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