Dr Sharron Ogle
Dr Sharron Ogle, Programme Director of the online MSc Biodiversity, Wildlife and Ecosystem Health programme, talks about the huge body of knowledge our online learners bring to the digital learning environment and the challenges of making academia globally accessible.
I think in the last 9 years we’ve had everyone from age 21 to 68. We have fewer people than you may expect coming straight from degrees; it tends to be people who’ve maybe been doing their job for a very long time, but are coming to get a bit of paper that supports what they’re already doing. You get a significant few who are retired or thinking about retiring who are doing it out of interest.
Geographically, our students are still mostly UK based. That changes from year to year; some years there’s a wider diversity of people from different places. We’re also increasingly getting more US students, and over time, places that we’ve never had students from before. Last year, we had a student who graduated from Bhutan; they’ve only had the internet since 2002, so they’re already taking advantage of that for an online programme. There’s a student this year from Afghanistan who seems to be heavily involved in landscape level conservation in conflict areas, so they’re in a very specific setting. They’re an example of someone who’s coming to get the qualifications that match their field experience.
'...there is a tangible move away from Western science going somewhere to 'solve all the problems' and more towards in-country problem-solving by local people and organisations.'
Quite a lot of people are not living in places where they grew up, so you get a lot of UK, European and US students in particular who are living in other parts of the world. Just in terms of conservation practice, that is quite interesting, because there is a tangible move away from Western science going somewhere to ‘solve all the problems’ and more towards in-country problem-solving by local people and organisations. People who live in those places may be better placed to work out what the right answers are and to negotiate the implementation of strategies to deal with problems locally. I think there is a need to balance the contributions of people with relevant skills and experience coming into an area with those from people growing up and living in those places. Culture is such an important part of effective conservation practice, so being able to train people who are embedded in those cultures in sound scientific principles is important in terms of getting things to work. We do have some students in that situation, but they’re really in the minority and that’s partly a funding issue, getting people from those parts of the world into the programme.
‘In the past there’s been an argument that it’s all very nice to offer scholarships but what does the University get out of it? Financially, nothing. But in terms of student experience you’re essentially doing the right thing. You can’t measure the value of that.’
The Commonwealth Scholarship scheme has supported a number of students on our programme, but the maximum we’ve had in any one a year is 3 scholarship students. I think that’s been massively important for everybody involved, but it’s not nearly enough to give access to all potential students from low to middle income countries.
In the past there’s been an argument that it’s all very nice to offer scholarships but what does the University get out of it? Financially, nothing. But in terms of student experience you’re essentially doing the right thing. You can’t measure the value of that.
I think if there was one big thing I could make happen overnight that would be it; five scholarships, just for students coming onto this programme, only for low to middle income countries, on merit; who’s actually doing things? Who could do so much more with the educational background, the academic support? Because I think there are plenty of people out there who could do it.
‘For me in my role I feel that’s a big part of it that I really enjoy, this kind of joining people together.’
Making those connections between alumni and graduates, you could potentially do in an online space, of course, but actually sometimes it’s just a trigger in your head going ‘Actually, remember that guy from Costa Rica who was looking at blue carbon strategy,’ or ‘I’m in touch with this person and they’re going to be in Costa Rica this year, I should help them to connect…’ For me in my role I feel that’s a big part of it that I really enjoy, this kind of joining people together.
I like when that happens, to be able to do that, and obviously bringing people back in to do bits of teaching and supporting courses and things also helps to build community between staff, students and alumni.
‘They’re prepared to put themselves in a new space, often in a new subject area, which they know very little about or at all… I think that’s incredibly brave, to be honest.’
Quite often, our students are already experts in their own field, they’re professionals, they’re already doing things, and they’ve got their own networks, their own professional personas. One of the amazing things about them is that they’re prepared to put themselves in a new space, often in a new subject area, which they know very little about, and so they’re prepared to put themselves from a place where they’re very comfortable and recognisable in their professional role, into somewhere they’ve absolutely no idea. They don’t know where they fit, they don’t know if they know enough, if they can do it; they’re making themselves vulnerable. When you’re twenty that’s more natural but when you’re forty-five and you have twenty years of working experience, putting yourself in that very vulnerable space to find out if you can do it, I think that’s incredibly brave, to be honest.
‘Sometimes I think all we do is we create a space students can empty their knowledge into... consistently, students feed back that this is the most valuable part of their experience.’
The other thing is that they represent such an interesting slice out of society – you’ve got people who are from all sorts of different academic backgrounds and who can essentially make the content of the course themselves. Sometimes I think all we do is create a space that students can empty their knowledge into with twenty other people, and then you have a pool of resources that’s way bigger than any one individual course organiser could ever generate. The combining of expertise from so many different people in different places from different perspectives is a very positive learning space. And that also ties into that vulnerability, that willingness to put yourself in a new space; being aware that your learning might be inadequate at this point and that you’re going to have to catch up or really put yourself through it. People often have full time jobs and families and they still manage to study. We’re privileged that people trust us enough that it’s worth their investment of time and energy to be part of that community. And consistently, what students will feed back is that this is the most valuable part of their experience, having access to the skills and experience and knowledge of all these other people. Essentially we’re just directing that a little bit. We’re making the space available, we’re creating questions and ideas and thoughts for people to contribute to. That gives us a very dynamic space.
I remember the first year that we ran, and getting to the end of the first course and being absolutely astonished – and one of the students saying ‘Oh my god: we’ve basically written a book.’ You know, it’s that sense of how much stuff, how much combined knowledge and experience have we just put out there? Look at what you’ve made. That’s what makes it feel like it’s worth the effort.