The practical benefits of online, distance-based study are well known. This mode of learning makes it possible to continue working while studying, avoiding costs associated attending a campus and means that study time can be planned in alongside other commitments.
Experience at the University of York highlights additional, and arguably more significant benefits on online study, which are to do with the nature of learning process that is facilitated by this mode of study. These were highlighted in recent research, which explored the experiences of students and alumni of our online master’s programmes in public policy and management. These programmes, first launched 13 years ago, bring together mid-career professionals who seek to develop their capacities for policy-making, leadership and management. Online students are from locations across the globe, (currently) including ten African countries, and work in a range of roles and organisations including government ministries, international organisations, donor agencies and non-governmental organisations.
Fostering reflective practice
A key finding from the research was that studying while working enabled practitioners to reflect “publicly” on their learning; actively engaging work colleagues in the process of integrating ideas and practice. In the words of one research participant, online study had provided “a real opportunity to launch these things in a practical sense… and that helped me not only read into that theory but also read it back into the organisation”. In other words, benefits of online learning accrue to the individual student and to their organisation from the moment they start to study, and accumulate for the duration of the programme.
In fact, several research participants had found that working and studying in tandem had enabled them to initiate conversations with colleagues, and this had led to new ways of conceptualising and tackling problems at work. These processes of ‘public reflection’ in the workplace are, according to Joseph Raelin, key to establishing that crucial link between individual and organisational learning. Distance-based study helps, then, to propel learning into the workplace because students apply it to problems they confront day-to-day.
Nor do these benefits end when the course of study has been completed. Students’ learning and professional development can mature over this extended period of time in a way that is different from the more intensive, shorter study period of the traditional, campus-based Masters degree. Just as importantly, studying in this way prepares the ground for ongoing integration of work and study that extends beyond the period of study. This helps to embed habits of ‘reflective practice’ that remain in place long after the programme is completed.
Capacity development for public administration reform
These findings point to the particular benefits of this mode of study for those engaged with complex change processes such as public sector reform. The experience of online learning facilitates the creation of an international learning community, which maximises the potential for peer learning and exchange within internationally diverse groups. This kind of international exchange seems particularly appropriate for those engaged in public administration reform. Many of the problems with which national governments are currently grappling – such as climate change, migration and economic instability – extend beyond national boundaries and are regional and international in nature. Those engaged in public administration, at all levels, therefore need to understand and be able to exercise influence within complex and multi-level structures of governance.
Studying within an international context with peers from different parts of the world and different levels of government can therefore be extremely enriching and provide a deeper appreciation of this complexity. Moreover, while the specific challenges vary from place to place, there are common themes that appear on government summit agendas, such as accountability, citizen engagement, performance management and the impact of fiscal crises. These issues form a common frame of reference, around which the sharing of perspectives from different locations can enable deeper enquiry, and empower students to contribute more effectively in their own country and place of work.
The benefits of online distance-based learning thus go considerably beyond the practical advantages of studying while working; and warrant consideration when planning investment in human resource development in the context of public administration reform.