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Learning From A Distance

SRUC Alumnus Gareth Austin wanted to study either horticulture or agriculture but there were no courses available close to where he lives so he decided that distance learning would be the best option. We spoke to Gareth to find out why he chose to study at SRUC via distance learning

What made you decide to study via distance learning?

I never set out looking for a distance learning course. Initially I was looking around at Part-time study options within the Horticulture/Agriculture field, but none of the institutions near me (the North West of Ireland) offered anything in Part-Time study and the nearest course here in Ireland which interested me was a Part-Time MSc in Organic Horticulture being held in Cork, some 7 hours drive away. This course was 2 days per week for a year, so with the commute I would have realistically been looking at giving up my job to take this course. At the time I was lecturing in Horticulture for a third level institution in Northern Ireland. So I looked onto the SRUC website at Distance Learning courses and the PGDip/MSc in Organic Agriculture appealed to me and ticked all my interest boxes. I then reached out on social media to past graduates of the course who filled me in with all the details and talked about the great learning experience they had and boom, I was sold.

Gareth AustinWhat were the benefits of studying distance learning?

That I could keep my job and learn at my own pace. Our program was conducted via a series of study weekends in Aberdeen with a lot of online tutorial work and moodle work. So in my case I could get up at 5 and do some research and study before I went to work in the mornings, and teaching staff were available via E-mail to answer questions as the course went on. Then every time as a group we came together for the study weekends it was like a mini-break! After each of these I would come home mad focused again and completely reinvigorated.

What were the biggest challenges?

Balancing study time with full-time employment (I was teaching 36 hours a week), all my other ‘goings on’ and having a young family (when I started the PgDip I had a 6 and a 3 year old in the house). The course demands around 15 hours a week in study so you need to be determined and I had to make some sacrifices with family, friends and colleagues to enable me to complete the program. The financial side is tough too, in addition to the course fees there are the travel expenses associated with the study weekends, so again you have to make cut-backs within the household budget to make things work. Here in Ireland NOTS (National Organic Training Skillnet) offering some financial support with fees, which was brilliant, but is only a % of the overall cost.

What advice would you give to anyone considering studying via distance learning?

Be prepared to work hard, and research your course before you start! You go into this thinking ‘Aye, that’s grand, sure I’ll do bits on a Sunday’, that’s the wrong approach. From the get-go you have to be focused with your time, you have to make time to really do yourself and your output justice. Get a study schedule put together and stick to it, if you’re reading on a Thursday night stick to it, in my case I spent many a night standing at the side of a Hockey pitch taking part in group Go-to-meetings, instead of concentrating on my daughters training!

I found the distance learning journey was right for me, it enabled me to expand my learning, gain new skills, meet great folks from around Europe at the same time as keeping my job.

It’s now a full year since my own graduation with a MSc in Organic Agriculture via Distance Learning at SRUC and it remains a source of continual motivation in my life, and I know that not only I, but my family, have benefited tremendously from my studies.

Grad Gareth

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