Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Effective student-friendly online learning: What we have learned, and how our students benefit

Here in the Department of Social Policy and Social Work at the University of York we have been developing and delivering wholly online postgraduate programmes of study for public service practitioners since 2003.

As demand for online learning grows, and with many institutions now embarking on offering study choices of this kind, it may be a good moment to reflect on what we have learned about delivering an effective online programme, from the student’s point of view.

Based on our experience and on wider research, the following factors appear to be of key importance:

Programme design that balances flexibility with structure
For many people the flexibility that online study offers is one of the major reasons for embarking on this mode of study. Our experience suggests, however, that this flexibility needs to be balanced with an explicit structure which provides participants with a clear route-map, both in respect of their programme as a whole and their week by week activity. Our students are all in demanding roles in the workplace, and so it is very important that there is a policy of ‘no surprises’, and that activities, deadlines and expectations are all clear. A mix of structure, clarity and flexibility enables students to plot a way forward to a successful conclusion.

Flexibility is also important in terms of modes of communication. Students can choose to contact their tutor and personal supervisor by email, phone or Skype – according to their preferred style and what they wish to discuss, so that they get the most from the encounter. The weekly tutor-led group discussions are conducted ‘a-synchronously’, which means that students never have to be online at the same time as each other.

A sense of community
When students are studying at a distance, often in widely-dispersed locations, it’s important that their studies are designed to enable and embed a sense of community. Research suggests that this brings three key benefits, from the student’s point of view:

  • First, many of our students are looking for opportunities, through their studies, to share and compare experiences with other practitioners who are working in different contexts but with similar public service motivations. It’s therefore very important that opportunities for interaction and mutual learning are built in throughout the programme. As one of our alumni put it: “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. A great benefit of the course was that many of the students were mid-career people from around the world and were able to draw on a wide range of experience in topic discussions. It was a privilege to hear their experiences being shared in a confidential and supportive environment.”
  • Secondly, research suggests that this kind of mutual learning and enquiry fosters deeper learning, as it helps students to acquire a more rounded and advanced understanding of complex topics.
  • Thirdly, a sense of community also provides for social cohesion and helps to sustain motivation. Distance learning requires considerable commitment, especially when it is being undertaken concurrently with a demanding professional role, and so the importance of this social ‘glue’ can’t be overstated.

Tutor ‘presence’
The role of the tutor is closely linked to the previous factor, as research repeatedly demonstrates the important role in online learning of tutor ‘presence’, and the impact that this has on developing trust, enabling learning and sustaining the all-important sense of community. In practice, and as demonstrated in our own research, ‘tutor presence’ means that tutors are available and present within the virtual learning environment; that they actively lead and facilitate the learning process; that they support individual learners and the group as a whole; and that they are responsive and ‘visible’.
It’s been observed that online tutors act as teachers, designers and counsellors, and our experience bears this out.

Joined up communication
Both of the previous factors involve effective communication, and this comes to the fore in this next factor, which concerns a holistic approach to managing communication with students and building relationships with them.

Typically, organisational structures in universities often separate the ‘academic’ from the ‘administrative’, but our experience has been that a holistic approach is needed, with the student and their experience at the centre. In practice, this means using a team-based approach, so that plans can be drawn up and information shared between all those who are involved in the delivery of the programme. This approach also ensures that processes are well thought out from the student’s point of view. Handled this way, administrative staff also become an important part of building and maintaining relationships with students.

Communications also need to be ‘joined up’ with the university more widely, so that university-level services, be they careers or welfare-related, are all accessible and meaningful for online students. At York, we have recently established an online college where students can connect and learn about all the support available from the University for their studies and beyond, into life after graduation.

Invisible technology
It’s important from the student’s point of view that the technology which supports the programme is accessible, easy to use and intuitive. It also needs to be designed with the needs of the students in mind. In our case, that means ensuring that the virtual learning environment, and all the material in it, can be readily accessed even by students in very remote locations. Above all though, the technology should be ‘invisible’; while it’s a key enabler, it isn’t an end in itself, and should quickly become so taken for granted that students don’t have to think about it.

Making the most of the benefits of online learning
Finally, designing effective online learning involves recognising the distinctive advantages that this mode of study brings, and making the most of them:

Collaborative learning. One key advantage is the opportunity that online study brings for collaborative learning within an international network of peers. This underlines the importance of building in the kind of mutual enquiry and learning mentioned above, and this again points to the central theme of ‘community’.
Reflection and ongoing debate. The fact that discussion takes place through a-synchronous, week-long discussion forums means that there are much greater opportunities for reflection and ongoing debate than in real-time classrooms which prioritise immediate responses. This emphasis on reflection and debate is very appropriate and useful for the professional development objectives that most online programmes share.
Simultaneous immersion in study and work. This mode of study also brings a benefit that has perhaps been less well-recognised in the discourse about online learning: the opportunity for simultaneous and ongoing immersion in study and work. Unlike courses that take place at a distance from the workplace, in terms of both location and time, online study joins the two, and so learning and insights can be immediately applied. Our research into the ‘simultaneous immersion’ that online study makes possible identifies clear benefits for professional development which go well beyond the actual period of study.

This final point indicates a common factor across all of those noted above:  the importance of thinking programme design through from the perspective of the student. In terms of content, tutoring, learning outcomes and communications, the students’ needs should drive the programme design.

Ellen Roberts - Director of the Online MA programmes in Public Policy and Management

For more information about our programmes, or to enquire about applying for entry in September 2017, please see our web pages here, or contact

Thursday, 13 April 2017

The 'red devil' (who brings progressive politics back to life)

With the first round of the French presidential election approaching quickly, interest in what will be a decisive political juncture not just for France but for Europe and the rest of the world is rising – even among the British media, usually more fascinated by irrelevant intricacies of US-American politics than by political developments in continental Europe. In recent days, attention has slightly shifted from the two longstanding front-runners, the centrist Emmanuel Macron and the far-right Marine Le Pen, to scrutinise another candidate who has gained support in recent polls, and who now seems to stand a low but reasonable chance of being qualified for the second round of this election: Jean-Luc Mélenchon, representative of the movement ‘La France insoumise’ with its currently 400,000 supporters.

With a lot of finesse and nuance, a range of labels were swiftly attached to the man, ranging from ‘hard-left rebel to ‘far-left firebrand’, while a small selection of manifesto pledges were selected to demonstrate that his programme truly is either dangerously unrealistic or insane. It is therefore time to tackle at least a few misunderstandings (let’s start with three), and to stress that this presidential election will have repercussions that go far beyond French borders, notably in the case that Mélenchon manages to win. 

So, here we go:

First, for British observers, Mélenchon undoubtedly is an oddity. In his long meetings, he alternates between ironic humour, careful explanation of policy measures and analysis of social problems, and fiery rhetoric, to end it all with… a poem. He is unashamedly intellectual, proud of his knowledge in literature, history and philosophy, but also combative and folksy. Even though he knows how to coin a memorable expression (after the disastrous reign of current French president François Hollande, who would today disagree with Mélenchon’s description of Hollande in 2011 as a pedalo captain in a stormy sea), he is not someone who will go from one interview to another parading soundbites that were written by a committee of communication and PR consultants.

However, this combination of intellectualism, strong oratory and popular attachment has been a staple of French politics for centuries, especially on the left, and Mélenchon hence follows directly in the footsteps of Jean Jaurès, but also to some extent François Mitterrand or Maximilien Robespierre.

Secondly, the manifesto of ‘La France insoumise’ (available as a bestselling book, on an online platform or as a comic strip; the headline measures have also been translated into English) may contain eye-catching pledges (which may frighten those who have interiorised the dictum that ‘there is no alternative’ to the existing order of things), such as a 100 billion Euro investment programme, a shift to exclusively renewable energy production, an ambitious re-regulation of labour markets, or exit from NATO, but what makes it interesting and worth of much more serious attention is its coherence and theoretical grounding.

It is, first of all, built on an analysis of contemporary societies’ key problems and opportunities and draws heavily on insights from critical social sciences, for example regarding the devastating social and ecological effects of financialised global capitalism, but also the potential of highly educated networked societies with increasing levels of interdependencies to cooperate in the name of social progress.

Furthermore, the manifesto incorporates recommendations and demands of a range of civil society organisations, which helps to explain why it was widely lauded by the voluntary sector for its consideration of, among others, environmental concerns, public health and sustainable development (regarding for example the plan for African countries).

Finally, the manifesto is more than a simple collection of focus-group tested pledges, to appeal to different social groups. Its core proposals are closely interlinked, so that for example the reform of the monetary system and the fight against tax avoidance provide the funds for a substantive public investment programme, which focuses on the ecological transformation of energy production as well as of the production and distribution of goods, and which goes hand in hand with a relocalisation of agriculture and industry. This investment programme, thanks to its Keynesian multiplier effect, is to stimulate the broader national economy, so that in combination with an overhaul of the income tax system, measures against precarity and an expansion of social insurance overall living standards are to be raised. 

On a different level, the idea of a constitutional assembly to rewrite the French constitution shall not only serve the purpose of enlarging and protecting individual rights (for example by including the right to abortion and assisted suicide), and of allowing the multitude of the French population to reconstitute itself as a political subject across ethnic, religious and class lines. It would also facilitate the kind of popular engagement that would be essential to implement such an ambitious programme, which undermines vested interests of all sorts.

Thirdly, a main pillar of Mélenchon’s manifesto is a profound reform of the European Union (EU), notably to change all those directives and treaty obligations that foster competition between member states and lead to social dumping, that stifle the ability of states to boost public investment and to protect public services from liberalisation and privatisation, and that use the EU to impose unfair trade conditions on emerging and developing economies. Mélenchon's aim is hence not to destroy the EU or lead France out of it, but to reform the EU thoroughly, in order to maintain the spirit of collaboration and solidarity that ought to underpin any European project that seeks to attract wide popular support.

The approach to achieve such reforms will be familiar to British readers, as it mirrors David Cameron’s plan to renegotiate EU membership conditions and to then submit the outcome of these negotiations to the people via referendum. There is no doubt that Mélenchon would find it challenging to succeed in such a far-reaching reform of the EU, but his chances are arguably much better than that of the UK were, not only because France is a more essential member of the EU and its departure would likely be the end of the EU (whereas Britain leaving is more like the departure of a party guest who never took her coat off), but also because France could galvanise support from those European states that suffer from the economic imbalances within the EU that arise out of the structural flaws of, in particular, its monetary union.

It is obvious that the manifesto of ‘La France insoumise’ goes beyond making small step changes. It is openly radical on all levels, and herein lie certain risks: The risk (for its supporters) that voters will at the last minute shy away, influenced by the growing deluge of reports depicting the end of the world if Mélenchon ever were to govern. The risk (for everyone) that organised interests in France and Europe, the path dependency and complexity of policy-making, and the power imbalances on the global stage will undermine the possibility to transform the manifesto into reality.

But I would argue there is a much bigger risk, one ignored in an irresponsible manner by all those who seem to be much more critical of Mélenchon than of the far-right candidate Le Pen:

There are four serious contenders for the French presidency in 2017. Emmanuel Macron and François Fillon represent ‘business as usual’, a continuation of economic and social policies that have failed for years to achieve well-being and social cohesion, and to tackle global challenges such as climate change or fair international development; policies that furthermore led to a rise of right-wing populism, xenophobia and to conflicts within and between nation-states. Marine Le Pen’s Front National and other far-right parties are a political expression of this anger and sense of powerlessness, fuelled by a rising willingness of people to denigrate others because they are ‘different’ – a political expression that could ultimately tear societies apart.

In 2017, it seems unlikely that Le Pen can win the French presidency, but if Macron (or Fillon) were elected and pursued their programme, I would not bet against Le Pen in 2022. In this case, the relative calm and relief that elites would express if Macron’s victory is announced on the 7th May might be nothing but the calm before a very dangerous storm.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s candidacy offers a way of channelling widely held frustration with the status quo into an ambitious progressive and humanist project. If it were to be successful, it would substantially improve the lives of millions of French people by creating a more equal, democratic, healthy and ecologically sustainable society. Given France’s power and influence, this success would echo far beyond Western Europe. It would be a beacon of hope in an ocean of misery and chaos.

Enrico Reuter – follow me on Twitter

Friday, 31 March 2017

It’s UC and the MIF, not NICs, we should be focusing on!

Since the 2008 financial crisis, self-employment as a sector of the British labour market has increased sharply, and accounts for nearly one third of the growth in employment figures since 2010. The rate of self-employment now stands at approximately 15% of the labour force, in other words about 4.64 million individuals (BoE, 2015; ONS 2016). Self-employment has “outstripped growth in permanent employment by 3 to 1 in the last decade” (O’Leary, 2015: 9) and has “accounted for nearly half of the increase in total employment since the recession” (Deane, 2016: 7).

It is some of this group (those earning more than £16,250 pa) that were most concerned by the changes in National Insurance Contributions (NICs) for the self-employed announced by the Chancellor Phillip Hammond in the 2017 Budget in the House of Commons on 8th March 2017.

As a relatively small change in the Budget, the Chancellor announced that Class 4 NICs for the self-employed would rise from 9% to 10% in April 2018 – and then to 11% in April 2019 – on income up to the higher rate threshold of £45,000 pa. The new rates are still lower than for employees who pay NICs at 12% on the same income levels, while both groups will continue to pay at 2% on income above the higher rate threshold.

This caused a great deal of furore in various circles, both in The Guardian and The Telegraph amongst others, and not a little traffic on my Twitter timeline with a range of people arguing for this change as well as against. What didn’t make it through the knee-jerk reactions was that only those of the self-employed earning in excess of £30,000pa would be worse off – so whilst no one likes paying more, it was in its own way progressive.

However, not only did this change to NICs fall foul of the 2015 Conservative Party election manifesto’s commitment to a 5 year lock against income tax and NI rises, but combined with the scrutiny that the Chancellor’s decision was put under, and coupled with the political capital that is being used by the Prime Minister to push through the unnecessary and damaging hard Brexit, saw the decision reversed in a matter of days.

I’d suggest that the focus of the (social) media-led outrage was misplaced. The real culprit affecting self-employed persons on low incomes is Universal Credit (UC), and specifically the Minimum Income Floor (MIF):

The most pertinent element of UC and self-employment in relation to vulnerability is the MIF, which applies to those who make a claim for UC and who have been self-employed for a minimum of twelve months. As the DWP (2016) makes clear, the “MIF is an assumed level of earnings”, based on an expectation of what a similarly gainfully employed person might be expected to earn. An individual’s MIF is calculated on the basis of:

Age applicable national minimum wage rate per hour x expected hours per week x 52 weeks = annual gross income, divided by 12 = gross monthly income

For the self-employed to claim Universal Credit, earnings must be declared to the DWP on a month by month basis, and if an individual’s earnings exceed their set MIF, self-employed claimants will receive less UC. However, if they earn less than their MIF, they will receive no increase in their UC, and in addition the MIF is only reviewed on an annual basis. Those who are self-employed are liable to earn less than employees and their income is likely to fluctuate throughout the year. In evidence given to the Work and Pensions Committee on 22/01/17, both Victoria Todd from the Low Income Tax Group and Benedict Dellot from the RSA suggested that a relatively low paid self-employed individual claiming Universal Credit will be worse off than an employee earning the same amount.

Clearly Universal Credit and the MIF disadvantages those who are self-employed, and this further increases their economic vulnerability as a result of a potentially fluctuating income and a social protection system that clearly fails to take account of this.

So although it is a clear truism that no one likes the idea of increased NICs, the real problem for the self-employed is Universal Credit and the Minimum Income Floor. It is this which the public, press and politicians should be aiming their ire towards. It is this which increases the likelihood of in-work poverty for those who, we are told, are a clear sign of success for the UK economy and are in part a driver of recovery both from the 2008 crisis and the inevitable fallout from Theresa May’s decision to pursue an ultra-hard Brexit… but that is a topic for another blog on another day.

Kevin Caraher – follow me on Twitter


Bank Of England (2015) Self-employment: what can we learn from recent developments?, Quarterly Bulletin 2015 Q1,

O’Leary, D. (2014) ‘Going it alone’,

ONS (2016). UK Labour Market: April 2016: Estimates of employment, unemployment, economic inactivity and other employment related statistics for the UK,