When Major Rupert Pim packed his bags for a stint as a company commander in Kosovo at the height of British operations in the Balkan state, they contained a lot more than usual Army kit. A third of the weight was taken up by books he needed for the MA he was studying while in the field.
The reading has paid off. This summer, he was among the first cohort of six graduates, many of them military personnel, on show in a lecture theatre rather than the parade ground as they collected an MA in war in the modern world at the Department of War Studies at King's College, London.
As the first entirely online two-year course at the university for military and other professionals (whose jobs mean they can't devote a year to residential study in London), the MA has proved hugely attractive: King's is expecting to see more than 30 students graduate each year.
The balance is expected to shift slightly to a more civilian uptake in the future: there are lawyers, election monitors, scientists and diplomats on the books, and online postings come from students in the US, Denmark, Singapore and Sweden, or wherever people are posted or working.
"It was excellent to be able to study your profession while carrying it out," says Pim, who managed work periods while on exercises on Salisbury Plain, on Royal Guard duty at St James's Palace and in the library at the Ministry of Defence as well as in Kosovo. "I found that I was discussing the rise of Balkan nationalism while I was there. It was easier as there weren't the distractions of civilian life – most of the work was done late at night."
Lawrence Freedman, Professor of War Studies at King's, says he and his colleagues had to work from scratch to create a course that worked interactively on the web rather than allowing students to simply download lecture notes. "We had no idea how much work was involved. We wanted to give them access to original sources such as videos and maps," he says.
Dr David Betz, a lecturer and course author on the Masters, agrees that the layering of data available on the web makes this sort of delivery exciting. "Students can read about a speech Reagan gave in Berlin at the end of the Cold War, but they can also click through to a digital copy of his speaking notes, including crucial additions he made in his own hand," he says.
The course, which gives students everything they would get if they were taking it in London, is in three parts. The first, the self-study element, is the equivalent of the lecture. Then there is the discussion forum that is the equivalent of a seminar, with students all over the world interacting with one another.
"It doesn't matter if they're sitting there inputting in pyjamas," says Dr Betz. "The important thing is that everything is done in the right sequence. In week one, the students read and make their presentations. By the weekend, discussions on that presentation are going on and I'll intervene. Early in the second week, the discussion gets going and I can make sure that all the necessary threads are there. Finally, the presenter posts a summary." The third and final element is possibly the hardest to re-create online: real social discussion and networking. Course tutors tried to re-create this atmosphere by offering students a blog space, but it didn't take off.
"Now we, the academics, have created our own blog, Kings of War, where we write about things that interest us in the news," says Betz. "It's open comment and we're getting around 450 hits a day. We've managed to create an effective online classroom where everyone enjoys learning, and where we as a faculty also enjoy contributing."
Professor Freedman recommends the course for a range of potential applicants, such as NGO workers, journalists, museum staff and those working in the defence industries.
Pim is certainly convinced and is now considering further study. "I miss the mental challenge of having a project. It's been a great opportunity."Reuse content