I am enrolled in the Educational Technology and TESOL MA distance program at the University of Manchester, currently finishing up the first semester of Year 1 of a three-year program. It’s a reputable program, with several of my PLN having done or already doing it. It’s one of the only distance programs rooted in technology.  This is why I chose it. But buried deep into my first assignment, I find myself questioning my choices, motivation and abilities to do this successfully. Hence, I’m compelled to put my thoughts here so I can reflect on them more tangibly.

I have wanted to do my Masters for many, many years now. On one hand, I wish I’d gone into it straight from my undergrad, when I was young and with more time on my hands.  However, I wasn’t the best student, nor did I know ELT was the field I’d go into. I’d likely have gone with Philosophy, leaving me in the same position I’m in now–lack of graduate qualifications in ELT. Still, my experience so far gives me pause for several reasons, reasons which I feel I need to reflect on in order to push me to carry on and be successful.

Am I in it for the right reasons?
In our qualifications-driven society, sometimes I wonder what’s more important: having the qualification or the learning that can come from it?  With this degree under my belt, professional opportunities, not to mention professional credibility, greatly widen. Honestly, I’ve been fortunate to get where I am already without the MA letters behind my name. Like many, I am divided over what the purpose really is.  Is going through the motions to get the piece of paper enough? How much do I want to get from this distance program? It’s hard to admit, but I really think it’s 60/40.  Certainly my undergrad knowledge has largely faded into the depths of my mind. I REALLY want to learn. I REALLY want to engage myself in my own improvement. I REALLY want to enjoy this process.  But there is that part of me that sees this as a means to an end, which does weigh heavily on my heart.  I suppose if the qualifications really were most important to me, I could have chosen a shorter path to getting them.
Plan of action: Recognise that both are very important and that one without the other is only a partial success. Ask myself, when all is said and done, do I want to look back at these three years as a blur, like I already do with my undergrad or do I want to feel confident that what I’ve learnt I can put into practice in my future professional endeavours? Surely the latter. 

Does this distance style work for me?
During my undergrad, I attended all the classes I was supposed to, participated in class discussion and took notes during the lecture. However, my homework style wasn’t great, procrastinating on readings and assignments until push came to shove. In this distance course, we are given teaching texts to read by the ‘lecturers’ (or ‘tutors’ for this purpose) that replace traditional lectures, a few preselected articles or book chapters (e.g. Hedge, T. 2000. Teaching and learning in the language classroom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.) and interviews between tutors about the reasons they chose certain articles. On top of that, signposts in the teaching texts urge us participate in online discussion using Blackboard’s forum platform. Additionally, we are given links to 20+ extra readings on the unit’s topic (books chapters, journal articles, etc.) for optional further reading. The discipline required to complete everything on my own in a timely manner is definitely a mountainous challenge.

How do I balance the course workload with my life?
Before going into this, I didn’t really grasp how hard it would be to fit in the demands of the course with the rest of my responsibilities. When you prepare lessons for university students, have meetings about students and curriculum, mark student assignments and actually teach classes, it’s really hard for me to find appropriate times (or better described, ‘desired times’) to do the readings for the MA course. At lunch? Forget it. Directly after class? I’m distracted by lesson planning, marking and conversation with colleagues. Let’s not forget things I actually want to do, like reading blog posts, writing blog posts and socialising with all of you.  Then there’s the attraction of well-written (and trashy) TV shows. Ahh yes, then my family life goes in there somewhere too.  Add to this that 90% of my distractions are ELT-related, I find the thought of reading academically-written ELT articles and trying to absorb them beyond simple comprehension exhausting.
Plan of action: A colleague of mine told me that when she did her degree, she had to go to the library to study for a few hours each day after work–home had too many distractions.  Yes, I concur. I will make use of the study spaces at UofT this semester on a schedule.  Additionally, I need to set up a better work environment at home, like utilising the office den I have instead of using my laptop in the living room.  

How do I replace the live interaction I’m missing?
I really enjoyed going to lectures and seminars during my undergrad.  I’ve always enjoyed sitting with peers and discussing course topics at philosophical depth and for hours on end. I miss this aspect in the distance format. We’re expected to participate in forum discussion on Blackboard, but it’s just not the same. Besides, when I’ve done the required readings and go to the forum, many have already written an overwhelming number of eloquent (and not so) posts.  Meaningful dialogue is hard to obtain here.  On one hand, I wish there was more of a ‘live’ discussion aspect to the topics. On the other, I wish there were fewer people so that a smaller, supportive community feeling would result. I did initiate a small group meeting in Google Hangouts with a couple people every week, but by the time that started, we were reading different things and soon were assigned new peer groups with people I’d never ‘talked’ to so the camaraderie was missing.
Plan of action: Initiate the study group earlier in the semester with a stronger plan of how to utilise the group.  Knowing others are relying on me to prepare for our meeting motivates me. 

How do I choose and accomplish the amount of reading there is?
I fully admit that I’ve never been a good reader.  I’ve never been fast. It takes me a long time to read one article (e.g. 30 pages) and really absorb the ideas in it. I get distracted by, bored with or lost in the sentences after a few pages, even with fiction. I think that’s part of the reason I’ve loved reading blogs, because they’re a quick, manageable length in a tone that is easy to follow and respond to.  What’s ironic is that I focus on reading and writing for EAP focus with my 1st-year students, but they are usually shorter, less complicated topics. This must be why the lecture and discussions from my undergrad appeal to me–maybe I’m more of a visual/audial learner.  Having said this, I appreciate being forced to read fundamental texts, ideas from which I’ve referred to frequently but never read directly myself. I have become more aware of how one author’s ideas relate to another’s.
Plan of action: In lieu of there being a video or audio book for the types of readings required, I have to figure out how to read more quickly. I’m hoping that the time in the library will focus me more on the text than on my surroundings. 

Did I choose the right topic for my assignment?
Near the end of October, it was already time to start thinking about our topic for our only assignment this semester, which basically asked us to write a report about a weakness we’ve found in our students’ abilities, use literature to explain the root of the weakness and make a suggestion as to what to do about it.  Because I was neck-deep in Academic Reading Circles (ARC) with my current students, I thought it a logical and immediately practical topic. What I’ve discovered is that identifying the weakness hasn’t been entirely clear, nor from which point in time to start from.  This decision took me too long (and honestly I’m still not 100% convinced) and thus narrowing down my topic has set me far back.  In addition, looking for appropriate readings when I’m not entirely confident in its weakness or starting point overwhelms me when facing what to write. I wonder if I’ve bitten off more than I can chew for this assignment and whether I’d be better off scrapping everything and starting over with a more directly -related topic to the course readings themselves.
Plan of action: Suck it up.  There’s not enough time to change now, so concentrate on the readings I have, have been given and identify the weakness more clearly before trying to solve it. Realise that this is directly relevant to my current students and that my work will benefit them in the end.

How am I going to handle two courses next semester?
If I’ve had difficulty keeping up with just one course this semester, am I crazy to take on two next semester? Is the first course always the one that students who haven’t studied for 15+ years always mess up as they’re sussing out how to fit back into university study?  Are the topics of the next two courses more in line with my specific interests that I’ll be more interested in the readings? Will I have made the needed adjustments to my thinking, expectations and schedule to accomplish the course load more efficiently? Am I going to be disappointed in myself again or proud of myself?
Plan of action: Believe I can do it.  Believe I can do it. Believe I can do it. 

In conclusion, I know this has been a lengthy post to read (if in anyone’s made it all the way down here).  It’s more for me than it is for you.  It’s definitely helped me see ‘on paper’ where I need to focus my energies better and make a plan of action.  If any of you are considering a distance MA program, maybe my experiences will help you.  If not, I’ll gladly talk about it over Skype sometime.

If you’ve been through a part-time MA program like me, I’d be grateful for your suggestions on how to make it all work.

Post Facebook comments here.
 

36 Responses to MA rumblings and reflection

  1. I always remember the first assignment that I did for my full time MA course. It was tough and I hadn’t fully prepared for the assignment. The topic of my first assignment (which I achieved worst marks compared to other modules) was Language Description & Analysis. I was required to analyse language and grammar in a prescriptive manner and I didn’t particularly enjoy studying and applying this prescriptive knowledge (I saw no benefit for my classes). However, I was more aware of language and its implication in L2 learning.

    I suppose I can empathise with what you are experiencing now but I can also mention that it does get easier. The initial assignments provide a good foundation for future development and you should receive invaluable feedback from your course tutors.

    Although I completed a full time one year MA course at the University of Sussex and in some respects it is quite different to a long-distance part-time course, it should get easier and you will learn a great deal. You are lucky to have access to other teaching professionals who may point you in the right the direction (and am sure you will get it).

    Nevertheless, best of luck with your first assignment but be open to constructive criticism (it will benefit you in the long-run). Please do share the topic of your assignment that you are finding difficult.

    • seburnt says:

      Thanks, Martin. =) The main point I’m taking from your comment is that it gets easier. Very good to reinforce in my mind. I think I do know this and I’m coming at this post from a bit of an overwhelmed and doubting perspective, but in the end, no matter what the new experience, it’s always hard to begin with. I know once I get my routine and attitude more used to the process, I’ll look back on this post and remember this frazzled guy sympathetically.

  2. MA rumblings and reflection by @seburnt rang a lot of bells. I wish I’d had his powers of reflection at the time

  3. phil wade says:

    I finished a distance MA last year and did it very intensively over about 14 months. I don’t think2/3/4 years would have been good for me as it drags it on. I much preferred doing each module solidly for a couple of months. My friend is doing one over 4 years and constantly has breaks and spends days ‘getting back into it’. My tip would be to keep studying/reflecting/researching even if only an hour every day so you are constantly in the subject.

    RE: Topics

    I didn’t enjoy all the linguistics stuff as there was no real space for discussion but Sociolinguistics was interesting. I also got into to some ‘differences of opinion’ with course teachers/assistants about methodologies. Again, due to the ‘cut and dry’ style of marking.

    The online discussions were good, far better than on the online DELTA as most people seem busier. I also had to do timed exams, projects, presentations, discussions etc which were very demanding but useful.

    Good luck.

    I’ll post something later about how useful my MA has been.

    Phil

    • seburnt says:

      Thanks Phil. I really don’t have the option to condense the MA program. I have to work. I REALLY wish I could afford to take the time off to do it in one go. I know I’d be so much better.

      • phil2wade says:

        Time off?No. I worked and did mine after work and at weekends, we even had a baby inbetween.

        Very very little sleep and not a day off, at all. I recall staying up til 4/5 am writing my dissertation in the bathroom so not to wake people up.

        When I finished I thought I’d get my research published etc etc.Well, nobody was really bothered as it wasn’t innovative enough and then I realised that an MA is just the start. OK. I’ll post my post this week on this.

        Phil

  4. Chris P. Madden says:

    Hi Tyson, having finished my online MA-TESOL from The New School, i can strongly identify with all your feelings and self-queries. The New School curricula included a 30% assessment for BlackBoard contributions to discussions, which meant i was daily connecting to like-minded colleagues who had recently done that week’s readings, so it sounds like my experience of PLN interactivity was different from yours. I loved it! As for your specific questions: Only you know if you are ‘in it for the right reasons’ and this can shift and evolve over time, so dont dwell on it! Yes, it is a ‘means’ and yes, it will enrich your teaching. Your 2nd plan is excellent, especially creating the proper atmosphere. I began my MA studies with a 3-year old and a pregnant wife, so the library idea was not possible. However, for the whole 2+years of studying i would drink a cuppa Joe after dinner and seal myself off in the office and put in a few dedicated hours each night. Worked for me. Find your rhythm. Skipping the reading issue, or kinda enfolding it into the 2-course one, i quickly found there was a lot of overlap, and that some readings applied to, or were even included in, other course syllabi. You can do it, yes you can!
    Best wishes for your best studying,
    Chris P.

    • seburnt says:

      Hi Chris – Thanks for the support! I’m glad I haven’t been graded on the online collaboration in BlackBoard so far. I’m ashamed to say how little I partook. I’m not a huge fan of the basic BB shell.

      I know abilities and attitudes evolve over time and for this I’m grateful. I can only imagine how much hard this must be do to with those family demands. I look forward to trying out the library situation and maybe will work on getting my home den more office like.

  5. “The discipline required to complete everything on my own in a timely manner is definitely a mountainous challenge.”

    I can identify with this in a big way. All of my current projects are on my own time, and I’m the one that has to push them forward.

    If I don’t piece out what I have to do and when, it flusters me a bit and I’m less focused. I find having a “today to-do list” helps a lot, and I think it’s important to really focus (hence drop everything else when I’m writing a post, or reading a post, or… hard to do on the net, but it helps).

    Thanks for the inner dialogue, Ty and best of luck in 2012 !

    • seburnt says:

      Thanks so much for your ongoing support, Brad. I’m glad to know that our discipline uses are in good company. I’ll try out that to-do list. Good luck to you, mon ami!

  6. MA rumblings and reflection http://t.co/kx7S5E7l is where the support from PLN is coming from. Makes me feel more able. =)

  7. Carol says:

    This is a really interesting read, Tyson. I think a lot of people will be able to identify with a lot of what you are experiencing and it will be useful for people considering doing something similar. I think you’re right about the first semester being the most difficult. It takes a lot of self-discipline to do so much study independently and it’ll take a wee while to get into the habit. Also, you’ll be getting a feel for how the programme works and what the expectations and requirements are. Hopefully, you’ll start enjoying it more soon.

    I did things the other way around, doing my undergraduate degree through distance learning while my children were very small and then doing my Master’s face to face after moving to Scotland. This worked well for me, but I had the interaction I needed each time – online forums for both social and study-related discussion, and then the banter of the classroom and support of fellow students during the MSc. When I’ve done individual courses since then, I’ve found that when I haven’t been as engaged in the online discussion, my motivation has waned and so I can only imagine how tough it can be do be doing something more substantial without the connection with other participants.

    As I read your post, I found myself curious about what you were reading, what you were working on, and what things you might be discussing (or trying to discuss) with other students. Since blogging is where your interest lies, perhaps you could blog now and again about what you’re doing, things you’d like to discuss, etc. and we could be your discussion group. This might help focus your attention into blog-sized chunks and would give us the chance to consider some of the issues you’re coming across and stretch ourselves.

    Just a thought! :-)

    Good luck!
    Carol

    • seburnt says:

      Thanks for the comments, Carol. It really helps me knowing how others felt during their studies, and frankly too, not a glazed-over rose-coloured version. Hopefully my posts like this will help others feel better too–that they aren’t bad students.

      As for what I’m reading, my assignment topic is about ARC (see post link) so I’m reading a bunch of articles and things related to extensive and intensive reading. I have a partial reading list here (http://fourc.ca/articles-for-ma/).

      I really appreciate your suggestion about blogging for dialogue with my PLN. I was hoping something like this might come from my cries for help and have often thought of how to incorporate my blog into my MA. In doing so, I do have to keep not to neglect the other participants in my course.

      Thank you so much, Carol!

  8. MA rumblings and reflection http://t.co/FHwIoSFz via @seburnt #eltchat

  9. David Petrie says:

    I’m nearing the end of my MA, I have an assignment due at the start of February and the dissertation is due at some point later this year.
    I’ve found it an intensely rewarding experience, because it’s challenged me to think in different areas and because it’s broadened my perspectives.
    I started doing it in 2008 (I think) and I’ve found balancing a 40-hour-week job with the MA difficult, but the part time flexibility has been very useful. During the MA, we’ve had two kids and because I felt this wasn’t enough, there was also the blog I started earlier last year…
    The only way I’ve found to cope with it all it with a priority rotation policy. You make one thing your priority for a certain amount of time (a week / a month or so) and devote as much time and energy to it as you can. Everything else, you do as much as you have to in order to keep things ticking over.

    Hope this helps! And Good luck! (let me know if you need a hand with anything…)

    David

    • seburnt says:

      Thanks David. How did you determine what to prioritise and how long to spend on it? I keep thinking that if I were to do it, it should be MA for 4 months solid. I can’t neglect other things for my own sanity. Haha.

      • David Petrie says:

        Whatever deadline was nearest got the most attention!
        I think if you’d asked my students they might have felt a little short changed in certain lessons – but hopefully not all the time!
        Brad’s right about getting organised. I have a “to do list” pinned to my office wall – I add stuff to it as it arises and cross stuff off. Then once a week I make up a “clean” revised version.
        The other thing is not to give yourself unachievable tasks – so DON’T put “Write masters assignment” on the to do list – break it down into it’s constituent parts. Write yourself out a step by step process for what you want to do and then you just have to do things one at a time – when ever you find you have the time! (or inclination!).

  10. Kudos to all of you managing to juggle study, work and ‘life’ in general! I’m curious to know who’s chosen what study and why (due to cutbacks my research is on temporary hold and I’ve been thinking of signing up for an online course just to keep fresh).

    • seburnt says:

      Thanks, Louise. I’m sorry to hear about cutbacks for your research, which is the link between differentiated learning and student motivation?

      I know there are a dozen or so people from my Twitter in my program. I’m ultimately aiming to combine EdTech and EAP in some sort of research way. I do this because technology is a passion of mine and EAP is my current teaching focus, so using my actual program is easy.

  11. Wow, that sounds like a heavy load! Wow!
    I took my MA a long time ago but it wasn’t a distance program. I can certainly appreciate the difficulty of getting yourself going – here I am reading your blog instead of doing other things…
    If you divide the work into smaller mini tasks and want someone to root for you whenever you mark one as done, just say the word!
    good luck!
    naomi

    • seburnt says:

      Sometimes I curse myself for thinking I can do so many things at the same time. Other times I feel very in control of my own life. This post came at a particularly overwhelmed hour. ;)

      I definitely agree that smaller chunks is better than overarching tasks. I’ll let you know when I need some cheering on! Thanks, Naomi.

  12. I’m really appreciating the support and advice regarding MA study from all. http://t.co/zrONCs3k > Manchester peeps? ;)

  13. @seburnt/manchester http://t.co/zrONCs3k > What were your experiences?

  14. Carolyn says:

    Tyson,
    I am still deciding on the MA path. Not only was your post interesting, but so were all the comments. Very insightful. I would love to chat more about some of these things you’re doing in your classes…or you can post about them and I’ll comment here! :)

    • seburnt says:

      I’ll keep posting about my MA from time to time, especially if I can figure out a good way to integrate it into my program, but otherwise, it’ll give us something to talk about next time over drinks.

  15. blairteacher says:

    Hi Seburnt

    I have just finished the MA Ed Tech and TESOL, so I empathise with you. From my own experience, it took me the first year to develop my scholarship skills. My advice would be to get in to a reading routine. Quite simply, the more read, the better you will do – a little but often. Moreover, find a way of taking notes systematically such as the Cornell system. You don’t have to take complete notes of every article. Just a brief summary of the best bits.

    The amount of reading you have to do is a feature of UK higher education and it is something you will get better at. You will find yourself drawn to certain journals or writers and it will become easier to find things as you develop your academic skills.

    Finally, it is perfectly natural at this stage to feel challenged – doing an MA follows a developmental path – and you will improve. Stick at it, things will click into gear in your second year once you’ve found your feet.

    All the best

    Blair

    • seburnt says:

      Hi Blair – thank you so much for giving me some directly related hope. I’m hoping to get more advice and/or experiences of others in this program. It seems like a lot of people are afraid to admit that they’re lost or they make it seem like they’ve got it altogether already. I want to know I’m not the loser who’s not. Haha.

      Thanks so much.

  16. DaveDodgson says:

    Hi Tyson,

    “Manchester peep” weighing in here – I guess everyone is buried deep in assignment work. :)

    Casting ym mind back to this same stage 2 years ago, that first semester and assignment was tough. I also had the same concerns about doing two courses the following semester. I remember feeling very anxious about the fact that I had missed the deadline to get feedback on the assignment ‘outline’ and I didn’t really get stuck into writing it until early January (the same thing has happened again this year!) However, all worked out well in the end – the paper was done 2 or 3 days ahead of the dealine and was well received (maybe that didn’t help – a lower grade may have served as a good kick up the arse to be more organised and efficient with my time and then I might not have been struggling to meet deadlines now ;))

    As for the second semester, if you are on the EdTech travk and you have taken the recommended courses (Language Learning and Technology; Blended Learning), the workload is not as intense as you might fear. There is an amount of overlap in themes and in articles to be read and part of the Blended Learning assignment is a webinar style-presentation accompanied by a short ‘executive summary’.

    As for keeping up with the reading, I soon started to become selective with the articles only reading those that had the most relevance to my context and/or assignment. I keep a folder on my computer of articles I will read at a later date for those that look interesting but time does not allow me to read thoroughly – surprisingly, I have aactually gone back and read a fair few of them as well.

    Keep plugging away Tyson – you’ll find a way to make it work. :)

    • seburnt says:

      I’m so glad to read your comment, Dave! Hearing other people’s directly related experiences really does move me away from isolation to knowing I’m normal. I was late to get outline-feedback myself and when I got it back, though I wasn’t wholly surprised with how poorly I did (as I churned it out very quickly to be able to get any feedback), it was a confirmation that I can’t wing it, so to speak.

      I look forward to next semester actually, as mixed in with the apprehension is a desire to get some technology involved.

      Thanks again for the supportive comments and let me know when you need my help for your dissertation research!

  17. Hi Tyson,
    Another Manchester Peep peeping by, conscious of the clock, too :-)

    I replied to your note on my blog and I’ve really enjoyed reading all the comments on here so I’ll just add…

    a) financially it is much better to be off-site – am really not enjoying being a poor student :) so count yourself lucky!

    b) sometimes having “more” time is actually having “less” time – because you wind up thinking you can get there and pick up yet another book and surf the net for yet another article and in the end realize you could have really stopped reading weeks ago :-)

    c) turn off the social media (well, for as much as you can – or learn to be a lurker)… that part has been very hard for me but as I don’t seem able to join in conversations without losing really valuable hours, I had to stop!

    um, I don’t know if any of that was good advice – I think the guy who said to look at tasks in smaller steps was the most spot on, it’s the mountains that discourage us.

    Good luck,
    Karenne

    p.s. am always around to chat – btw, we have a fb group which only a handful of off-siters have joined, come find us (dm me and I’ll give you link as is private) or we can skype sometime if you like.

    • seburnt says:

      Hi Karenne – thanks for replies in both places! I get what you are saying entirely about being an onsite student. I really just want it to be immersed in the learning environment, but you’re right–I do not want to go back to student finances.

      Turning off the social media is definitely something I struggle with. As I mentioned, I feel like if I can incorporate it somehow to help me, the best of both worlds…. ;)

      Anyways, I’ll add you on Skype and FB soon. Cheers fellow learner!

  18. keith says:

    ma is intense. The advice i have about the reading is “skim and scan. Skim and scan” then summarise. Its hard to do to start but its really the only way to get through all The words.
    Good luck.

    • seburnt says:

      Thanks Keith. I have trouble absorbing anything when skimming though. It all just seems like disconnected words. This, I need to get better at it seems. Haha. =)

  19. […] discuss their master’s courses and seem to be getting a lot from it. E.g. Dave Dodgson and Tyson Seburn to name but a couple.  For me, if I were to do the Applied Linguistics Master’s, it would […]

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