Racing ahead, keeping ahead or just sticking to the Open University course schedule

Whenever the subject of keeping to the official timetable or deviating from it on an Open University course is raised, the argument nearly always gets heated.

Up until a few years ago it wasn’t an issue as the OU sent out the course material no more than a week or two ahead of the course start date. Thus, except for those that planned on packing in a couple of weeks worth of work for a period, by and large everyone was following the official course schedule. Then it all changed. Around four years ago they started sending out the materials when they were ready so I ended up getting the materials for one of my Spanish courses almost three months ahead of time. Sense seemed to prevail after that and they now aim to get the materials out around a month early although generally speaking it seems more like six weeks early.

So now, if you start the course when the material arrives you’ll find yourself running four to six weeks ahead of the official schedule. And that’s where the differences of opinion arise. For example, in the computing course I’m doing at the moment you’re limited to being at most two weeks ahead which is too much for some, not enough for others and just right for nobody apparently if the ongoing debates in various places are anything to go by. To be fair, there’s a particular issue with the TT courses in that the material is drip-fed week by week just two weeks in advance which, for me, is a real pain. For all other courses, pretty much all the course materials turn up around a month before the course begins.

So, should you start early, wait ’til the course officially starts or build up even more of a lead-time on the official timetable? That’s really down to you. For me around a month in advance works well. It’s enough to deal with lifes ups and downs and it’s not too much that you become detached from the tutorials. OU degree programmes run on for so long that you’re bound to hit all kinds of real-life issues that’ll take several weeks out of your own schedule. Those with courses starting in October will have Christmas to contend with, the February starts will have the summer; in both cases you’re going to “lose” at least a couple of weeks. Then there are more major things like holidays, weddings, births and whatnot that can easily take a few more weeks out. On the whole, I’ve found that a four week lead can cope with just about anything but, of course, your life will be different.

On the other hand, running in lock step with the official timetable means that you’re always at the right spot in the course when the tutorials come around, at least if nothing has happened. The problem is that things do happen which is why it’s quite common to have forum messages asking in panic what to do when you’re X weeks behind and those talking of dropping out of the course. Great idea if nothing happens in real-life, not so good if anything does.

Finally, there’s the racing ahead approach. That’s fine if there’s no exam at the end but if there is then you’ll finish the course months early and, more importantly, months before the exam which can make revision more difficult as there’ll be a long gap between the end of your study and the exam itself. Tutorials become pointless as you’ll have finished the corresponding TMA two tutorials ago.

If you’re one of the crazy people doing multiple courses, a bit of lead-time is essential to avoid logjams of assignments; four weeks can handle up to four courses although having done just that in 2010 I wouldn’t recommend it

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