From a distance

October 2012


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NZEI Study Award recipient BARBARA NELSON is completing a postgraduate diploma in educational administration and leadership via distance study. Education Review talks to the Massey student about the benefits and boundaries of distance learning.

Q How did you get to where you are today?

A I started out as a primary school teacher and then trained as a teacher of deaf children. I taught the deaf for seven years in Nelson, in all sectors, as class teacher and itinerant. After teaching a special class at Greymouth High, I returned to Nelson to teach in the experience unit at Nayland College, where I changed the unit’s name to Learner Support Centre.

In 2002, I was appointed as day school principal at Salisbury School, a residential special school, and while I still hold that position, my role has changed to being responsible for establishing and developing active partnerships, to work more closely with families and agencies associated with the school. I have travelled extensively throughout New Zealand in this role over the last four years.

In 2007, I won a Microsoft Innovative Teachers’ Scholarship and worked for six months for an IT company. Alongside the research I was doing for the company, I was also researching and developing ways of connecting with our families at a distance using the developing world of technology. Interactive websites and video conferencing were two very new areas at the time. Since then, I have been successful in connecting the school with families, mainstream schools, and supporting agencies using Skype. I have worked with my team to develop support for the students, schools, families, and agencies when they integrate back into their home communities and schools, providing programmes of school work, professional development for staff, and guidance for families, sometimes teaching via Skype when necessary.

Q Tell us about your Study Award.

A I was awarded an NZEI study award to complete a Post Grad Dip. This was 36 weeks of full time study on full pay – quite an honour. I believe there are only 27 of these awards given out across the country.

I realised education, especially special education, has progressed in how it meets the needs of students, and I have always had a keen interest in our disadvantaged youth, and especially Māori. The support for families was becoming an obvious gap in being able to support positive futures for our students. I believe I have been privileged to be in a position where I could influence change and be fully part of it and felt the time was right to further my own learning to be able to be part of the future for the students and families I work with, where ever that may be. I also felt that being in a leadership position, I needed to spend time on my own development so as to be able to help others grow and develop their potential in leading.

Q Is this your first taste of distance learning?

A I had completed two summer school papers by distance learning and really enjoyed the experience. These papers whetted my appetite for study and built my confidence in achieving something more substantial.

Q Does distance learning suit your lifestyle?

A Distance learning, as a mature student, fits well into my life. I can be at home and continue my involvement in family life, being able to go to school assembly to see my grandchildren get awards, take them to swimming lessons, and even look after them when they are sick – things I wasn’t able to do when I was working full time. I haven’t had to disrupt my family to be away from home for lengthy periods of time. Distance learning has enabled me to use my networks of colleagues as resources and to include my friends and family in the things I am learning.

I am naturally a very organised and self-disciplined person, and when I need to be, very focused. I set myself routines at the beginning of the year and have maintained these.

Q In what ways does technology aid your learning?

A The web-based forums have been an excellent stretch and challenge to my thinking, often using them to ask questions of others or sharing exciting things I have learned. Email between lecturers and fellow participants is prompt and efficient, often giving the encouragement needed as a boost. All my assessment is essay/report and research based, and the online forums are great for exploring ideas when developing your thinking. The lecturers are extremely willing to help and are very prompt in responding request for help.

Q Is there any contact time with teaching staff and fellow students? Is this useful?

A I spent six days on two contact courses in April, and I have another two days this week. They are excellent for connecting with fellow participants and lecturers, supporting online relationships for the rest of the course and checking that you are on track.

Q Do you find the physical isolation of distance education limits the interaction with others?

A No. Using the online facilities, and making connections in your own area with others who are studying, keeps you in touch. I attended the student union get-together in our area early in the year and met two people, one studying one of my papers and one doing something totally different. I meet each of these people for coffee regularly to share ideas, encourage each other, and gather support, if necessary.

Q What do you enjoy most about distance learning?

A Learning! This year has changed my life; it has opened a world up to me that I was only vaguely aware of. From operating from gut instinct and exploration, I can now see the links with the past and the reasons for change – it is like a jigsaw puzzle all coming together. It has challenged and excited me, and I am highly motivated to go on from here with further study.

I have always been a learner, always looking for new and different ways of doing things. My personal mantra has been for many years, ‘I know I do it well, and I know I can always do it better’. This year, I have stolen a line from Dr Seuss: ‘You have brains in your head. You have your feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself, any direction you choose.’

Q What are the more challenging aspects of distance study?

A Believing that I can achieve at this level. I have never had confidence in my personal ability, always believing that I have achieved what I have by being in the right place at the right time. Now I have to keep reassuring myself that I can do it. Often that takes the form of me sharing what I am doing with anyone who will listen ... sometimes, I feel like a “born-again learner”, preaching my new knowledge. I am very lucky as I have many friends who are in the same field of work as me and are only too happy to hear what I have learned.

Q In your opinion, would distance learning suit every student or do you think individuals need to have a certain level of self-motivation and drive?

A No, I do not think distance learning is suitable for everyone ... I have tried to do distance learning twice before and been unsuccessful; I wasn’t confident enough to undertake the study and gave up too easily without anyone checking up and supporting me face-to-face. Also, I think it is very important to have a strong sense of self-discipline to meet deadlines at a distance.


Q What do you hope to do once you complete your diploma?

A I definitely want to continue with my studies and to explore other career options. My only regret is that I have left it so late – at 58, I worry that my career options will be limited, not by me, but by those employing me. I plan to work until I’m at least 80, so am looking where to from here that will allow this to happen!


Q What advice would you give to someone contemplating a postgraduate qualification via distance education?

A Don’t procrastinate – just do it! I have a friend who is 72 and she has just completed her PhD – she is my role model!


Q Do you think distance education will ever fully take the place of face-to-face learning?

A Distance learning must be on the continuum of options for learning: there will be times when face to face, kanohi ki te kanohi, is what is required, and then there will be times when distance learning is perfect. On-site may downsize and distance grow, but there will always be a need for both. The social skills of life as an on-site student are vitally important to the future person many become; university life develops a depth of character that learning alone can never achieve.