Postgraduate degrees are increasingly seen as a means of career advancement in the professions. A growing number of postgraduate courses are offered online, allowing individuals to access education from anywhere in the world, while remaining in employment.
Here, we share our views of what works in online postgraduate education and the potential benefits of our approach. However, there is no “one size fits all” and what we outline is not an easy undertaking, requiring effort from teachers with confidence, and academic and professional credibility.
Postgraduate studies can quickly have tangible impact on professional roles. Many graduates become recognised as the educational expert in their area or increase their confidence to engage in educational debate. Some graduates talk of a “flattened hierarchy” after completing their studies as a result of this confidence boost and their greater fluency in academic and educational language. Graduates also describe developing an expanded worldview through dialogue with fellow educators and practitioners around the world.
As students move backwards and forwards across academic and professional boundaries, they not only enhance their own understanding but have an impact on others in their wider professional networks. Through this, online postgraduate education can have an effect beyond the individual learners, rippling out into their communities.
Thinking of online postgraduate programmes as operating at the borders between academic and professional worlds helps in understanding more about the potential value of such education.
Postgraduate course structure and delivery
Most online master’s programmes are delivered part time, often over several years, allowing learners to move backwards and forwards between the academic and professional environments during their studies.
This part-time mode of study is as important as the online delivery in its potential impact on learning. Teaching is delivered in academic settings, but learning occurs wherever the learners are, for instance, in online tutorials, workplaces or homes or in transit.
Academic staff must have good insights into both academic and professional worlds to allow them to develop creative course designs that engage students in ways relevant to their developmental needs. Designs must be flexible and offer varied ways of engaging, essential for busy working professionals – for example, recording real-time sessions for those who cannot make scheduled times to review later and allowing discussion boards to have conversations that run throughout the week.
Students bring their own expertise and professional knowledge about practice in their disciplines and settings to the academic environment. This introduces new ideas and ways of seeing that contribute to the learning of other students and teachers alike.
Teachers can design activities that enhance opportunities for students from different professions to come together to develop shared understandings and insights. In our case this could be inviting students to describe on a discussion board how they assess clinical skills or supervise junior colleagues.
Meaningful interactions can, and do, occur online, but they require creative pedagogical design and sufficient time for teachers to support careful community building. Teachers must be visible throughout the course to build successful online communities.
Space for wider exploration should be built in. Teachers must balance the provision of content against overloading the curriculum in their design. Resources should be prepared to stimulate debate and those teaching in this area must be comfortable with uncertainty because they cannot know where this exploration will go or what students will bring up.
It is helpful to have the structure and resources for each week’s content released at the start of the course, so students have a clear understanding of what is expected of them.
Some principles to keep in mind when planning teaching for online postgraduate students include:
This is a very diverse group; additional learning support should be front loaded before teaching starts
Confidence and preparedness for study will vary and some students will need more support than others
Never assume that someone with an undergraduate degree will automatically be prepared to undertake postgraduate study
Not everyone will be proficient in the use of technology; try to get any technical issues sorted before teaching starts
Be clear about expectations; this type of teaching will be very different from traditional undergraduate teaching
Be creative in teaching design; initial tasks should offer students opportunities to share information about themselves and their experiences
Accept that you can’t always control where discussions go
Don’t overload curricula. Leave space for exploration.
Remember that you’re not transmitting knowledge; you’re supporting learning. Enjoy!
Gill Aitken is director of postgraduate education, and Tim Fawns is deputy programme director, MSc clinical education, both at Edinburgh Medical School at the University of Edinburgh.