occasionally think I'm completely brilliant. It was more just general fear about nothing in particular, and probably just nervousness about starting. When I finally went back I posted a message about it, and a second-year student said that she'd felt the same way when she first started. I don't know why it helps to know this - that I'm not the only one who ever felt this way - but it did help, so bless her. (And in another comment thread she said I'm the same age as her mother, which was slightly perturbing and funny at the same time, so bless her mum too :) )

- And now, the first essay is due at the end of Week 4. The last time I wrote an essay was in 1995, and this is the first time I've ever had a computer to use for the purpose. Bloody hell, the difference! Copying and pasting... footnotes... flipping between one document and another... And researching online?! Oh, the joy! Having access to the uni library databases is (I'm not joking) worth the cost of enrolment, just for that alone. I could sit here all day just collecting details of journal articles I'll some day never get around to reading, and arranging them all in nice neat bibliographies. (It takes a certain type of person to find happiness in making a nice neat bibliography, you know. Generally speaking, we're known as weirdos, I think.)

- My classmates are a varied lot. Ages range from 16 to a self-described "over the hill". Locations include most states and territories in Australia plus the Netherlands, New Zealand, Germany and Poland. Occupationally-speaking, we have an engineer, an astrology teacher, an aromatherapist/ryoduraku practitioner, an office worker in the retail industry, an admin worker in the adult industry, a teacher, a public service manager, a musician, two nurses (both men), many students (including at least two teenage home-schoolers) and someone who in his spare time impersonates Michael Jackson. So far there are 42 students (some only started yesterday, it seems), including one mother and daughter, and one husband and wife. Our tutor seems like a lovely chap, and he's been very encouraging so far. I like the way he writes too; he can explain complicated things very well. It's his job to patrol the discussions, and he also gets involved himself, which is good; he seems to know what he's talking about. A lot of people haven't said much (or even anything) yet, and a few people have said a lot. In fact, a couple have been thumping their chests about just how much they know (which seems to be a lot) and I'm guessing that in the beginning this had a temporarily-demoralising effect over the rest of the class. Isn't it always the way, though? It happens in on-campus tutes as well. I blame humans. All of us. We're just so damn crappy when you get right down to it.

Oh, shut up. I'm joking :)