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.

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