Student Julie Nicholson shares her experience of studying a Masters from 7000 miles away

MEd in Learning and Teaching in the Arts student Julie Nicholson lives and works in Singapore. In 2017, she decided to apply for a Masters degree at RCS and participate as an online learner. Long before Zoom calls were a regular occurance in our lives, Julie was studying for the MEd from a distance, making positive connections with staff and other students on the course, despite living 7,000 miles away.

Julie took part in our student Q and A to share more about her online learning experience.

Q. Tell us about yourself and what motivated you to get into teaching?

A. I am originally from the UK and have lived in Singapore for 23 years. I have always been passionate about drama and theatre, and after three years training at East 15 Acting School, I became very involved in Theatre in Education in the UK. When the opportunity to move to Singapore to work in a drama enrichment school arose, I jumped at the chance and haven’t looked back.

I now work at Stamford American International School where I am Head of Drama and Performance across four school divisions of Lower and Upper Elementary, Middle School and High School. I teach the Theatre Diploma Programme and high school drama. I manage our eight annual theatre productions and direct our annual high school musical.

Q. When did you begin your studies at RCS? What programme did you apply for and what made you apply to RCS?

A. I applied to RCS in the summer of 2017 for the Master of Education programme. I had wanted to do a postgraduate degree for some time but I couldn’t find the right course for me. Being a full-time working mum with two young children, I needed to make sure that I could keep a balance between both my professional and home responsibilities whilst pursuing my learning goals. In 2016, a member of the drama department asked me to write a reference for her as she was applying to start the PG Certicate in Learning and Teaching with RCS and, after a little research, I discovered that RCS also offered a Masters course and I felt that the time was right for me to bite the bullet and become a learner again.

I can honestly say that was one of the best decisions I made for both my personal and professional development.

Q. You study from a distance, living in Singapore. What is your experience of learning online in a different continent from your tutors?

Learning from a distance of almost 7,000 miles has not been a problem at all. Online classes were conducted at times that worked well for my time zone and took place after my working day. Weekend sessions also worked well and were easily managed from Singapore. The RCS workshop organisers were always very considerate of the online learners’ virtual presence in the classes and did their utmost to ensure we had a positive experience on a par with those that were in the physical space.

I feel that I have been able to form really good relationships with all of the tutors who have guided me over the last three years. I have had one-to-one Skype meetings, lots of feedback via emails and, with the online sessions, I feel that I have been able to make the same connections that I would have had I been in the same country. Another bonus is that all workshops and online learning sessions were recorded and I have been able to revisit the content when needed.

Q.  What did you enjoy most about the programme?

I really enjoy being able to make the learning relative to my context and follow pathways that I have found particularly interesting. Although clear learning objectives and outcomes need to be met throughout the course, how these are met is very much in the hands of each individual learner. As you progress through the course, it becomes very bespoke to each learner’s context, interests and goals, which has made the course very professionally enriching from both educational and artistic perspectives.

Q. Tell us about your independent projects; why did you choose to focus on this?

I am very interested in making learning student-centred and my current project explores self-determination theory, motivation, student-led learning, and student voice and choice. I feel that mainstream education can sometimes be the opposite of what I have found to be the most enjoyable aspect of this course, which is being able to make my learning relative, self-directed and connected to personal learning goals and interests. I am interested to understand how high school drama students respond to being given responsibility for all their learning choices and whether this leads to a greater sense of agency, intrinsic motivation and pride in their artistic work. In order to achieve this goal I have had a great deal of support from the RCS team and particularly from my personal supervisor who has encouraged and mentored me all the way.

Q. What are your hopes/career aspirations after you graduate?

I am going to miss this experience incredibly and can’t quite imagine life without “my masters” as I call it. I feel that this will not be the end of my adult learning journey and am already considering next steps, although I may take a short break first.

Q. How do you think your teaching practice has changed since undertaking the programme? 

I feel that this course has deepened my passion for the arts and education which has unquestionably infused my teaching and the learning that happens with my wonderful students. I feel that I have gained a wealth of knowledge, understanding and perspectives from the experiences this course has offered and encouraged me to discover for myself. Doors have opened, new territory has been explored, and great relationships forged. As teachers, it is so important to put ourselves into the position of being a learner again. Only then can we fully understand what it takes to be a good teacher, to see education from the other side, to understand the pitfalls of becoming complacent and to always strive to do the best we can for all our learners.

Q. How has this distance learning experience prepared you for the sudden change to remote learning due to the Coronavirus pandemic?

How have your students found remote learning?

My experiences of distance learning with RCS and teaching my usual classes remotely are very different. The RCS programme was designed with remote learners very much in mind and all support systems and learning experiences were designed for an online platform, not only for long distance learners like myself but those in the UK who also attend the online sessions remotely.

In the current situation, teachers are pulling out all of the stops to ensure their learners are still being taught and learning is still happening, however, there are limitations to the amount of time we can expect young people to be online and staring at their screens for. We are all doing our best but social interaction between teachers and learners and learners and their peers is the optimum way for young people to learn.

Having said that, I have learners dotted all over Singapore engaging in collaborative devising projects, Shakespearean scenes and physical comedy projects. We are working with what we have, getting creative with online delivery and experiencing a huge upscale in tech skills.

Q. Any recommendations or advice for teachers considering undertaking the MEd?

I highly recommend this course, you will gain so much from it professionally and personally. I have loved it from start to finish and feel that it will underpin everything I do in my career as an educator. If you have a love of learning and are keen to become a better teacher and at the same time rekindle your appreciation of yourself as an artist, then this is the course for you.

To find out more about the MEd in Learning and Teaching in the Arts programme see the programme website.

Please get in touch with the Head of Programme Jamie Mackay if you’d like to find out more by contacting j.mackay@rcs.ac.uk.

Image by Ashley Mak

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