Taking an M.A in any subject is a huge investment of money and time, but for EFL teachers it is also a commitment to the ELT industry and one’s future in it. There is, however, a complete dearth of information regarding the options one has, what to expect, how to deal with the work load and what doors the investment will open up. Something I have come to realise through my professional network is that there are a huge variety of courses out there offering vastly different experiences, benefits, drawbacks and opportunities. By speaking with those involved with the programs I hope to shed some light on what one can expect when committing to an M.A program.
I hope this series is both useful for those trying to decide whether to make the investment and interesting to those who already have.
Q1. Hi Tyson, I’ve just realised that so far you are the first person I’ve interviewed who is currently teaching in Europe, could you tell us a little bit more about yourself and where you are teaching?
Hi Alex. Actually, I teach in Toronto, Canada at the University of Toronto. I both coordinate and teach in the International Foundation Program, a full-year pre-undergraduate EAP program where students concurrently take a full-credit History course. I had been teaching Academic Reading & Writing for the last 3 years, but next year, I’ll be heading up a University Skills & Strategies course. Aside from this, I’m president of the local teachers’ association, TESL Toronto, which largely focuses on professional development for teachers here. Before this, I was director for a private language school in Toronto and before that a teacher in Seoul for 6 years. On top of all of this, I’m in my last year of a distance MA in Educational Technology and TESOL through the University of Manchester.
Q2. Wow, it sounds like you have a huge amount on at the moment, how have you managed to find the time to commit to your M.A while maintaining all your other commitments?
Priorities. Once I’d finished my first MA course, I began to understand the amount of time I’d need to do MA coursework and when I’d need to devote more time to assignments. This informed where I block out periods of time to concentrate on these studies in succeeding courses. It’s doable.
Q3. Did having to manage your time so strictly encroach on your personal life at all? Was there anything you had to give up to squeeze it all in?
Surprisingly little, honestly. If you’re good at juggling several ongoing projects, this is just another to add to it. Probably the biggest sacrifices I have had to make were cutting down on TV shows I religiously watch and spending Sundays doing anything except reading articles. I already read articles before this, but that volume just increased.
Q4. Haha ye, I know that feeling, although Monday night is still my Game of Thrones night. Could you tell us a little bit about how your course is structured, what the expectations are and how they go about delivering the content if it is all done through distance learning?
You have to take 3 courses in the first two years, in which there are 2 semesters. That can be a challenge when you’re in the semester with 2 courses. I had a hard time with that extra volume of reading, coursework and assignment. There are some required courses everyone takes, some that are by stream (mine is EdTech as opposed to a general TESOL degree) and some electives. The last year, there’s a research course and time for your dissertation.
Most of the content is delivered via Blackboard. The tutor posts a kind of study guide to read through with tasks that are largely independent and related to several chapters or articles on a particular topic. There are prompts to take ideas to the Blackboard forum for discussion. There are occasional synchronous meetings through Adobe Connect and perhaps other asynchronous activities using a particular webtool (e.g. Prezi, Wallwisher, etc.) whose pedagogical underpinnings are being focused on in that unit. Sometimes Skype meetings with tutors can be arranged. That’s pretty much how it goes.
Q5. So they do a lot try and keep you connected with other students? Does this help alleviate any, I don’t know, feelings of isolation with not having face to face seminars and lectures etc.? Also did you find these methods of information sharing as effective as face to face lectures?
There is the attempt, yes. The tasks invite you to participate in the forum in order to get some feedback and involvement from others on the course. Though I’m one more used to this type of communication as I do it through Facebook, Twitter and blogs, I found even myself uninterested in doing so. Since everyone works through content at their own pace, despite there being a timeline guiding where you might find yourself during the weeks, it’s hard to feel motivated to go into threads where many others have already had their say and contribute. Other times, only one or two participate. It just didn’t do it for me.
Compared to F2F learning, the biggest differences I find are still feeling undisciplined to work at it at times and the volume of reading involved through the written “lectures” in addition to the actual texts you have to read. I’m not great at, nor enjoy, lengthy readings in the first place. Takes me a while to complete it and process the information.
I’ve found that connecting with a few people in the same time zone and setting up a Google Hangout every once in a while can be a good alternative. It’s a bit more motivating than a faceless forum user and fun to commiserate simultaneously. One part online that has been kind of useful, if not for studying, for commiseration and guidance, is the creation of an MA Facebook Page for all alumni and current Manchester EdTech MA students.
Q6. I think you’ve very objectively analysed some of the drawbacks of doing an M.A via distance learning, but what would you say the positives have been? If you had a choice of starting again, would you still complete it via distance learning?
Hmm. Positives, you ask… It has definitely prompted me to determine what is necessary and what is optional with regards to readings. I think in that regard, I’ve learned to be… oh wait. Distance positives… It definitely allows me to work at my own pace, to a large degree. I’m not pressured by completing readings in order to understand or comment during F2F lectures. I’m able to continue working full-time, not something I’d have control over F2F. In others’ cases, the MA I’m taking probably has had a profound impact on their ability to use a variety of technological platforms and web tools, and if not initially, be able to work their way through them to a certain proficiency without fear. It’s not quite the case for me though as I’ve never had that fear and was already pretty familiar with almost all technologies before I started.
If I had the choice, I would much prefer to take 2 years off of life and focus purely on a F2F MA program with everyone else. But I can’t; it’s just not practicable.
Q7. You’ve raised an important issue regarding what people get out of their courses as it is a huge investment of both time and money (something no one has enough of!), personally I have found my M.A TESOL very theoretical, more so than I had hoped for, and it took a long time for me to figure out how to apply what I was reading and learning to my context and classroom. Is this something you have experienced and if so do you have any advice for people starting out on how they can overcome this issue?
I can’t say I expected it to be practical. MAs are notoriously theory-based, at least here, perhaps with research involved too. I do get what you’re saying about application to context. It’s a challenge, no matter what professional development you do, not to say ‘yeah yeah that’s awesome’ and then not simply drop it when into the practical day-to-day again. For me, my point-of-view going into the MA was as an interventional tool for my teaching and my program. I approached all coursework and assignments with the attitude of ‘how does this apply to me and my context’ and therefore, sought out connections to this attitude throughout the readings I was doing. I think perhaps that helped me recognise application of theory a bit more quickly than it might have for others who did not think this way. Every assignment I did also was framed in such a way that it would be related to my context particularly. Sometimes tutors mentioned to me that not everything had to have this type of interventional aspect, but my response always was that if it didn’t, the theory would have little meaning for me.
Q8. Something I mentioned earlier was the high cost involved with M.A programs, if you don’t mind sharing, how much did your course cost and what kind of return do you expect to get out of that investment?
Mine costs 6600 British pounds overall, and I pay in three installments each year of about 733 British pounds. It works out to a bit over $10,000 Canadian dollars over the three years. TESOL-related MAs really required in Canada to get anywhere within the university system, at least respectably. It adds credibility to your name, much more than any TESOL certificate might. It puts you on a different level than those without one. So, though it won’t impact my employment situation (I’ve been very fortunate), it will allow me to go in different directions more easily should I choose to. Oh, plus UK degrees are an unspoken respectable thing here. Commonwealth and origin of English and all.
Q9. Well I think we have covered a huge amount here, are there any last things you feel need mentioning about the course you have taken at the University of Manchester? For example, ease of access to tutors and support, time taken to grade assignments or quality of feedback?
Well, everyone has lives and responsibilities beyond the course itself; this includes the tutors. No, they weren’t always available when I wanted them, but I wouldn’t be either. No, the time wasn’t a weekend’s turnaround, but nor should it be. Feedback, should you have participated in forum tasks, was good from the tutors. Skype meetings were quite helpful if you had focused questions. Assignment feedback varies from points that simply say “good” to something a bit more individualised. Of course, I couldn’t expect much more. I know how it is.
Q10. And any last comments for someone who is considering committing to a distance M.A TESOL related program?
Yep. If you can’t do one offline, just do it. You get what you put into it and learn where you didn’t expect to. Just have no particular expectations and aim to not get burdened with the frustrations. That can ruin it for you. Good luck.
Great series Alex. Really useful info. Thanks