What’s it like being a distance MA TESOL student? (Part 1)

Many an hour I've spent here...

About 6 months ago I began an MA TESOL and Applied Linguistics course with a British university. I’m studying part-time and via distance learning, a route that made a lot of sense to me as I can continue working while studying, and so build experience and avoid debt. Having just finished my first module, I thought I would pen a few thoughts on my experience to help anyone considering an MA.

What’s the course like?

My course is four modules plus a dissertation, covering L2 teaching and learning; grammar, phonology and pronunciation; sociolinguistics and then two optional half-modules. The structure of the modules seems to be a number of introductory units to topics within that module, with reflective activities in each and recommendations for further reading. Assessment is in the form of one or two extended pieces of writing. In addition, there are a few group online activities aimed at encouraging students to reflect as a community on their teaching practice.

What’s it like going back to education?

I finished my undergraduate studies in 2004, and was pretty happy to be done with education for a while. I guess I always thought I’d go back eventually, but I knew that it would have to be to do something that I really wanted to study. I’d say that I originally went to university more to be able to drink cheap beer for three years than out of any overwhelming desire to educate myself about English Literature. I often think those three years would have better spent doing something else, though without a degree I wouldn’t have been able to get my current job, or in fact to join the MA course at all.

Anyway, I’d say the major difference between undergraduate and post-graduate education is that post-graduate is all about the education, particularly via distance. Given that my student union is 5,505 miles away currently, it means I have to focus on my studies rather than on the foamy, hoppy pints of amber goodness on sale at half the regular price. This is probably a good thing. What has struck me is how much better a student I am now compared to my undergraduate years. I’m more disciplined, focused and I manage my time so much better than I did when I was young. This has a lot to do with figuring out when I work best, but I’ll talk more about that in the next section. It also makes it much easier having a professional purpose, something I definitely lacked in my first stint in education.

All that has lead me to being a very autonomous learner. I guess through studying Korean I’d got a lot better before I started the course, but rest assured you have to be able to deal with working alone, motivating yourself and organising your time properly if you’re planning to do an MA. Your tutor is there to help you, but mostly with coursework, and certainly not with nagging you about deadlines.

One interesting difference that I have noted between my pre and post-graduate experiences is my writing. One of the skills that I learnt as an undergraduate was how to sweat a fully formed, final draft essay out of my red-bull and Cutter’s Choice tobacco addled brain at 4am in the morning. The essays really weren’t that bad either. Nowadays I seem to have lost this skill entirely – writing is a real effort and often involves forcing myself to put half-formed and horribly expressed ideas on the page, which are then refined over a couple of drafts. I don’t know what to put this down to – perhaps I just have higher standards these days. One theory I have is that through teaching process writing it’s now something I am comfortable with and believe in, and it makes a lot more sense for me to use it. Whatever the explanation, I do write better now than I did as an undergraduate, but it takes me a lot longer to get there.

 How does it fit in with daily life?

Last semester I taught up to 24 hours per week, across 12 grade levels and four different schools. I’d guess that in terms of school life I’m one of the busier teachers in South Korea, but I just about manage to pack all of my teaching and prep into a 40 hour week. The MA course recommends a further 10-20 hours a week of study, the lower end of which I found pretty achievable. There were two big things that helped me with this: establishing a routine and learning to work on the move.

If you’re studying around full-time work (or studying at all I suppose) it’s crucial to figure out when you’re going to do it. The biggest thing was figuring out how to work with, not against my body-clock. I discovered that I tend to have a really tired phase between about 3 and 6 in the afternoon, after which I’m fine. Initially I tried working straight after school, but found that I was either falling asleep, or thinking too much about that day’s classes. Once I changed my routine to exercising straight after school, then eating dinner and relaxing for an hour, I found I had more energy and a clearer head and studying was much easier. I found it was great to have a complete break from thinking about teaching too; with a job an MA and a blog I now probably spend a good 60-70 hours a week teaching, or thinking, writing or reading about it. Sometimes a guy just needs a little break.

The other huge difference was learning to work on the move. Before the course started I treated myself to a super-portable laptop and an Amazon Kindle. Both of these tools have meant I can work in what would otherwise be dead-times. Living in rural Korea means I spend a long time on the bus, but it’s become one of my favourite places to work. You’re stuck in your seat with no internet, no distractions and for the most part, peace and quiet. In a 2 hour journey to Seoul I can get through almost an entire unit.

The one thing in my life that has suffered is my Korean study. It was going beautifully pre-MA, and I’d got from survival to the top end of elementary in about 6 months, and could feel myself making progress almost every week. Now I’d say I’ve got to a low intermediate level, but progress is much slower. Still, I try to find half an hour each morning to improve, and slowly but surely it’s creeping up. However, this is the only major sacrifice I’ve had to make for my studies, which was probably a lot less than I was expecting.

Wow, turns out I’ve blithered on for almost 1,200 words and only said about half of what I’d like to. I think this will probably turn into a two-parter then. Check back next week for how I think the MA has affected me as a teacher, and whether I think it’s been worth it so far. In the meantime, if you have questions, or want to share MA experiences, the comments section is just below.




4 responses to “What’s it like being a distance MA TESOL student? (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: What’s it like being a distance MA TESOL student? (Part 2) | The Breathy Vowel

  2. Michelle Saunders

    Curious to know which Uni you’re doing your MA TEFL with…

  3. Uni of Leicester in the UK. Drop me a message or an email if you’d like more details.

  4. keep up the nice work

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