We have been delivering online postgraduate programmes since 2003. In this time, we’ve fostered a distinctive culture of learning and development that ensures our courses remain engaging and effective.
Our innovative professional development programmes are for those working in, or with, public services, with the desire to enhance their skills, capacity and strategic contribution. Over the years five key factors have emerged from student feedback and research that illustrate a clearer picture of the nature of effective online learning.
Flexibility vs. Structure
Our students are all in demanding roles in their respective workplaces. It is therefore important that our programmes come with policies of ‘no surprises’. We aim to enable this by balancing structure with clarity and flexibility to allow students to plan their own learning route-maps and engage in learning at times most convenient to them.
Research also identified the positive effect of simultaneous immersion; the occurrence of studying alongside working to better recognise the benefits of professional development that go beyond their period of study.
“I would definitely recommend the programme. If I can do it with 3 young children and a full-time job, then anyone can.” (Jemma Argent, UK, working for local government)
The beauty of distance learning lies in the participation of a global cohort. Our students are often based in widely-dispersed locations, and as a result, benefit from the embedded sense of course community. The social cohesion effect of studying in a group helps to sustain motivation, which in the context of distance learning, an endeavour requiring substantial commitment, is invaluable.
Research suggests students benefit from sharing and comparing experiences, as described by one of our alumni: “I expected that my study time would be rather solitary. In actual fact, the weekly online discussions gave a great deal of staff-student and student-student interaction”. Collaborating with an international network of peers also helps students acquire a more rounded and advanced understanding of their topic.
“You are not advertising these courses as you should. It’s called a distance learning programme, but I did not feel any distance.” (Semsa Alic, Bosnia-Herzegovina, PPP expert)
The role of the tutor
Research has repeatedly demonstrated the important role online tutors play in ensuring the development of trust, enabling learning and sustaining the aforementioned sense of community. In practice, and as shown in our own research, tutor presence means that tutors are available, actively leading, facilitating, and supporting individuals and the group as a whole.
Typically, universities' structures separate the ‘academic’ from the ‘administrative’, but our experience has shown that a holistic approach that joins these two functions is essential in ensuring that accurate and timely information is delivered to students. Communications that are also integrated from the wider University services help to broaden the support provided to distance learners, for both their studies and into their lives after graduation.
Another positive aspect of open communication lies in the fact that discussions take place through a-syncondrous, week-long discussion forums that promote greater opportunities for reflection and ongoing debate than real-time classrooms traditionally facilitate. This emphasis on reflection and debate is very appropriate and useful for the professional development objectives that most online programmes share.
While a central enabler to learning, technology isn’t an end in itself. We instead design our programmes with the needs of students in mind by ensuring the virtual learning environment, and all the material within can be readily accessed even by students in remote locations. The intuitive technology, therefore, plays an invisible part in creating students’ learning experiences, as they become quickly familiar with its functionality.
“Having completed the course I feel empowered, connected and able to add more value to my organisation's direction of travel". (Ahmed Choudhury, Strategic Commissioning and Intelligence Officer, UK)