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Master it anywhere

Want to study for a degree without leaving home? Then read on, says Matthew Limb

It's just 10 years since physiotherapist Gillian Jordan developed one of the first online degrees for health professionals - an MSc in continuing professional development (health) with Greenwich University. 'I was just getting the hang of email and realising what a fantastic tool it could be for communication,' she says. 'At the time, we thought our students would have to go to internet cafes to log on.'

Since then, technology systems have become vastly more sophisticated, and with the advent of broadband and quick-fire search engines, online courses are expanding. However, their expansion is not fuelled solely by IT improvements. In large part it's driven by consumer demand - individuals hungry for knowledge but needing a flexible study solution to fit their increasingly complex 21st century lifestyles.

Physiotherapist Victoria Park's professional and personal circumstances led her to begin an online MSc in pain management at Edinburgh University. Victoria, who works part-time as a senior I at Kincardine Community Hospital (part of NHS Grampian), says: 'I have two young children who have just started school and needed a course to fill in the hours I wasn't working but was reluctant to travel. This course is ideal in that there are no lecture requirements and work can be done at any time to fit in around home, work and child commitments.'

The flexibility of a web-based course is also crucial for fellow student Sarah Nichol, as are the time and money advantages that the lack of travel brings. She fits the pain management masters degree around a full-time job in musculoskeletal outpatients at St John's Hospital in Livingston, West Lothian. She says: 'Working full-time, I was allowed to compress my hours to a four-day week, and the flexibility of the web-based course allows me to log on when it suits me. This is my first experience of online learning and is proving to be very positive. It is very easy to submit assignments at the click of a button, rather than hand in or post them.'

As well as cutting down on travelling costs, studying for a masters without ever leaving home brings other savings. Online courses can be competitive with other degree courses - UK students pay £2480 per year for the pain management masters. This is because overheads differ, although investment in IT platforms is expensive. Physiotherapist Caroline Abbott is course tutor on the pain management masters. She notes flexibility is a key attraction for applicants, and cites another bonus: the ability to link up with students from different specialist fields and countries.

Both Victoria and Sarah attest to the benefits a multidisciplinary course brings. Sarah comments: 'It is quite amazing to converse with professionals around the country and the world: different disciplines, doctors, dentists, nurses, with various levels of experience and points of view.' She adds: 'I am the only physiotherapist in my group but this has not been a problem. The multidisciplinary mix only adds to the learning experience. There have been a few colourful debates to date, and consequently a widening of everyone's view on various subjects in relation to pain. As a group I think we have bonded pretty well.'

Victoria notes that, as a physio, she has benefited from sharing ideas online with other professionals such as anaesthetists, consultants and psychologists, and gaining a different perspective. However, she acknowledges there are downsides, commenting that occasional technical problems have meant 'communicating with people from all around the world is not always easy'. For many, it is the thought of tackling technical glitches without professional IT backup that can make online learning less attractive. However, technophobia can be unfounded. Sarah comments: 'Two months into the course I had expected to encounter technical difficulties, but to be honest I have yet to come across any. Having broadband is helpful, and the site is very user friendly.'

Course tutor Caroline acknowledges that e-learning may still seem a novel route for people used to working in highly physical professions. 'Physio is very hands on, you can't get away from that. This course doesn't aim to teach practical stuff, it's much more theoretical.' She believes online programmes, far from being the poor relation of courses taught face to face, can even add value to the student experience. 'I think sometimes you learn a lot more than you would normally learn in a classroom when often everybody rushes away at the end of the session.'

Phillip Evans is programme director of Edinburgh University's new online MSc in clinical education. The degree, which will cover the theory of clinical education and issues such as problem-based learning and the development of skills in evidence-gathering, is due to begin in September this year. A multimedia programme will enable students to communicate online by video camera, audio and text as well as posting presentations, proposals and diagrams. Professor Evans says: 'It's very experiential in the sense people can relate theory to their professional situation, but more importantly they can also look at it from the point of view of their personal circumstances.'

He adds: 'This is not an ivory tower programme where people just have to read a lot of books and answer a few questions. It's totally different, it's as interactive and real and confrontational as it can possibly be.' A common question asked regarding e-learning is whether students can thrive without direct contact with teachers and fellow students? Although Victoria emphasises enjoying the course content, she cites a lack of direct contact and peer support as potential drawbacks of online learning. 'I miss the ability to chat with other students to assist with problem solving,' she says, adding that the course also calls for a lot of self-discipline. However, opinions differ. Sarah comments: 'Prior to starting the course I had my concerns regarding tutor and peer support in a virtual classroom. I needn't have worried however, having found the tutors to be easily contactable by phone, and quick to respond to emails. As regards getting to know my classmates, there is a discussion forum with an informal section for general discussion alongside sections for specific and graded discussion.'

Ronald Carter, who runs an online MA in healthcare language and communication at Nottingham University, says there are dangers students can feel isolated. To counter this, the university and many other e-learning providers organise regular get-togethers, such as day and summer schools, to which some travel long distances. 'People do like face to face contact and eventually I think people do find ways of making contact,' he says. Professor Carter suggests e-learning students need to acquire a 'different habit, a different set of skills' and enjoy obvious advantages in managing their time.

The healthcare language MA, launched a few months ago, is designed to help a range of health professionals communicate more effectively and become more reflective on how they operate as practitioners. He explains that the programme tries to strike the right balance between theory and practice, offering modules and assignments that are 'related to the real world'.

'My wife is a physio, so I've taken advice from her in putting some of the materials together,' he says. Students have access to downloadable resources including a five million word 'corpus' of communication recorded from real-life settings and stored on computer. Using the computer platform Web CT, he can run multi-party debates. 'You can have an online forum with a physio in Nottingham, a Malaysian nurse, an Indian doctor, and an occupational therapist in Newcastle addressing particular questions.'

He is optimistic about the future for online degrees, saying: 'I think we'll see more and more online learning, because the tools are getting much more sophisticated, plus people are getting busier and busier.' While others agree in general, there is a warning note. Lynne Jump heads an online MSc in research and an online MA in professional practice (health and social care) at Greenwich University. She stresses that she is a 'big advocate, a real fan' of online learning, who, as a working mother enjoys the benefits of flexibility such courses can offer. But she believes assumptions made about the supposed advantages of e-learning need to be scientifically tested. Lynne says: 'Particularly the assumption that it promotes collaborative learning and particularly from an interdisciplinary point of view. It's one thing managing your own time but managing your time to fit all of these other people is a different thing altogether. So I'm just a little cautious that we underpin some of these assumptions and some of these potentials with the reality of evidence and research.'

However, Caroline Abbott stresses that high quality teaching and support systems are vital for online courses and points out that these are underwritten by the rigorous university validation process. She comments: 'You can take larger numbers online than you could in a classroom but you have to increase the ratio of tutors to make sure they're supported properly.' Prof Evans agrees: 'Capacity is unlimited in theoretical terms, but you don't want people to feel they're just part of a nameless mass. We must have that personal touch and organise things so students feel comfortable and involved and feel they know the people they're working with.' The final word on the subject should probably go to someone with direct experience. Sarah Nicol sums up her impression of e-learning: 'I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this type of distance learning course. It is flexible, well structured, and while an MSc is a big take on, web-based learning sits well with working full-time.'

Further information

Contact the CSP CPD administrator at cpdadministrator@csp.org.uk or 020 7306 6666 for details of distance learning programmes known to the Society.

Get with the programme Edinburgh University offers an online MSc in pain management aimed at a range of graduates in medicine, nursing and dentistry as well as the allied health professions. Delivered entirely online using the computer platform Web CT, the course relies heavily on interactive multidisciplinary discussions and input from expert tutors.

Students log on to a learning space to access reading materials and assignments, join chat rooms and discussion boards and take part in live debates in real time. They are expected to put in 15 to 20 hours of study each week for the MSc, which follows the core curriculum of the International Association for the Study of Pain. The two-year programme was launched last year by Edinburgh University's College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine. It is a partnership with the University of Sydney - which developed and now licenses the original course materials - and the University of California. Basic first-year modules include the principles of pain management and treatment. In the second year, more specialist options are available, covering topics such as musculoskeletal pain, cancer pain or pain in children. If students don't wish to complete the full MSc, they can exit at earlier stages with a certificate or diploma provided they complete the necessary qualifying modules. It's hoped this ability to bank credits along the way will help clinicians with their continuing professional development.

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