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What's this blog all about?

Hi, I'm Nicola - welcome to a blog about family travel around the world, without leaving the UK.
I love travel adventures, but to save cash and keep my family's carbon footprint lower, I dreamt up a unique stay-at-home travel experience. So far I've visited 110 countries... without leaving the UK. Join me exploring the next 86! Or have a look at the "countries" you can discover within the UK by scrolling the labels (below right). Here's to happy travel from our doorsteps. See www.nicolabaird.com for info about the seven books I've written, a link to my other blog on thrifty, creative childcare (homemadekids.wordpress.com) or to contact me.

Monday, 30 January 2017

Distance learning alumni from Mauritius to Malet Street, WC1

How long has distance learning been possible? It still feels like a modern option, but you may be surprised. Words from Nicola Baird  (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

Inside the University of London's Senate House.

1865 is the year that Alice in Wonderland is published – and Rudyard Kipling was born in Bombay. Queen Victoria is on the throne and Lord Palmerston is Prime Minister. It’s also the date that the first distance learners, based in Mauritius, began studying with the University of London. Surprised? I was.

Fast forward to 2017 and the University of London has more than 50,000 distance learners living in 180 countries in the world. They can choose from 84 courses and are working for every level - BAs, Masters and PhDs, see more here.

Distance learning was never an easy option. Back in the 1990s there were missives arriving in the sluggish post and annual exams. Now it is fantastic with on-line discussions, downloadable course packs, an online library and a way of talking to both your tutor and other students. Of course you may be doing this for three or more years, often while working a full-time job, which is why it is a learning method as ideal for people who cannot abandon their job as well as the super-isolated. Former students include scientists based in Antarctica and even Nelson Mandela while he was imprisoned. “Our records show that it took Nelson Mandela three attempts to be allowed to take his exams,” says Ali Chapman who recently joined the university’s fundraising department and is enjoying researching through alumni records.

Ali clearly also loves the Senate House atmosphere and is offering to show past distance learners around – which is why she contacted me.

I did an MSc in Environmental Management through the University of London, graduating in 1995. It’s a long time ago, and I still haven’t forgiven the weather for producing four consecutive Indian summer Octobers (when we revised, then took exams). More importantly I remember how rigorous and interesting the course was as it steered students through international environmental law, ecofeminism, the precautionary principle and the 2nd law of thermodynamics (which roughly translates as ‘there is no away’).

LibrariesUntil they were recycled, my MSc course’s green spiral course readers were the star of my bookshelves. Twenty years on the shelves now house a large collection of eco-thinkers from George Monbiot to Noreena Hertz and, cheekily nestled beside them, my own books such as The Estate We’re In which looks at car culture, Save Cash & Save the Planet (co-written for my former employer Friends of the Earth) and Homemade Kids: thrifty, creative and eco-friendly ways to raisechildren. It’s clear that the MSc I did worked its magic.

And now its Ali’s job to tempt distance learners like me to be as supportive of the university – via legacy and other tax-efficient gifts - as those students who still know their way around the magnificent rooms and library towering above Senate House. To do this she offers me a tour of the building.

This is a real treat, as the closest I’ve got to the real University of London – if that’s what Charles Holden’s Portland stone monolith should be called – is an exam hall a couple of streets away.

Was this the Room 101 which inspired George
Orwell when he worked at the Ministry of
Information?
Visiting now, the marble clad 1930s interior hints at Great Gatsby glamour, but between 1939 and 1945 Senate House was used by the Ministry of Information. There were nearly 3,000 staff put to work on wartime propaganda which helped spawn the famous “Keep Calm & Carry On” poster as well as hundreds of propaganda leaflets and radio programmes. Famous Ministry of Information employees include George Orwell who clearly used his experience to create the Ministry of Truth in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (more about this here). On the way to her office Ali shows me the double wooden doors of Room 101, but, perhaps fortunately, the room is locked (although as air pollution and climate change share equal top spots for my Room 101 both are no doubt leaching out...)

Ali Chapman with honey from the
University of London's legal bees.
Navigating
We look at an exquisite map in the Chancellor’s Hall showing the University of London’s many satellite colleges (the Courtauld, the School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, London School of Dental Surgery etc) – it’s clearly had a huge impact on the UK’s STEM graduates, as well as humanities’ specialists. Then we cross to the Senate Room arranged like a court, with a semi-circle of green leather seats facing a staged platform which would surely only look complete with a Chancellor, or Judge in place. This is a regular spot for filming so you’re sure to have seen it too. It also boasts a secret oak panel large enough for even a stout lady or gentleman to safely disappear. Ali is slim, but even she hasn’t yet vanished on a tour.

University of London honey. 
Student no more
Finally Ali sits us down in a cosy nook with cake and herbal tea and offers me a tiny jar of honey made by the bees which have hives on the roof of the Institute of the Advanced Legal Studies building over in Russell Square. I think that might be where I used to sit exams, so it’s a perfect sweetener. See more about the University of London’s legal bees – and the people who help looking after their hives – on the BBC here

Wouldn't it be interesting to find some of the oldest distance learners from Mauritius? I bet they'd have some stories... Thinking about studying a long, long way from home makes me remember how as a VSO volunteer I once fried the mother board on the essential printer at the Solomon Islands Development Trust by accidentally clicking yes when a ghekko was exploring it. Horrible mess. Or the time I was looking for a book and shown the empty husk of the the KG6 secondary school library which had been totally consumed by white ants. That was my first taste of distance learning - completing a TEFL (Teach English As A Foreign Language) certificate - but the combo of climate and self-discipline made me realise how very challenging it can be. Which makes the rewards even better.

Surely this explains why when I left Senate House with a new and delicious sense of belonging. I know this potentially comes with a price – universities are extraordinarily proactive at trying to eek donations from past students for good reasons. But thanks to Ali what fascinating discoveries I’ve made about the University of London, more than 20 years after I received my MSc. As even eco-bunnies say, 'Better late than never'.

  • Join the University of London's Being Human Festival 2017 from 17-25 November. See more here 
  • Studied with University of London? Then you need to use their alumni pages, see www.london.ac.uk/alumni
  • What's happening at University of London is on facebook.com/UniofLondon, twitter @UoLondon, insta @unioflondon

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