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).
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.
|Inside the University of London's Senate House.|
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.
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’).
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
|Ali Chapman with honey from the|
University of London's legal bees.
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.|
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