Online learning: No location is too unusual for students

Distance courses are ideal for those who lead out of the ordinary lives

Matt Symonds
Tuesday 28 October 2014 14:52
Fuelled by ambition: Ehimare Josiah splits his time offshore both studying for an MBA and 
working on a rig
Fuelled by ambition: Ehimare Josiah splits his time offshore both studying for an MBA and working on a rig

Choosing to further your education isn't always an easy decision to make.

Especially if you're working on an oil rig off the coast of Abu Dhabi. This was the case for Ehimare Josiah, an assistant driller based in the United Arab Emirates, who spends alternate fortnights drilling into the ocean on board a rig. Now working towards an online MBA, he is one of many studying online in far-flung corners of the world.

"I decided to develop myself in my area of specialisation to aid my fast progression," Josiah says, "I needed an academic opportunity to help formalise my years of technical experience into a managerial role for operations."

Having applied to Aberdeen Business School (ABS) at Robert Gordon University, Josiah is an MBA oil and management student, studying online while offshore on rig Marawwah. "I have enough comfort and convenience to participate fully in all classroom activities, and I grow on the job while studying. It's not always wise to leave your job to go back to the classroom. The ABS online school grants us the opportunity to have the best of both career and education at the same time."

For Josiah, who has spent a career at sea on semi-submersible ships to drilling rigs, an online business education was the perfect option. He was able to continue his work offshore and gain a formal management qualification at the same time. One particular advantage of working offshore and online for him was that he was away from the distractions of family life.

But Debi Stephens' reason for studying online is so she doesn't have to leave her seven children at home. Stephens is a student at Robert J. Trulaske Sr College of Business at the University of Missouri on the executive MBA, three-quarters of which is studied online.

"The thought of going back to school after nearly 20 years was overwhelming," she says. "But my course format allowed the flexibility I need in both scheduling and working at my own pace. The idea of giving up most of my family time on weekends was simply not an option I was willing to put on the table."

Stephens feels that the course at Trulaske has been well-tailored to experienced, working professionals. She was able to work at her own pace and fit studying around personal and professional commitments.

Both Josiah and Stephens found that their respective schools' online platforms worked well. For Josiah, the format encouraged competition, as the inputs of the students were displayed on forums for all to see.

Stephens found that an important advantage over the classroom setting was the chance to refer back or watch again should a concept pose a challenge. "The online blackboard allowed each student to access lectures, videos, reading material and discussion assignments at their leisure," Stephens says.

"Group discussions and professor questions were available for everyone to see, allowing for students to learn from one another. The options were extensive."

(Nick David/Getty Images

These online options included audio lectures, PowerPoint presentations highlighting the most important points from readings, and videos to walk through complicated statistical or financial equations.

For Howard Marsden, it was because of options like these that he chose to study an online MBA with Warwick Business School while working at the Ghaghoo diamond mine in Botswana. "I am not a techno junkie, so I didn't use as much as was available," Marsden says. "I tried every now and then to attend online seminars, but poor local connectivity made that difficult."

Marsden, who was getting power from a diesel generator and internet from a third-party satellite connection, was 200 kilometres from the nearest power grid. He chose the online course with Warwick as it was practical and fitted around his work commitments, though he often had to rely on hard copy files and feedback from assignments.

He was studying towards his online MBA for 15 hours a week, on top of working a 60-hour week as a mining executive in some of the world's largest diamond mines. "This wasn't ideal for family life, but luckily time in the desert on the mine allowed me some free evening time, without other distractions," Marsden says. "It was a great broadening of learning and exposure, removed from typical industry and purely engineering-related topics."

Marsden also found that studying online - rather than in a physical classroom - enabled him to work at his own pace.

While distance learning means that networking can be hard, given that fellow students may not meet face-to-face, there are advantages to those in far-flung locations studying off campus.

Professor Thierry Picq, associate dean for pedagogical innovation at Emlyon Business School, has been heavily involved in the development of the school's own online programmes. He says the best practice for those studying online in distant locations is to develop a strong personal discipline.

"Be sure to work on a regular basis following a strict plan, with timing and structured activities, just like you would be subjected to in a traditional classroom," Picq says. "The only difference with distance learning is that you're the one who gets to define that structure and pace."

Picq recommends that potential students in distant locations - such as rigs, ships and deserts - choose online courses offering social network activities. "Forums, virtual group work and regular web-seminars where you can interact with other participants, discuss course content, ask and share questions, collaborate, and adjust your learning efforts with the others will allow students to follow a given rhythm."

Learning in these unusual locations is more than possible - education isn't restricted to the classroom - but there are additional considerations to be made.

Picq says: "Remember that though teaching can be digitised, learning remains a social activity. We learn with others and through others."

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