What can we learn from distance learners?

By Sally Brooks, Ellen Roberts 04 April 2016

Computer class at ENA school for distance learning in Cocody, Abidjan, Ivory Coast.  What can we learn from distance learners? Photo by: Ami Vitale / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

What can we learn from distance learners?

Research with a group of midcareer international development and public service professionals engaged in online postgraduate study has opened up an unexpected window on the relationship between individual and organizational learning.

We examined the experience of students and alumni of the University of York’s online master’s programs in public policy and management. The program brings together people from around the world who work mainly in public sector and nonprofit organizations and who are seeking to develop their critical analytical and strategic capabilities through part time study, without giving up the day job. This research involved interviews with a cross-section of students — in terms of geographical region, organizational and job type, and gender — who were either well advanced in their studies or who had recently completed them.

The first revelation was that our study was, in fact, an exploration of processes of work-based learning. This may seem counterintuitive, given that, through online study, students connect with individuals, institutions and ideas outside their everyday workplace. However, a key finding was that distance learning of this kind enables students to reflect “publicly” on their learning in an organizational setting, engaging colleagues in the process of synthesizing ideas and practice, as they learn and while they are working.

One of the students participating in the study described this process as one of “simultaneous immersion,” in which he was able to “not only read into the theory but read it back into the organization.”

In fact, several study 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 conceptualizing and tackling problems at work. These processes of “public reflection” in the workplace are absolutely key to establishing that crucial link between individual and organizational learning.

As well as the embedding of learning in employing organizations “in real time,” we also noted an important temporal dimension, arising from the extended time period of part time study while anchored in the workplace.

These processes of “simultaneous immersion” help to put in place an ongoing, long-term integration of work and study that doesn’t end when the learner completes their studies. It also helps embed habits of “reflective practice” that remain in place long after the program is completed. One student described this as a process of “slow convergence” over time between study and practice.

Every individual student-practitioner has a unique trajectory that represents a particular synthesis of academic study and professional (and life) experience. By following up with this group of students and alumni, we were able to trace just a few such trajectories. What we gained from it was far more than an understanding of how knowledge is “put into practice.”

The benefits of simultaneous immersion in work and study are considerable and point to benefits for employees and organizations alike. Moreover, the work-study interface that is central to the distance learning experience opens a window into some of the complex dynamics linking individual and organizational learning.

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About the authors

Sallybrooks
Sally Brooks

Sally Brooks is lecturer and program director for the online MPA in international development at the University of York. Her research examines processes of decision-making in global science and development networks; and her teaching includes social and political issues in development, sustainable development, governance, organizational learning and the policy process. Sally has previously worked with development NGOs in capacity development roles in Cambodia, Vietnam and Papua New Guinea.


Ellen%2520roberts
Ellen Roberts

Ellen Roberts is director of online studies in public policy and management in the Department of Social Policy and Social Work at the University of York. Her teaching includes public management, change management and organizational learning, and she contributes to university strategy for online learning. Ellen has previously worked in central government in the U.K., where her roles have included policy development and support to Ministers in the Department of Health and the Cabinet Office.


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