The introduction of a distance learning degree for early childhood workers was not only an interesting innovation but also fitted in with the lifestyle of many early years workers. There was the opportunity for people to enhance their learning and qualifications whilst not needing to attend a university to do so. It was also an opportunity for local authorities to be able to enable staff to upgrade their qualifications without them having to leave their day-to-day job. The university wrote the course and went through its own channels in order to validate the degree. As in most distance learning courses, students who left at different stages without completing the full degree were able to be awarded a lesser qualification, provided they had completed a whole year of the course.
Distance learning degrees were first put forward by the Open University which has, over the years, perfected the best methods to enhance student learning. Whilst the universities promoting the distance learning degrees in Early Childhood Studies took cognisance of what had been learnt in the past about these types of degrees they also wished to ensure that what they did was in line with the needs of the early years workforce. Hence the individual modules which the students took were very relevant to both child development and their own day-to-day practice.
The universities were also aware of the importance of engaging distance learning tutors who were well aware of the subject area and who understood the pressures that came with working in the early years sector. In this way the tutors were able to give good practical advice to students in order to help them continue with the course when things became difficult.
In all this seemed a perfect situation to answer the learning needs of the early years workforce. However, like many things in this life, there was a downside. Home commitments became the first hurdle which most people came up against. How do you juggle, work, family and study? First there has to be full agreement and understanding of all family members, partners, children, extended family members etc. A timetable has to be drawn up of study times and family times and also a space devoted to the student’s books, papers and computer access. It all sounds so easy when it is written down like this but it is not always so easy to implement. There also needs to be understanding within the student’s workplace so that other staff members know that this person has additional commitments and therefore may not be able to take on additional responsibility at work.
The downsides of undertaking the degree in this way are the commitment that must be given to the academic work over and above the person’s home life and their daytime role. It is noticeable that as the students get through each year the course becomes harder and this can lead to tensions in the home. Alongside this as the student progresses, so the workplace may give them more and more responsibility and this in turn puts pressure upon the student. In some cases students will drop out after the second year or find the third year extremely difficult. It is at these times that the role of the distance learning tutor is crucial in listening to the students, offering them advice and support.
However, there is no greater reward for tutors than seeing one’s students at the degree presentation ceremony and the pride of their family members when the student collects their degree. The recognition of success makes all the pain worthwhile and, of course, the content of the course enhances the student’s quality of work.