Making the most of SCONUL

I have spent the day in the library at Durham University, reading like there’s no tomorrow as part of my preparation for the Literature Review of my dissertation. And it seemed like an opportune moment to do another Distance Learning blog post, sharing the wisdom it’s taken me all this time to learn the hard way.

If you’re studying via distance learning you will, sooner or later, come up against a situation where you need to consult books. Maybe what you need isn’t on the internet (happens more often than I would like, tbh) or maybe you just prefer hard copies; no-one can print out all 455 (ish) pages of Paul Werth’s Text Worlds at home. Your printer would die of exhaustion. Enter SCONUL…

I did mention this in my last post (see #7) but it really does need a post of its own because it genuinely is invaluable. But you need to be organised and have a plan of attack.

Firstly, make sure you’re registered. Depending on your institution you may or may not be automatically enrolled into the library. You’ll need your home institution library number to verify your educational status when you sign up with SCONUL. Once you get the confirmation through, you can choose what to access. You will probably have to renew access every year (I do, anyway).

At the time of writing I did have to specify which university I wanted to access on my SCONUL application form but more as a formality. Once I got approval I could then contact any local university for access. As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m lucky enough to have convenient access to Durham, Northumbria, Newcastle, Sunderland and Teesside universities; up till now I’ve only accessed Durham as it’s only three miles away and has a brilliant library with loads of study spaces. I just filled out a form on their website and was granted a campus card to give me access to the library and borrowing privileges.

Second thing, neatly following on: check your local university SCONUL access limits. Again, at time of writing, Durham works out best for me because I can borrow up to 7 books (NEVER ENOUGH!!). Newcastle and Northumbria, I believe, give read-only privilege, so I can’t borrow any. I have an online account with Durham too so I can renew without needing to visit. This is essential information to know in advance – if you just need somewhere quiet to study then borrowing might not be as important to you but it would be such a let down to arrive at the library, find what you need but then discover you can’t take it away.

Next: check out any info online about facilities. Does it have a cafĂ©, can you reserve study spaces, do study spaces have somewhere to plug in computer chargers etc? What about internet access? Are there certain places you can/can’t eat or drink? Most important, HOW DO YOU GET COFFEE??

Fourth: plan in advance. This is the bit I have refined over the years to almost an art form (you’re welcome). If you are distance learning then every minute is precious so use them wisely:

  • Know what you’re going for. Is it preparation for a specific assignment question? Exam revision? Topic research? Do you know exactly what subject you’re going to be working on?
  • Find the library catalogue online. Look up as many of the key resources that you predict you will need as possible. The catalogue should give you the shelf reference (see below)
  • Make a list of what’s there and don’t write off anything that’s out on loan, keep a note for next time.
  • When you get there look for a plan of what reference numbers are where and try to get a study space near to the biggest cluster.

Ok so the biggest thing I’ve learned is to note shelf locations in advance. It saves MASSES of time. And on the most recent trip I have finessed my system.

In study sessions I’ve noted books I need to check on one of these handy, tiny little index card rings. Author, title, and shelf location in the library at Durham (level and shelf). 8The wonderful thing is that because they’re on a ring, I can reorder them when it’s time for the library visit so that they are grouped by floor then ordered by shelf location and I LOVE IT.

There were several early visits where I basically wandered around looking for stuff and it just wastes time. You will also get to know, this way, where most of your resources are and what shelf references to look for which will also help focus your browsing. I did manage to list things on a piece of paper but again being able to reorder the cards means I don’t leave one area then go to the other end of the library only to go straight back.

On the backs of the cards I can note essential info about each book so if I don’t get the book out this time at least I have a prompt for why I was interested in it.

Finally, a general note about using university libraries. People have many different reasons for doing distance learning but often you’re coming to it as a mature student, perhaps having been out of study for a long time or never having been a Higher Ed student before. It is easy to walk into a university library full of students, who are there everyday and seem confident and comfortable (maybe even taking for granted the time and facilities they have access to every single day!), and just feel like a complete imposter. I still feel like that every time I go. But it’s so so important to remember that you have as much right to be there as they do. You’re a student too, you need those resources and study spaces and coffee machines too, and you’re entitled to them. SCONUL access is brilliant for getting you through the door – just make the most of it.

Gratuitous Hamilton gif (because I can!) – do not throw away your shot!

Top tips for Distance Learning

I’ve been intending to do a post (or a few!) on distance learning for a while now, and since Beloved Husband has recently signed up with the Open University, my alma mater, to do a Law degree, this seems like the perfect opportunity to share my accrued wisdom not just with him but the ENTIRE WORLD.

I went from my OU Bachelor degree to a distance learning MA, which I’ve nearly finished, so I feel like a bit of a veteran in some ways. I had some health issues (including chronic pain), small children, and I was self-employed – none of which I’m saying here to show off or anything, but instead to show that doing a degree via distance learning is possible even if there are challenges in your everyday life. And I am certain I’ve made most of the common mistakes!

Some of these points are probably useful for any undergraduate, but I’ve tried to concentrate particularly on advice for DL students.

  1. Get into the habit of making use of small blocks of time. If you think you need 2 hours at a time to make progress you will struggle, especially if you have small children!
  2. Don’t expect to know everything at the start!
  3. Don’t get hung up on referencing. You need to get it right and take over it, but you will always be able to check the format. You don’t have to know the exact format off by heart, especially at the start. I am right at the end of my MA and I still need to check each reference!
  4. On the other hand, do get in the habit of keeping track of references! Make a note every time you use a reference, as close to finished format as possible.
  5. Still on referencing, find your department’s preferred format (they should have a handy document somewhere listing various examples, from book chapters to blog posts) and BOOKMARK IT. Seriously, it will become your best friend and probably the single most-used tool of your degree. You can find the right example, copy and paste it into your reference list/bibliography, and replace the sample info with the relevant citation (but DO remember to do this stage, otherwise you’ll just have plagiarised the anti-plagisrism measures which is nothing if not ironic).
  6. Most guides, including your university’s, probably, will advise setting up your own space where you can work peacefully and come to associate with productive study. In my experience that’s wonderful, but pretty unrealistic. If you can hijack a corner of your house and turn it into a study space, go for it; the thing I’ve almost perfected is a study kit. A bag holding current books, notebook(s), pencil case (including spare highlighters, pencils, pencil sharpener, rubber and biros), sticky tabs, and module materials. This moves around with me, and I have found that sitting down and pulling out my study materials usually has the same trigger for study time that the Pinterest-worthy study nook is supposed to – this is now my study time, engage brain. It has the distinct advantage of being portable so if at the last minute I’m the parent on swimming lesson duty I can take it with me easily and efficiently.
  7. Use your local university library via the SCONUL scheme. DO IT. Library access will vary; I’m fortunate enough that I live 3 miles from Durham University whose SCONUL access allows borrowing up to 7 books at a time, which seems quite rare. Even if you can only get access rights, this can be invaluable particularly at level 3 or postgraduate level where independent research is far more important. And it’s an ideal study space. Take your study kit along. You can find out more about SCONUL here.
  8. Connect with other distance learning students. Ideally they’ll be on your course, or even better on your module, but whatever the case, the support from someone else cheering you on when your assignment is due the following day and you’ve written the title and nothing else is invaluable. In my experience it’s even more valuable if your university is a brick uni which offers DL courses. At something like the Open University, everyone is in the same position (ie, a DL student); if you’re part of a relatively small contingent of DL students among (but not physically) a wide community on campus, it’s much easier to feel that you’re isolated and missing out. Find Facebook or WhatsApp groups, and maybe make use of any uni forums, although these always seem harder to join in with!
  9. Go easy on yourself. There’ll be modules you don’t do so well at, units you have to skip, assignments deadlines for which you need to request extensions. The fact that you’re taking on a part time degree at a distance is an achievement all on its own; don’t beat yourself up if something takes a while to sink in or an essay doesn’t get quite as high a grade as you hoped. Try and enjoy the journey!
  10. Document your journey. I really wish that I’d blogged my experience from the beginning so that I had it to look back on in writing rather than with hindsight. Blog, journal, whatever. Recreate it in interpretive dance, if that’s your thing. But try to capture a little bit of how you feel at the beginning, and through the course, so you can see how far you’ve come and the things you’ve learned that you didn’t even realize you’d learned.
My complete degree, all of my module books, just after I submitted my final undergraduate assignment

And with this last point in mind, I’m definitely going to take my own advice, better late than never, and try to blog regularly(ish…) about my own progress. I just got approval on my dissertation proposal for my MA, and a supervisor assigned, in January so I’m embarking on something entirely new; I’m also (tentatively!) exploring the idea of doing a PhD… You guessed it, via distance learning.

This is principally because the best places for my area are not where I live, and because of my children (my son has just started year 7 and really needs the stability) we can’t really move closer. But also, I do feel my experience so far has equipped me well for the kind of independent learning I believe is required for a PhD, so I’m both incredibly nervous and incredibly excited about the prospect, and fully intend to blog it!

I’d like to think this has been helpful for anyone thinking about distance learning or about to begin; good luck!