“Why am I doing this?” - The dark side of distance learning

I’m not going to lie to anyone thinking of doing an MA, especially if they are considering distance mode - it’s not easy. Don’t get me wrong - it is worth it. The chance to reflect on your practice, engage with ELT academics, access research and expand your horizons make sure of that. However, at some point when you’re behind schedule, spending late nights hunched over your computer trying to get an assignment finished or trapped in a seemingly never ending spiral of reading academic publications, you will inevitably put your head in your hands and ask yourself “Why am I doing this?”

dark side

“Everything has a hole in it - that’s how the light gets in” Image by Mrs eNil

This moment of self-questioning hits the distance learner especially hard. There is no immediate support network of fellow students and odds are, you are juggling the study with a full-time teaching post (and we all know how demanding that can be!), and possibly family commitments as well. Despite your best laid plans to study at a particular time, you’ll get asked to do something extra at work (a terrible side effect of studying - “you’re doing an MA so you can do a workshop on what you’ve learned for us”) or there will be tests to mark, projects to grade and reports to write.

Away from work, there’ll be a friend’s birthday or a family event you can’t miss. Then you’ll find you can’t relax as you spend your time thinking “I should be studying”. And then, you’ll hear your colleagues discussing plans for the weekend/upcoming holiday. As they mention catching a film at the cinema, going out for a meal or having a weekend away, you’ll be thinking “I need to read up on socio-cultural theory and write a short summary of its applications to e-learning”.

It can take its toll and at times, keeping yourself motivated is hard. As I said at the start, it is all worth it though and there are several things you can do to keep yourself on track:

  • Plan ahead as much as possible

Get organised with your assignment dates, important dates at work, holidays and special occasions. Invaluable for avoiding potential pile-ups of work! Of course, it’s not always possible to predict what’s coming but it’s useful to be as prepared as possible.

  • Keep your boss(es) up to date on what you’re doing

It always important to keep a dialogue going. Let the people you work with/for know what you’re doing and when you are likely to be busy with study. After all, you doing an MA benefits them as well so they should be supportive.

  • Keep in touch with your course mates

There are plenty of ways to reduce the ‘loneliness of the long distance learner’. There is the university’s own virtual learning environment of course but then there are all the other social media options: Twitter, blogging, Skype… Being in touch with fellow Manchester MA students like Richard, Isil, Nergiz and Martin W as well as students on other courses like Beyza and Martin S has helped me as it’s good to know someone else out there is juggling the same things as you. For my last course, regular Skype sessions were a great way to feel more involved in a learning community as well.

  • Unwind once in a while…

Nothing wrong with taking an evening/day off from the computer screen and the books (unless it’s right before a deadline!) and doing something for yourself like taking in a movie, watching a footy match, joining some friends for a drink. In fact, you might find yourself refreshed a little with more energy to get back into studying.

  • Make time to make up for lost time

I’ve had to spend less time than normal with my family over the last few weeks. It got to the point where my son would come home from kindergarten and ask “have you got work to do today daddy?” Once I was done with the assignment, I made sure I had time to focus on just him and spoil him a bit. I also plan to make the most of my wife’s birthday with plenty of family-oriented stuff planned for the weekend. After all, it’s support from family and friends that keeps people going in whatever they do. Smile


  1. All good tips, Dave. I will bear them well in mind (I am thinking of some further studies myself at the moment, but am going to give it some GOOD thought!)


  2. Good to hear Mike. Like I said, it is all worth it but I think it's important to remind people it's not a stroll in the park either. ;)

  3. Great post David!
    I'm currently doing my twelfth year of distance or online university study, spanning about 30 years! Your list of tips is an excellent guide for someone starting out, and a timely reminder to an old hand like me to keep everything in balance. Good luck with your study and keeping your study-work-life balance.
    Cheers, Lesley

  4. I am planning to get started on an MA this fall (likely) by distance so it's great to know you're doing it and how you're feeling--both aspects I'm sure I'll face. I often wonder how I will be able to juggle all the irons in the pot, especially since very few are reaping me any financial reward so far. Advice on keeping that motivation going is invaluable.

  5. Hi Dave,

    Once again you've hit the nail right on the head. I did my Dip by distance about 5 years ago. Before twitter and facebook were big and before online learning really took off in a big way. It was hard. I found it difficult in many ways (many of which you've mentioned).

    We had a virtual learning platform and we skyped once or twice with our tutors but it was alll a bit foreign. Thinking back to those days I've just remembered that I didn't have a pen drive in those days or a laptop!.

    I remember waiting for assignments to come back and feeling a really left out. I'm sure we weren't forgotten but the distance made it seem that way. I swore that I'd never do a distance course again!

    Things have changed since then but the distance option is still the only way for me to go. Like you, I have many commitments and I can't just pack my bags and swan off to study( I'd love to).

    I'm really glad that I've read your post as you've reminded me that it won't be easy. I'm still going to apply but need to get really organised first.

    Buy some books start reading, reduce my timetable and prepare my boyfriend!

    Thanks Dave,


  6. Hi Lesley,

    Thanks for the comment. It sounds like you've very much been there and done that as far as the highs and lows of distance learning go so I'm glad you found the post useful :)

    Hi Tyson,

    Juggling everything can be tough, plus there's the question mark of will it actually bring any financial reward, both in the short term and long term. Then again, I guess the reward of improving as a teacher should be enough for us dedicated educators, eh? ;)

    Hi Leahn,

    If you've done distance learning before without the online options and support, I'm sure doing it again will be much easier. It sounds like you are planning ahead already which will help you out a lot later as well. :)

  7. Hi David,

    Great post! I know how you feel. I also find it incredibly hard at times to juggle my job, family and distance study. I have two jobs, one of which is part-time and the other is with a very flexible schedule, luckily, so I can only imagine if you are busy full time how hard it can be to squeeze in all the reading and writing. One trick that has allowed me to meet all the deadlines with relative ease so far is this: long before the actual deadline I convince myself that the deadline is, say, 10 days or 2 weeks ahead of the real one and I plan my work with that early date in mind. Then even if anything goes wrong and I miss my deadline, I still make the real deadline by some margin.

    Talk to you in the uni discussion boards.

    Alex, your Manchester classmate

  8. Hi Alex,

    Thanks for visiting the blog! I remember that piece of advice from EDUC 70020 with Julian last year, one I ignored for this last assignment but will aim to adhere to next time.

    Looking forward to working with you in Semester 2 :)

  9. I'm doing a distance MA ELT with U Reading and you're so right that it's lonely. A few of us have got together on Facebook to swap stories/encourage each other and that's really important.

  10. David. I particularly enjoyed reading this blog post. It was incredibly interesting and I really like the fact that you are very honest. Also, thank you for the brief mention in your blog. It is so nice to hear of your experiences of your MA program. I will be finishing my course in less than a week once I submit my dissertation and I can't wait to sit back for a little bit and relax. As you mentioned, it sometimes feels like it never ends with all the reading, writing and lectures to attend (online or onsite).


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