Tuesday, 27 October 2015

‘Simultaneous immersion’ – the benefits of online study for applying learning in the workplace

The main benefit of distance learning is almost always seen to be the flexibility
that it brings: it puts the decisions about exactly where and when to study into the hands of the learner. As the Complete University Guide puts it, “the main advantage of distance learning is that it allows you to fit your learning around your work and home life”. Other benefits prominently cited are “the luxury of remaining in your own home while studying”, and of avoiding the hassle of visa restrictions. Hand in hand with these benefits goes the fact that there is no waste of time or money in travelling.

These practical benefits to do with fitting study in among work and home life are all very clear and important reasons for studying at a distance, and are very relevant, moreover, to both employees and employers. Our research, led by my colleague Sally Brooks, has however highlighted an additional, equally important benefit regarding the substance of the learning. It relates to the conditions that distance learning creates for ‘simultaneous immersion’ - of being able to study and work in parallel - and to the benefits that hence arise from being able to apply learning directly to the workplace. These benefits have been relatively overlooked, compared with the instrumental benefits mentioned above, but should be a crucial part of the decisions made by individuals and organisations to invest in distance learning.

Our research examined the experience of students and alumni of the University of York’s online Masters programmes in public policy and management, which bring together people from around the world who work mainly in public sector and non-profit organisations and who are seeking to develop their skills and capacity for public service policy-making, leadership and management. From this research, which involved interviews with a cross-section of students who were well-advanced in their studies or who had recently completed them, we identified the following key findings about the way that learning crosses into the workplace:

The first key finding is that studying while working creates the conditions for ‘simultaneous immersion’ which enables the learning to be immediately ‘read back into’ the workplace. This was summed up in our research by one of the interviewees, a senior civil servant in the UK, who was responsible for managing a departmental change process and who reflected on one of the analytical methods that he had employed with his team as a result of the module that he had studied on leading and managing change. He noted that:

“If you’re going to go and learn it properly, then you’ve got to immerse yourself in it. If you are very deeply into [study] at the same time as when you’re working, then it’s a real opportunity just to launch these things in a practical sense in your head rather than in a theoretical one… So you know, that’s helped me not only read into that theory but also read it back into the organisation”.

A second important result was that this process of applying learning in the workplace flowed partly from learning about and being able to choose between a wide range of models and approaches, depending on the context, rather than being presented with one set approach or ‘one best way’. One of our interviewees had recently moved from a role in a government department to a small non-governmental organisation; she summed it up like this:

“Particularly in the ‘Policy Analysis’ module, it was looking at all the different frameworks [that was beneficial]… And then, ‘Leading and Managing Change’ [another module]... it is so relevant to my role. But again, it was looking at all the different models. I could really see how that plays out in an organisation very nicely, and I have been using it in my current role quite a lot. So, I had lots of examples to show a lot of people”.

Thirdly, our research highlighted that this process of ‘simultaneous immersion’ helps to put in place an ongoing, long term integration of work and study that doesn’t end when the learner completes their studies, and which helps to propel habits of ‘reflective practice’ (Raelin 2002). One of the interviewees, who had changed role and country several times since completing his studies, spoke about how he had become a ‘lifelong learner’ continually seeking out opportunities to reinvest in work-based learning:

“I still don’t have a problem drawing back on what I studied. This online study has the potential of generating professional individuals who develop an interest in lifelong learning.”

Interestingly, several of our interviewees talked not only about their own personal and individual ‘simultaneous immersion’, but also about how working and studying in tandem had enabled them to initiate conversations with colleagues (those reporting to them or their peers) which led to new ways of conceptualising and tackling work problems. This process seems highly relevant to Raelin’s notion of ‘public reflection’, which he suggests is important for moving organisational learning forward. 

Organisations increasingly need fresh thinking, clear decision-making and a commitment to continual learning if they are to weather an increasingly complex context marked by continuous and disruptive change, global pressures and highly constrained resources. In this context, distance learning via online study offers particular benefits for workplace learning. These benefits go beyond the much-cited ‘flexibility’ of distance learning, and are much more connected to the substance of the learning. They deserve to be much more widely recognised by employers, as a contribution to developing a skilled and adaptive workforce of employees who are committed to learning for the long-term.


Brooks, S. and Roberts, E. (2015) How online postgraduate study contributes to the development of reflective practice among public service practitioners, Interactive Learning Environments. Available at http://www.york.ac.uk/media/spsw/images/books/SBile14may2015.pdf accessed 18th October 2015.

Complete University Guide (2015) Advantages and disadvantages – why choose distance learning? Available at http://www.thecompleteuniversityguide.co.uk/distance-learning/advantages-and-disadvantages-%E2%80%93-why-choose-distance-learning/ accessed 18th October 2015.

Raelin, J. A. (2002) “I don’t have time to think”! versus the art of reflective practice, Society for Organisational Learning and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Vol. 4, No. 1, pp. 66-74.

UK Commission for Employment and Skills (2014) The labour market story: skills for the future, Briefing Paper, July 2014. Available at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/344441/The_Labour_Market_Story-_Skills_for_the_Future.pdf accessed 18th October 2015.

US Journal of Academics (2015) The advantages of distance learning. Available at http://www.usjournal.com/en/students/help/distancelearning.html accessed 18th October 2015.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

So we’re all vulnerable now, or are some more vulnerable than others?

When at the 2015 UK Conservative party conference the Home Secretary
Theresa May invokes “the most vulnerable as a selling point for harsh new proposals regarding the treatment of refugees (which the Refugee Council described as “thoroughly chilling”), it isn’t to highlight the human cost of the current wave of migration originating to a greater extent from Syria and other conflict zones, rather it is an attempt to employ a vulnerability narrative to soften the harsh and draconian new asylum proposals in what can clearly be seen as a self-serving speech in her presumed bid for the Tory leadership. When however the World Health Organisation tells us that although ‘the vulnerable’ pre-exist globalisation, groups such as “the elderly, the young, and the poor [who] are already so marginalized that they cannot benefit from globalization… are increasing in numbers as globalization increases the gap between rich and poor” it suggests that vulnerability represents a substantive and long-standing problem. And when Martha Fineman, a Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Law at Emory University and an internationally recognized law and society scholar, argues that vulnerability is a life-long universal human ‘condition’ which has both political and policy implications, then clearly there is more to the concept than simple semantics and something which is clearly worthy of further research and investigation. Indeed it is precisely the political and policy implications of vulnerability which is the driver for research that myself and my colleague Enrico Reuter are currently engaged in. Our research examines the relationship between a specific conceptualisation of vulnerability and labour market policies, and the impact policy has on those at the margins of the labour market.

Vulnerability as the WHO suggest is not a new phenomenon, nor is it new to the social sciences. For example, it has a history as a way of conceptualising risk (Beck 1992) in contemporary society, with Beck (2009: 178) noting that vulnerability and risk were “two sides of the same coin”. Perhaps what is ‘new’ is the plethora of uses this term is applied to, clearly not with the same intent or agenda, by a range of social actors, whether that be housing, education, disability or youth justice (Levy-Vroelant, 2010; Brown, 2012; Emmel and Hughes, 2014).

In thinking about vulnerability, I want to make a distinction between what can be thought of as the generalised conceptualisations of vulnerability in popular discourse on the one hand, and a perhaps broader conceptualisation of vulnerability which can be applied to labour market relations in general and to those on the margins of the labour market in particular on the other hand. The margins are those areas of the labour market that are less secure, more informal and so at greater risk of exposure to the vagaries and the ebb and flow of the broader global economy (Savage et al, 2013). The margins also contain those who are employed on short term or ‘zero hours contracts’, those who in plain terms are more vulnerable to unemployment and at greatest risk of poverty and/or increased inequality whether that be through unemployment or as members of the working poor. In September the UK’s Office for National Statistics released figures which showed that nearly three quarter of a million people are on zero hours contracts  It is this group whom Guy Standing (2011) has defined as the precariat, which he argues is a coming class defined by its members’ relationship to a range of securities allied to the labour market.

In addressing vulnerability, the policy results of institutions, of governments and their departments can either exacerbate or ameliorate individual/shared vulnerability, and too often in the current neo-liberal political environment it is the former rather than the latter that results from social policy reforms. Too often vulnerability is linked to a spurious notion of ‘choice’, and the predominant discourse is behaviourist and seeks to impose restrictions upon, or hurdles in the way of, those deemed vulnerable as a direct result of their own action or inaction as perceived by the state. This is particularly the case when the current (and previous) UK government talk about and legislate for employment and access to the labour market, as illustrated by the work capability assessment of the Department for Work and Pensions.

Whilst not wishing to push the exact relationship between the precariat and vulnerability too far, it is those who lack some or all of the ‘seven forms of security’ (labour market, employment, job, work, skill reproduction, income, representation) identified by Standing (2011) who become the target of social policies that highlight and target the individual. This can be both a positive as well as a negative element in policy making; in the former bolstering individual resources and resilience – being identified or labelled as vulnerable can result in individuals and groups being the recipients of direct or tailored support to combat such vulnerability – and in the latter adopting a behaviourist approach through restricted and conditional access to welfare state support. The common ground for both however is that social policies which simply co-opt the vocabulary of vulnerability pursue a clear focus centred on individual accountability rather than a social and collective rights-based response (Levy-Vroelant, 2010). It is the change in the relationship between employment and citizenship which, as the determining factor in the access to social rights, has undergone significant structural change as a result of the impact of a liberal globalised economy. In the words of my colleague Kate Brown, in her excellent book ‘Vulnerability and Young People’, we need a structural approach to vulnerability, one which takes account of “institutions and their role in the provision of ‘supportive’ services… institutional factors and forces that shape the choices, views and lives of individuals which persist over time, but which can be modified by human action” (Brown, 2015: 16).

On balance, the shift from de-commodification to re-commodification of labour (Greer, 2015) can result in greater individual insecurity and vulnerability to external shocks. Allied to the hegemonic neo-liberal discourse of the 1980s and 1990s, employment and participation in the labour market became and remains more precarious for a greater number of people in a variety of economic settings – particularly the young and least skilled – which places them at greater risk of (long-term) unemployment and confines them to the margins of the labour market.

Recently Professor Peter Fleming wrote a piece for The Guardian called ‘There is nothing good about the rise of zero hour contracts – ban them now’. In the context of vulnerability, citizenship and social rights, it is difficult to find anything to disagree with in what he says.

Beck, U. (1992). Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, London, Sage.

Beck, U. (2009). World at Risk, Cambridge, Polity Press.

Brown, K. (2012). Remoralising ‘vulnerability’, People, Place and Policy Online, 6 (1), 41-53.

Brown, K. (2015). Vulnerability and Young People: Care and Social Control in Policy and Practice. Bristol: The Policy Press

Emmel, N. and Hughes, K. (2014). ‘Vulnerability, Inter-Generational Exchange, and the Conscience of Generations’ in J. Holland and R. Edwards (eds) Understanding Families Over Time: Research and Policy, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan.

Greer, I. (2015). Welfare reform, precarity and the re-commodification of labour, Work, Employment and Society, (available online May 13 2015).

Levy-Vroelent, C. (2010). Housing Vulnerable Groups: The Development of a New Public Action Sector, International Journal of Housing Policy, 10 (4), 443-456.

Savage, M.,Devine, F., Cunningham, N., Taylor, M., Yaojin, L., Hjellbrekke, J., Le Roux, B., Friedman, S. and Miles, A. (2013). A new model of social class? Findings from the BBC’s Great British Class Survey Experiment, Sociology, 47 (2), 219-250.

Standing, G. (2011). The Precariat: The Dangerous New Class, London Bloomsbury.

Friday, 2 October 2015

Our new Masters in Social and Public Policy: Expanding excellent distance learning at the University of York

For more than 10 years, the York Online Team has delivered excellent distance
learning programmes in the field of public policy, administration and management as well as international development. Based on these experiences and driven by our ambition to continuously improve the way we teach and support our students, we are today very proud and happy to officially launch our new MA in Social and Public Policy, which will be open to students from September 2016.

There have been two main reasons for this expansion of our programme catalogue:
  1. Since we are part of the Department of Social Policy and Social Work, it seemed right to offer a programme with a strong, direct focus on social policy, to not only draw on the expertise of our own staff in this field but to also benefit from as well as contribute further to the outstanding reputation of the Department, which achieved the third place in last year’s Research Excellence Framework on research quality and is overall one of top ten social policy departments in the UK, according to the ‘Times and Sunday Times University Guide 2016’ and the Guardian University guide 2016.
  2. Establishing this new programme enables us to reach new groups of students who wish to specialise in studying the interplay between public and social policy, and who wish to dedicate a substantive part of their studies to their Masters dissertation. 
To accommodate the latter, the new MA will differ from our other online programmes by being two years long (instead of three years for our other programmes; even though there exists the option on these three-year programmes to speed up the study process) and by focusing the second year on the preparation of an 18,000 words dissertation.  

If you are interested in this programme or know of people who may be, we would invite you to have a look at the new programme website that contains all relevant information on entry requirements, taught modules and the structured support available to you.

And please do not hesitate to get in touch, via spsw-online@york.ac.uk for any queries you may have.