Back to school: student story

Returning to education after many years, CAT student Tammi Dallaston discovers a whole new world of learning.

Education is changing. When I started university 30 years ago we wrote essays in longhand. During my four years there we began to use a newly installed bank of computers, and were taught the vagaries of the new digital age: the importance of saving our work onto a floppy disk, how to type with a gentle hand and even, near the end of my tenure, how to send an email.

Fast forward to 2018. I am a middle aged MSc student here at CAT. My first module in September was awash with alien terms and systems that I needed to adopt – and fast. DLE, Canvas, Moodle, digital libraries, Mendeley, Endnote, Panopto, DL: this new method of learning would have been unthinkable back in 1988. Education is changing.

One week a month, students enter an immersive environment here at CAT, studying from 9.30am in the morning to as late as 9pm at night, before retiring to the bar or their rooms on site. For us part-timers, we sign up for a selection of modules and have the option as to which we want to study, although our tutors help guide our choices. The contact time is good, and we can partake in seminars and tutorials via Skype in the weeks between times.

All lectures that are delivered in a module week are recorded and available through a digital learning environment (DLE), in my case Canvas but Moodle is used by students on some of the other MSc courses.

The advantage for me of studying part-time and being able to access aspects of the course remotely is that I can watch, or re-watch, these lectures in the comfort of my home. I am a working lone parent with three children at home and another living away at the moment. Many of the students on the courses are distance learners, and there is the opportunity within my studies to undertake whole modules as a distance learner.

The flexibility of the course is enhanced by the virtual learning environment (VLE) provided by the accrediting university. Canvas, my VLE, is an online repository of audio and visual files of lectures, seminars and additional reading – all backed up with support from student services.

Learning how to navigate Canvas has been an education in itself. How exciting to have a virtual university, with a whole library, assignment feedback, study guides and advice, records of seminars, group projects, audio and audio-visual recordings, all at hand – with the ability to access them at home, at will, or even download to listen to on long journeys. This portable learning environment is invaluable.

The tutors recommend 20 hours a week of study for a part time MSc student. I have found that much of this time is spent reading, and for that I need quiet to be able to really absorb content. I am able to wake early to read and absorb information, then study in intensive blocks, when the children aren’t at home. For at least two days a week I dominate the dining table for hours and ignore any other responsibilities. I blank out study days in my diary and have to be really strict. Studying at MSc level requires a level of tenacity, and the understanding of the people that live with you.

One unexpected outcome of my studies is emotionally navigating the big issues that the course throws up:  the inevitability of climate change; the upward global temperature trajectory graphs; the ever increasing parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere; the talk of the sixth mass extinction. As a parent, the subject and the statistics are terrifying. I am trying to find a way to absorb the information without becoming climate traumatised.

A recent meeting with my course tutor allowed me to vent some of this emotion, and she was quickly able to reassure me that this is a common response to a quick influx of devastating information. She referred me to simple techniques to reduce stress, and offered reassurance that feeling the frustration was a necessary part of engaging with the studies and feeling that there is important work to be done.

So, education is changing.

Long gone are the days of stuffy lecture theatres, writing notes long hand, cursing the undergraduate hangovers that conspired to make us late for seminars. These days even those of us with significant responsibilities can make space for study.  I have. Will you?


Tammi is CAT’s short courses marketing officer and is studying for our MSc Sustainable Food and Natural Resources.

To find out more about our postgraduate degrees why not join one of our Graduate School Open Days – the next available date is 18th May. See http://gse.cat.org.uk/open-day or call us on 01654 705953.