Having completed her Masters in Higher Education, Sally Goldspink is now in working on an Education Doctorate where she’s exploring the experiences of distance learning students.
Sally has been the course leader for our BSc (Hons) Mental Health Top Up since 2010. Originally qualifying as an occupational therapist in 1994, she worked in mental health practice in a range of settings, including adult in-patient and community services. Sally joined higher education full-time in 2004.
Time is rarely on our side, so busy practitioners need a way of participating in their own continuing professional development (CPD). CPD is essential for both validating the fantastic work that goes on but also for extending, sharing and developing ideas. Sometimes you have to stand-back to be able to see into your practice. However, the demands of home and work mean that often there is little time and energy for CPD. So to be successful, CPD opportunities need to be flexible, achievable and directed toward the individual.
Distance learning has become a tried and tested way of bringing CPD right to the fingertips of practitioners. The availability of distance learning frees practitioners from the confines of set timetables, travel and disruption to their routine practice. In this mode of study, practitioners have the choice about where, when and how to study. Study time can more easily be incorporated into hectic diaries meaning that practitioners can plan ahead and take control over their own learning. This level of learner autonomy sets distance learning apart. To begin with, this may seem challenging and new, but all learners, regardless of the mode of delivery are responsible for their own learning, just as all practitioners are responsible for their own practice.
Therefore, we need creative ways of overcoming the challenges that the novelty of distance learning can initially provoke. We have found that a major asset for our distance learning modules is the range of communication strategies available to us. Successful distance learning is built on successful communication. Learners need to be able to easily access tutorial, administrative and IT assistance to allow them to feel connected to their learning experience. Consequently, online support must be learner led, meaning that timely advice is offered in the best way to suite the individual, whether it be via email, discussion board, telephone or Skype. These multiple channels of communication close the distance gap and put the individual right at the centre of their own learning.
Furthermore, research in the field of distance learning as well as feedback from our own students tells us that secure, trusting relationships with online academic tutors is pivotal in gaining maximum benefit from the online learning experience. Responsive and personalised feedback makes learners feel valued, respected and academically cared for. In addition, discussion boards, group emails and video conferencing offer opportunities to connect and learn with peers locally, nationally and internationally. Distance learning is all about bringing us closer together, so that we can inspire and support each other in ways that we can achieve in our time-stretched lives. It is about what we can do, rather than adding to the frustration of what we can’t.
However, as with all CPD, distance learning does require commitment, determination and self-organisation. To help, our course offers highly structured modules which are directly linked to the final assignments, making the expectations clear right from the start. Time management becomes much more possible because learners know what they need to do, when they need to do it by and can work on their assignments bit-by-bit. Tutors work alongside learners to develop knowledge and academic skills by encouraging and extending thinking, joined by the technology and not separated by it.
Since we began our distance learning BSc (Hons) Mental Health Top Up in January 2011 our mission has been to ensure that distance learning is accessible by everyone, from the ‘technologically hesitant’ right through to those who are familiar with using a range of technological mediums. We have had the pleasure of working with practitioners from many different disciplines, including mental health nurses, learning disabilities nurses, social workers, family workers, assistant practitioners, support staff and housing workers. Therefore, our online classroom welcomes and accommodates a diverse group of people, all working in some way in mental health or learning disabilities practice. The feedback we have received has been overwhelmingly positive, with practitioners telling us that our course is not only relevant to their practice but also supportive and achievable.
As a team, we understand the pressures of contemporary clinical practice and the challenges of returning to study, priding ourselves on the quality of our module design, content and tutorial support. Ultimately, our aim is to provide every CPD student with individualized learning opportunities to meet their own learning needs. When we do finally get together, face-to-face, it’s at graduation. This is where we join in one place to formally acknowledge the time, effort and energy that goes into every degree awarded and celebrate the success attaining a BSc (Hons) Mental Health – a very proud moment for all of us.
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