Why distance learning is like a spider building a web

I’m currently working through the fifth of my modules on the occupational psychology masters – on training and development. It therefore seems appropriate to write about the way I’m thinking about my own development. If you’re not keen on spiders you may not want to read the final paragraph …

For me one of the most important things I do at the start of a module is work out the time that I have available between it opening and the date for assignment submission, once I’ve accounted for everything else. The course is meant to take around 15 hours study per week, but that’s an average. Some weeks I’m able to do more, other weeks far less. I work backwards from the end of module date to make sure that I’m leaving enough time to complete the module assignment (for example, this one requires a 3,000 word essay split into 4 related parts) and to undertake the research required to answer the question(s). I seem to need around 4 or 5 full weekends (or their equivalent) to write an assignment of this length. The rest of the time is therefore what I have available to read the module material and the associated readings, as well as following the leads to other books and papers that these signpost.

It’s following these leads and searching through the journals available in the online library that I find to be the most absorbing part of the learning process as it’s where the surprises come from. For example, during this module I’ve come across a fascinating paper on the place of storytelling in adult learning (*). I’ve enjoyed reading this paper as my day job involves me helping salespeople communicate the value of our company’s products and services to potential customers. One of the most effective ways of doing this has always seemed to me to be through telling stories about what other organisations have achieved with our help. Often, that’s all some customers want to hear, instead of going through deck after deck of expensively crafted powerpoint slides from the marketing department. It’s always nice to read something from the world of academia that backs up 20+ years of gut feel!

So to help you understand the distance learning process, here’s a story.

Picture yourself as a spider. Working through each module is rather like building a web. The radials and the centre of the web come from reading and working with the module units, associated readings and the recommended course books. This part is spun first. Around the outer reaches of the web is the material found in journals, along with the threads that link the current module to earlier ones, the knowledge gained from earlier study and your experience of life. Completing the module assignment is you, the spider, pulling all of these threads together in a particular direction to enable the question to be answered.

This article was originally written for the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 20th September 2015.

(*) Caminotti, E & Gray, J (2012). The effectiveness of storytelling on adult learning, Journal of Workplace Learning, 24(6), 430-438.

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