Distance Learning Can Make Astronomy Education More Accessible

This guest post was written by Laura Martin, who is currently in her final year of a postgrad diploma in astronomy at the University of York via distance learning. She graduated from the University of Strathclyde in 2017 with an honours degree in maths. In her spare time, she’s often out hill walking. Find Laura on Twitter @LauraJMartin7.

My journey in higher education has been a bit bumpy so far. I’m privileged to live in a country where I didn’t have to pay for my undergrad tuition fees, and so I was able to go straight to university after leaving school. I decided to study maths, but I struggled quite a lot for the first couple of years. Eventually I decided to change university so that I could finish my degree in an environment where I felt I could thrive. It turned out to be a good decision – I was passing my classes and enjoying it. Then suddenly halfway through my final year I became unwell, this meant I had to go on a leave of absence. This time was filled with doctors and hospital appointments, and constant worry. My health condition was all new to me, and so I wasn’t aware of the support available. I became so disillusioned that I just wanted to leave and do something new. Somehow, I managed to push my way through to obtain enough credits for my honours degree.

Figure 1. Distance learning can make astronomy accessible to many more students.

Six years later I had finally graduated, and I was left with the realisation that I had to learn to live with a chronic health condition. I had no clue what to do next. I asked myself what career interested me? What did I care about? When I thought about it, I had always been fascinated with astronomy, so maybe a career in astro research or outside academia. But the problem was that I had never even done physics at high school. There was no way I could get into a masters with no physics background. Besides, I was in no position to commit to an on-campus course or a full-time job just yet. But that got me thinking, what if I didn’t have to go to classes but study remotely – that would be ideal. I did some searching and I found the postgraduate diploma in astronomy at the University of York via distance learning. The entry requirements for the course is an undergrad degree which doesn’t necessarily have to be in physics. I thought that this course seemed made for me! I decided to apply and to my complete surprise I got accepted.

Studying on this course was the best decision I could have made, as it’s allowed me to get my foot onto the astro path whilst giving me the space to adjust to life with a disability. My course materials are given out at the start of each week so I’m able to work in my own time. I’ve studied various topics including ones in planetary science and radio astronomy. It’s increased my confidence, and I’ve gained so many new skills, from doing lab reports to making conference-style posters to video presentations. I can’t emphasise enough how this course made education accessible to me at a time in my life when I really needed it to be. It’s been a steep learning curve but I’m enjoying every second of it.

Is Distance Learning a Viable Option?

My story is just one example of why you might consider distance learning because for some people studying on-campus isn’t suitable. Maybe you have family, personal or job commitments which makes studying on-campus difficult. Maybe you’re an older student who wants to change their career. Maybe there are no opportunities where you live or you can’t afford to move near the university. Maybe you’re struggling to get onto a PhD and want to do an MSc first. Why should any of these or any other circumstances limit your desire to pursue higher education? They shouldn’t.

I often found when I was searching for information online about distance learning in astro, a lot of the replies people got when asking for advice were a bit negative and discouraging. Therefore, I wanted to share some of my thoughts on the three main concerns that I saw people had:

  1. Is a distance learning course as respected as an on-campus one? The postgrad and undergrad programmes being offered are from accredited institutions offering the same standard of education as their on-campus degrees. The quality of these courses isn’t diminished just because you choose to study remotely. If you’re worried about your future career prospects, my advice would be to seek out the programme leaders, ask them your questions and take a detailed look at the programme’s syllabus. Find out what research and work the department is involved in. Also look for student’s testimonials and alumni pages; hear from students who are studying and have graduated from these courses. For example, Swinburne University of Technology (who deliver online postgrad astronomy programmes) have some great pages with student stories, the publications of their alumni and a list of the careers their alumni have gone on to pursue.
  2. Are distance learning courses impersonal? It’s true that some people will miss the face-to-face interactions with lecturers and other students, and the sense of on-campus community. However, just because you’re not doing an on-campus course doesn’t mean the support system isn’t there. You should have full access to the student support services, interactions with your lecturers and your fellow online students. My experiences at York have been positive. The student support services were enormously helpful to me when it came to disability and financial advice. My department and lecturer have been incredibly supportive when it comes to my needs with my disability. My lecturer is very approachable, and feedback for coursework is always constructive and encouraging. These are vital things which for me haven’t lessened just because I’m a distance learner.
  3. Am I too old to pursue a career in academia? I think it’s important to remind older prospective students that your age should never be an issue. If you want to pursue a masters degree or a PhD then I say go for it. You should do what makes you happy. Many people decide to pursue education later in life.

What Courses are Available via Distance Learning?

These are the postgrad (and undergrad) programmes in astro and related fields that I’ve come across:

Or if you fancy a change in direction:

These distance courses are largely delivered by UK universities, but the list also includes two Australian universities and an American one. There might be more programmes out there, and in other countries that I’ve missed (I hope there are more in the future too!). Also, check out physics and other science departments if that interests you. And look at colleges and other accredited institutions (not just universities) in your country as they may also offer distance learning at all different levels of education.

You might be eligible for funding and financial support with some of these programmes. My experience is from a UK perspective, and so I don’t know all the ins and outs. However, I do know that for students living in the UK you might be eligible for a masters loan which does cover distance learning delivered by UK universities, some also cover a postgraduate diploma but this varies. UK distance learners (undergrad and postgrad) may also be eligible for Disabled Students Allowance. There’s also some undergrad support available.

For students from other countries, the only advice I can really give is that when your researching to see if any financial support is out there is to make sure that it definitely applies to a distance learning course. Generally, the funding for distance learning courses is not fully in line with what’s available with on-campus courses. Hopefully in the future this will change.

Remember not everyone has a linear journey in academia and that’s perfectly okay. I don’t think you should ever be limited by your own circumstances when it comes to education. So, for any prospective students out there who are struggling to figure out how to fit studying into your life, distance learning could be an option for you.

If anyone is or has been a distance learner in astro or a related field, and you would like to share your stories then please do. I’m sure people would really appreciate hearing your experiences.

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