Pathways to Academe

Xia Zhu

“The Journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” ~ Lao-Tzu

It was August 2010 that I started my first full-time lectureship at a Higher Education Institute (HEI) in the UK. Ten years is a good span to look back and reflect on the journey that I have travelled so far.


I was still writing up my PhD dissertation at that time, new in academia and young in age and experience, when I gave my first lecture. I can barely remember that class, but I can still feel the nerves vividly today. The sense of uncertainty is still sharp and lively, not knowing what the students would be like, what they would expect from me and how much I could teach them.

Aside from the nerves, what I remember is the grappling with the change of my role from sitting in a room as a student to teaching in front of the class as a lecturer. What I remember is the madness of reading textbooks late into the night with an attempt to feel secure, certain. What I remember is the typing and printing out every word and sentence that was going to be delivered at each of my lectures.

Preparing those scripts, despite being laboursome, seemed to work as a coping mechanism. It provided me with the courage and confidence needed to stand in front of each class and deliver what was carefully planned instead of shying away. Yet the downside of this strategy was the tendency to develop monologues when overly relying on those scripts. On one occasion, a student approached me after a lecture and asked whether she could have a copy of my scripts for her exam revision. That might have been flattering; nevertheless it urged me to reflect on my practice and drove me to write outlines and bullet points instead.

Over the years, as I delivered more and more lectures and repeated some similar ones, I became less dependent on those notes; yet today when I click on those files, revisiting the scripts developed from the early years, they still bring a smile to my face together with those unquenchable memories. Those are the footprints of the baby steps that I made at the beginning of my academic journey. They witness my adaptation to a new role in academia and my exploration into a new territory.


My journey in academia involves a self-exploration of being a learner and an educator, as well as a discovery of how theory and practice may work hand-in-hand. When I was a student, it was challenging to understand business-to-business marketing theories. Concepts such as ‘coopetition’, ‘power’ and ‘relationship’ were foreign and remote to my experience. These distant theories came alive and made sense to me when I started working in a company to help them expand their business into the Far East (which was before my entry into academia as a lecturer). I could relate those alien concepts to my work experience in the organisation and appreciate how theories may explain real-life issues in practice. Now as I teach MBA students working from different industries, I hope that they will also have these light bulb moments of ‘Ah! That makes sense!’ as they see the connection between theory and practice. The joy of discovery shared is doubled.

My exploration in academia is not limited to the offline environment—I eventually ventured into the territory of open distance learning. Looking back, my first eight years’ experience in higher education were mainly in traditional campus-based universities. I greatly valued face-to-face interactions and instant feedback from students. Although I was aware of the rapid development of MOOCs and online courses, with limited exposure to online teaching and learning, I doubted their effectiveness in the virtual environment. I was uncertain what students’ learning experience may be like online compared to those offline.

When I joined the Open University in 2018, in order to gain a better understanding of open distance learning, I enrolled a 60-credit first-year undergraduate module at the Faculty of Arts and Humanities. Wearing a student’s hat, I attended day schools, mingled with other students (I even joined the module’s Facebook group!) and submitted all assignments. I purposefully chose a mix of online and offline tutorials in order to make some comparison.

This practical study experience overturned my perceptions about open distance learning. I had not anticipated the enjoyment of studying remotely at my own time. The level of engagement and interaction in the virtual environment was likewise unexpected. For instance, in the first online tutorial the tutor shared a UK map on the screen and asked students to put a ‘star’ on the map to indicate their locations. It was a joy to find people from many different parts of the UK studying this module together. At the same time, some students drew a line out of the map and wrote down ‘Iceland’, ‘Switzerland’ etc. to show where they were based. It was a delightful discovery of belonging to a great learning community with people from all over the world, and a pleasant surprise that student engagement and group diversity could be easily captured through such a simple online activity. It was also a valuable realisation that I preferred online tutorials to offline in-person sessions which corrected my bias towards learning experiences in the virtual environment.

However, this does not mean that open distance learning is without its own challenge, as my learning diary noted that,

“The module forum is open. I am a bit overwhelmed by how many posts are there…I do not have time to read each post – it takes far too much time.”

“I am very much behind…I don’t know how other students manage to be on top of things alongside their work and life.”

Along with my personal joy and pain in studying this module, I developed some understanding of students’ open distance learning experience: the pleasure of being able to study flexibly in time and place, the ecstasy of an ‘ah-ha’ moment, a sense of achievement through learning and self-development, as well as the challenge and struggle of balancing work, life and study.

As I progress in my academic role of working with colleagues across the university to design and produce an open distance learning module, I have gained many more insights behind the scenes. It’s been a remarkable discovery of a sophisticated systematic mechanism behind open distance teaching and learning. For instance, designers thoughtfully calculate reading speed (i.e. how many words per minute), and this is considered in planning students’ study hours each week. Each student activity and every piece of reading have been carefully selected and designed. A tremendous amount of effort has been put into the production and delivery of a module in order to give students a rewarding and enjoyable learning experience in the unconventional environment. Although my encounter with open distance teaching and learning is recent, I am excited about the opportunities and development in the new territory.


My venture in academia would have been audacious without good company. Issues such as students requesting extensions for assignment deadlines, asking for help with their group work or complaining about their exam grades were not part of my anticipation about academic work in a Higher Education Institution. Fortunately, my first office was in an open space shared with another six colleagues. The layout of the space offered great opportunities for small talks. A line such as “I just received an enquiry…” could open up a conversation and lead to an informal mentoring session in the office. Colleagues never hesitated to share the mistakes they had made which helped me to understand the nature of those issues and alerted me to the consequences of mishandling those problems. Their valuable advice has helped me to avoid many pitfalls at the start of my academic journey. As an educator, I hope students might also appreciate their peers’ contribution and value the great opportunity of encouraging, sharing and building each other up in a learning community.

As I moved to an individual office later on, the casual and helpful conversations with colleagues now take place in the form of having a faculty tea and coffee instead. These informal exchanges are still much appreciated and treasured, and I am hoping to relay what I have received and learned from senior colleagues to new starters as we travel together in Higher Education.


As I embark on the 11th year in academia, looking back at the past ten years, it is a journey of exploration, discovery and development in the company of many friends. Looking forward, with much pleasure, I will travel on to ‘learn and live’ as the Open University motto stated.


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Voices of Practice Copyright © 2021 by Xia Zhu is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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