Distance learning bridges gap

Online courses are becoming an attractive and accessible option

By Stephen Hoare
Orginially publised in the Independent 'i' on 24 March 2016


 Faced with the pressures of rising costs and increasing expectations, the postgraduate world is changing fast. Digital technology, online content and distance learning have had a major impact on the way postgraduate degrees are delivered. Universities appear to be caught up in an escalation of expectations driven by the rise of distance and blended learning, along with Massive Open Online Courses (Moocs) and Small Private Online Courses (Spocs).

Advances in e-learning pioneered by – among others – The Open University’s massive open online course(Mooc) subsidiary Future learn and US universities Princeton and Stanford, have been a game changer for universities, but not always to the advantage of postgraduate degrees. 
A good example of how distance learning is bringing high-quality UK education to a world market is the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine which has 3,000 distance learners registered in 130 countries, compared with 1,100 London-based Masters and research students. “Our aim is to meet the needs of health practitioners, clinicians, policy-makers and scientists who want to obtain a world-class qualification,” says Anne Tholen, distance learning course director for epidemiology. The programmes have been designed with small group interaction as the basis for learning.

While the traditional taught Masters course remains the staple, classroom discussion is now supplemented by resources such as webinars and video-streamed lectures while media savvy students submit essays via assessment programme Turnitin with its automatic plagiarism detection software. 

Besides impacting on degrees taught in the classroom, there is a large and growing demand for online Masters degrees which are enabling universities to enter the professional development market by offering business vocational degrees to people in the workplace. 

This month (March) King’s College London (KCL), in partnership with Pearson Online Learning, launched a range of online Masters degrees intended to provide more flexible study options. KCL’s online MSc in psychology and neuroscience of mental health will be followed in May by an LLM in international and corporate law. The online degrees add to KCL’s existing distance learning programmes in war studies, law, and nursing. Distance learners will have weekly online tutorials and take part in discussion forums and attend virtual lectures. “The partnership will help us grow our international student base,” says professor Edward Byrne, President & Principal, King’s College London. 

Business degrees and particularly the MBA lend themselves to distance learning. With campuses in Edinburgh, Dubai and Malaysia, and with 25 Approved Learning Partners worldwide, Edinburgh Business School (EBS) is the largest provider of distance learning MBA programmes with almost 19,000 graduates and 11,900 current students. “We listen to our students. These are time-stressed people in demanding jobs. We have designed our offer to fit around them. And like them we employ conference calls and Skype meetings. Technology means you are getting rid of distance,” says joint head of school Alick Kitchin

One of the UK’s leading innovators, The Open University uses simple mobile phone apps to improve the experience of postgraduate distance learners. The Open University’s OU Anywhere app is used in the delivery of online Masters Programmes. The app makes digital versions of OU course materials including audio CDs and DVDs available on tablets, smartphones, and other mobile devices. Using the app, Students can use ereaders to highlight and annotate text as well as interacting with tutors and fellow students online. This app is supplemented by ITunes U which the OU uses to bring videos of lectures and podcasts to students’ iPads. 

Flexibility of study is the reason many students choose the online option. An Open University online Masters degree can be completed in two years or spread out over three or more years with regular study breaks. “Our postgraduate offering is extensive from an MBA to qualifications in the arts, education, maths, science and technology,” says David Rowland, director of taught postgraduate at The Open University. “All the courses are based around the requirements of our students who tend to be in full-time or part-time employment for courses that can fit around their home/work life and their other commitments.” 

Distance learning provides a number of benefits to students such as time and space for reflection, and the flexibility to learn at their own pace. “Generally, distance learning and e-learning postgraduate degrees are cheaper than full-time or executive offerings, due to the fact that the students have less face-to-face time with lecturers,” says Mark Taylor, dean of Warwick Business School. “However, this engagement with lecturers, tutors and other educators is still available online – just in a different format.”