Distance Learning Can Make Astronomy Education More Accessible

This guest post was written by Laura Martin, who studies MSc Observational Astrophysics at Liverpool John Moores University via distance learning. She finished a postgraduate diploma in astronomy with the University of York in 2019, after having completed an honours degree in maths. In her spare time, she’s often out hill walking. Find Laura on Twitter @LauraJMartin7.

Distance learning can make astronomy accessible to many more students.

How I Study with a Disability

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 undergraduate tuition fees, 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 changed 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 as I began to enjoy learning again. Then, suddenly, halfway through my final year I became unwell, which 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 I wasn’t aware of the support available. I became so disillusioned that I just wanted to leave my course. Somehow, I was able to hold on long enough to obtain the credits for my honours degree.

Six years since starting as an undergrad, I had managed to graduate. However, 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 had to ask myself what career interested me? What did I care about? When I thought about it, I had always been fascinated with astronomy but it was never a career that I thought was attainable. I never did any physics in high school. So, I was certain there was no way I could get into a postgraduate astronomy course with no physics background. Besides, I was in no position health-wise 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 tried to stay optimistic, so 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 were an undergraduate degree which didn’t necessarily have to be in physics. I thought that this course seemed perfect for me! I decided to apply and to my complete surprise I got accepted.

Studying on the diploma programme was the best decision I could have made as it allowed me to get my foot onto the astronomy path, whilst giving me the space to adjust to life with a disability. My course materials were given out at the start of each week, so I was able to work in my own time, completely online. I studied various topics including ones in planetary science and radio astronomy. It increased my confidence, and I 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. And I’ve now gone on to do a master’s degree via distance learning also, so I’m able to continue to balance studying with my health.

Is Distance Learning a Viable Option?

My story is just one example of why you might consider distance learning because for many people studying on-campus isn’t suitable. Maybe you have family, personal or job commitments which makes studying on-campus difficult. Maybe you’re someone who wants to change their career. Maybe there are no opportunities where you live, or you can’t afford to move near the college/university. Why should any of these or any other circumstances limit your desire to pursue education? They shouldn’t.

I often found when I was searching for information online, about formal astronomy qualifications via distance learning, a lot of the advice on various forums were a bit 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 programmes being offered are from accredited institutions offering the same standard of education as their on-campus courses. 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; find opinions from students who are studying and have graduated from these courses. For example, Swinburne University of Technology (who deliver online postgraduate 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 in-person 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 were positive. The student support services were enormously helpful to me when it came to disability and financial advice. My department and lecturer were incredibly supportive when it came to my needs with my disability. My lecturer was very approachable, and feedback for coursework was always constructive and encouraging. These were vital things which for me didn’t lessen just because I was doing a distance learning course. Therefore, remember to make sure the amount of tutor/lecturer contact and the support available suits your needs.

3. Am I too old to pursue education and/or a career in academia? I think it’s important to remind prospective students that your age should never be an issue. If you want to do a master’s degree or a PhD, or even if you’re starting out with a pre-undergraduate qualification, then I say go for it! You should do what makes you happy. Many people pursue education at different points in their life.

What Courses are Available via Distance Learning?

You’ll find a variety of distance learning courses online, including free Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), fee-paying short courses and formal qualifications such as pre-undergraduate, undergraduate and postgraduate courses.

To give you an idea, these are just some postgraduate and undergraduate programmes in astronomy and related fields that I’ve come across:

Or if you fancy a change in direction:

It’s likely that there are more programmes out there and in other countries that I’ve missed. Also, check out physics and other science departments if that interests you. And explore local 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 master’s loan which does cover distance learning delivered by UK universities. Some also cover a postgraduate diploma but this varies. UK distance learners (undergraduate and postgraduate) may also be eligible for Disabled Students’ Allowance. There’s also some undergraduate support available. For students from other countries, the only advice I can give is that when your searching to see if any financial support is available, just make sure that it definitely applies to a distance learning course. Generally, the funding for these courses is not fully in line with what’s available for on-campus ones. 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 astronomy or a related field, and you would like to share your stories then please do.

*Many thanks to the team at astrobitos.org for the great course additions!

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1 Comment

  1. I too am studying for an MSc in Astrophysics at Liverpool John Moores University through distance learning. I graduated in Physics with Astronomy from the University of Sussex in 1979 and have spent the past 40 years working as a software developer in various areas; air-traffic control, typesetting, graphics and telecommunications. I now work for a company which collects and collates data on the pharmaceutical industry for investors and other interested parties.

    I’ve always had a love of Astronomy, acquiring a telescope post-mortgage and reading around on the subject albeit mainly at the popular science level. I discovered the course through adverts in an Astronomy magazine published in the UK. On enquiring and receiving encouraging noises from the administrative staff at LJMU, I applied in August 2018 and was accepted.

    It has been a real challenge working full time during the week and studying part-time in the evening and at weekends. It has also been fun, frustrating but ultimately rewarding. I have been in contact with fellow students across the world comparing notes, sharing banter and discussing other interests such as music and running. Stuff that I learnt 40 or more years ago and thought I’d forgotten, soon came back as we dived into various aspects of astrophysics; the biggest difference being the availability of educational material and journals on the internet. No more the late nights in a library on campus.

    For me, the hardest part was the exams, not the questions themselves, but the lack of exam practice given the length of time since I last sat one. Time management was the issue. Work had timescales of days, weeks and months but now your deadline was 3 hours away.

    I must give a massive amount of credit to Claire, my wife for 34 years, who has been my mainstay during this period of study. I am in my second and final year and already beginning to wonder what on earth I will do with my spare time after this.

    If it has crossed your mind whether or not it is for you, I urge you to look at the courses Laura has listed, seek out any others and give it a go. You have nothing to lose and lots to gain.


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