The students getting degrees by e-mail

Just a few years ago, if you wanted to take a Masters you had to go away to university. But the internet has changed all that, says Harriet Swain
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The Independent Online

Tom Short spends around 20 hours a week studying for a Masters degree with the University of Sunderland, while working as a director of IT in the home counties. Caren Milloy's office is based at King's College in London but she is a part-time postgraduate student at the Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen. This does not mean that either is piling on the road or air miles. Instead, they are benefiting from two of a growing number of MA courses delivered entirely over the web.

Travel over the information superhighway has been bumpy for UK higher education in the past. Overexcitement about the dot.com boom led to talk of a revolutionised higher education sector with universities competing globally to deliver courses via e-mail, video conferencing and online discussion groups. The collapse in 2003 of the UKeU, an attempt to create a British e-university, at a cost to taxpayers of £50m, showed that it was not quite that simple. But as new technology continues to improve and students become increasingly comfortable about using it, as well as more demanding over flexibility, more and more online courses are becoming available.

Line Verbik, the deputy director of the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, says growth is piecemeal, and there is not yet any central record of what is happening in individual institutions. But she calls the market for online MBAs "quite competitive", and says that although progress generally in online postgraduate provision is slower than anticipated at the height of the dot.com bubble, most institutions are now engaging with e-learning in some form.

One of the latest to do this is King's, which this term launched a new Masters, War in the Modern World, delivered entirely over the web. The course was initially developed under the UKeU banner and is designed to appeal to qualified students across the world interested in studying military campaigns from 1945 until the present day in the light of economic, social, technological and political changes. Its first, 38-strong, cohort includes students from Australia, Hawaii and Sierra Leone, as well as a number of British Army majors.

"We felt that there was a demand out there for a degree from our department, given its reputation, for people who couldn't really drop everything to come to London," says Anne-Lucie Norton, director of the college's e-learning programme.

Course materials are delivered through a customised virtual learning environment, through which students can access programme information, supporting materials such as bibliographies, discussion forums, a chatroom, and blogging tool, as well as the college's online library.

Advanced video-conferencing and a new piece of software that allows access to resources and exchange of documents for research is the basis of another new MA, the History of Political Discourse 1500-1800, delivered jointly by Hull and East Anglia. It was the desire to collaborate that led the two universities to decide to deliver the Masters virtually, according to Glen Burgess, head of history at Hull. He says collaborating means they can attract a critical mass of students to make the programme viable, and they also hope it will boost research. Every seminar will be taught by both UEA and Hull staff, with the two institutions linked by video conferencing. But the aim is to develop it to bring in European partners and eventually make it deliverable to students all over the world. In spite of having all the latest technical tools, the main worry about taking it further is ensuring that students have enough access to books.

This is also a concern of Nottingham University's distance learning operation. It has run web-based MAs in linguistics and English language successfully for some years and has launched another in healthcare language and communication - run jointly by the school of English studies, the school of nursing and the school of sociology and social policy. But it also hopes to introduce an online Masters degree in English literature if it can solve the question of how to give all students access to the same literary materials, such as different published editions. Valerie Durow, Nottingham's distance learning administrator, says the university is anxious to avoid any distinction between a degree received on campus and one studied remotely. The university expected its online language and linguistics MAs to appeal principally to overseas students. In fact, they have proved a hit with native English speakers based abroad who want to help their careers either there, or back in the UK.

Career ambition is a popular reason for choosing to take an MA online. These types of courses are ideal for people who want to improve their job prospects but do not want to give up working while they do it. The courses are almost exclusively part-time and most are designed to work flexibly around a job, with students able to log in and out of seminars and discussion groups whenever they have a spare moment. Some have been developed explicitly for certain types of employee. The MA in media management at the University of Leeds, for example, was originally developed for BBC employees, although it has now been opened to middle and senior managers in media and communications. Another motivation behind many of these MA courses has been survival. Peter Harvey, who runs Sunderland's Buddhist studies MA, says religious studies at the university was going to be closed so he had to reinvent himself. The course now has about 50 people, half of them overseas students.

By contrast, Warwick University's decision to offer its online MA in religious education was to meet a national need, identified by the Department for Education and Skills and the Teacher Training Agency. It attracts teachers in UK schools, as well as UK and overseas students working abroad. Because of its teacher training links it was visited by an inspector from Ofsted. She later signed up to do the course herself. Rob Jackson, who runs the course, says one of its benefits is that it offers students the chance to meet others from different educational and religious backgrounds.

Discussion forums and bulletin boards, allowing students to get to know each other even if they never meet, are an essential feature of all these MAs. Verbik from the Observatory on Boarderless Education, says the UKeU experience showed that institutions need to take more account of students' need for human interaction and that most e-learning initiatives are becoming better at this.

Almost all online MAs involve a summer school or study day, students and staff put their photographs up on the web and chatrooms are standard. At Nottingham, students can be assigned "buddies" from further on in the course if they want, and Durow is available to give support whenever it is needed. At Warwick, a student taking the religious education course who lives nearby sits on the staff/student liaison committee. If students happen to be in the area they can use university facilities available to anyone studying on campus - visit the library, attend a seminar or drink at the student bar.

While virtual learning can be a lonely experience, it can also involve more personal attention. Tutors have to reply to e-mails and give considered responses - evasion is harder online than face to face. This can be harder work for the student, who has to learn more proactively than simply sitting back in a seminar, and for the lecturer, who needs to prepare course materials well in advance and is theoretically on hand 24 hours a day.

"A lecturer can walk into a lecture not that well prepared and can busk it a bit," says Short, who is now completing his Buddhist studies dissertation. "Online, everything has to be upfront."

'I liked not having to get to seminars'

Emma Dawson, 27, a teacher trainer in the professional development centre at Staffordshire University, is now studying for a PhD at Nottingham University, after taking one of the university's online MAs in linguistics.

She loved the experience of university life at Aston University, where she took her first degree in modern languages, but hankered after more independence in the way she studied. Studying for a TEFL from Aston while working in the Gulf convinced her that distance learning was the answer. "I liked the idea that I could put aside time in the day and do it and not have to get to a library or seminar at a certain time," she says.

She returned to the UK to a job, having paid off her student debts, and was reluctant to give all this up for the postgraduate study she felt she needed to further her degree.

The Nottingham MA seemed to be the answer. "I found my niche," she says. The self-organisation demanded by studying online is proving great training for her PhD.

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