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Why should I develop distance learning and online learning courses? A personal perspective.

By Professor Rebecca Bennett, School of Law

I’ve been developing and delivering distance learning and online learning teaching for nearly 15 years at the University of Manchester and, like many others who have championed these innovative teaching methods, I am used to the often suspicious sometimes negative reactions to suggestions that we should be expanding our use of distance learning and online learning methods of teaching. I’ve been told that distance learning is ‘dumbing down’, that it will remove the need for teachers, that it's expensive and time consuming to deliver, that students will do less well than in face-to-face teaching and that spending time on distance learning and online learning will harm my promotions prospects.

Not only do I think that most of these objections are completely unfounded, it is my experience that distance learning and online learning has been something that has enhanced my students’ learning experience, has allowed my Centre to reach new markets and as result remain viable as a small Centre and has not damaged my career progression. In short my foray into distance learning has been, on the whole, a hugely positive experience that has enhanced my skills, the prospects of my Centre and my career more generally.

The University of Manchester is committed to providing the best possible quality teaching and learning experience for all of its students - be they based on campus or at a distance. The increased prevalence of online materials and electronic resources in all forms of higher education means that the distinctions between distance learning and on-campus education are becoming increasingly blurred. High quality distance learning programmes both enhance the reputation of The University and also provide a mechanism by which the online offerings to our students on campus can be greatly improved.

Richard Reece, Associate Vice-President for Teaching, Learning and Students

Enhanced student experience

We have been providing a traditional face-to-face MA/LLM in Healthcare Ethics and Law since 1987.

Our students tend to be mid-career professionals, mainly healthcare professionals and lawyers. These kind of students, even when they are local to Manchester, struggle to get time off work to study. Thus, in the late 90s, I decided to look into developing a distance learning version of this programme.

The programme launched in February 2002 was a totally distance learning flexible programme that allowed our students the same high standard and stimulating learning experience as our established campus-based course but without attendance, allowing them to fit studying round their careers and home life and to continue earning as they learn.

Screenshot of Introduction to Ethics online course

Screenshot of Introduction to Ethics online course

Despite the fears of colleagues our distance learning students tended to do as well if not better on this distance learning programme even on the same assignment questions. What’s more, developing distance learning materials had a knock-on effect on my other more traditional teaching as developing distance materials has allowed me to understand my teaching better and improve the other teaching I do. Developing distance and online learning resources and interfaces has encouraged our staff to use this experience to enrich campus based courses and enhance the student experience on campus often providing distance learning materials to these on campus students to supplement their learning and adding more online elements to their learning.

Reaching new markets

The healthcare or medical ethics and law market is what might be called a niche market. There are a steady flow of students but not on a massive scale. Funding for these courses had become harder and harder for students to find and thus the market as the whole shrank as a result. Moving into distance learning early allowed us to maintain and even increase our share of this market allowing a small, specialist Centre to maintain its specialist teaching in this area.

Non-award bearing online CPD courses

In addition to the Masters level programmes, in 2009 I developed and launched a number of online Continuing Professional Development (CPD) courses in Healthcare Ethics and Law. These were non-award bearing courses designed to take the place of the CPD days healthcare professionals attend which can be costly, inconvenient and not always as focused as they might be. These online courses cost from around £95 for a 3 hour course to £600 for a 33 hour course and provide clear, focused, engaging and practical training for healthcare professionals in ethics and law.

Through these courses we are again able to expand our markets providing training on medical decision-making, informed consent, confidentiality, mental capacity, treating children, withdrawing treatment and many other subjects. These are accessible to individuals without any prior education in this area but, with some tailoring, have also been used as online resources for undergraduate and postgraduate programmes within the University.

Downsides?

I’m not saying that developing distance learning and online learning within the University of Manchester has been and is plain sailing. Distance learning can be expensive and time consuming to deliver and this has to be recognised and work must be done to ensure that that there is a market for any new courses developed. And, of course, there have been many bumps in the road along the way – especially in the early days when the University systems were just not used to dealing with such unorthodox students. However, most of these bumps have now been smoothed out by people finding their way in this area, networks of distance learning enthusiasts have developed and the University as a whole has got behind this innovative and modern way of teaching and learning to enable, support and encourage the development of distance and online learning.

Making distance learning work

So my advice if you are if you are considering developing distance or online learning courses is:

  • Make sure you know your market and provide something that students want/need.
  • Use the tools that work best to provide this learning experience and fit the needs of your students – whether this is fully online, some workbooks, mixed with face-to-face teaching.
  • Don’t give up. If you are convinced there is a good market for these courses keep going. There is usually a way through or around most obstacles in my experience and distance and online learning is and will continue to be an area of growth and focus for any academic institution and one worth pursuing for many reasons.

If you would like any further information or for access to a free sample of the online CPD courses contact Rebecca.Bennett@manchester.ac.uk. The Faculty has also developed a Distance Learning Framework to support the development of programmes delivered by Distance Learning.