Online learning is increasingly recognised by governments as an essential element not only in increasing access to education but also as a potential contributor to economic development (UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, 2009 Higher Ambitions: The future of universities in the knowledge economy).
The University of Ulster’s School of Criminology, Politics and Social Policy has been offering an M.Sc. Social Research Skills with Specialisms, and linked Post-graduate Diploma and Post-graduate Certificate courses by online learning since 2005. These part-time programmes provide advanced training in social research skills and policy evaluation in subject areas informed by social policy concerns. They were designed to meet the needs of people interested in developing research and evaluation skills, particularly, people in the public, private and voluntary sectors. It was recognised that many people do not have easy access to on-site programmes or do not have the time to travel to and participate at designated times in such programmes.
Evidence-based policy and practice is increasingly the norm across all sectors and many professionals need to enhance their skills and knowledge in this area. They may not actually be undertaking research themselves but may have to commission it or interpret the findings. These courses are designed to address that need. Modules on quantitative and qualitative methods and research, public policy and evaluation form the core of the programme. Specialist modules in researching social inequality and exclusion and peace and conflict in divided societies allow for practical application of research and evaluation skills. Participants in the MSc complete an independent research project, which can relate to their work situation, in which they demonstrate the application of research and evaluation skills.
How does the programme work?
Distance learning programmes are approved and validated in the same way as all other validated postgraduate programmes. All that differs is the mode of delivery. In common with on-site programmes, students are provided with content and reading lists developed by the academic course team. The difference is that this is provided online each week. Students access the materials in their own time and engage with faculty and their peers through online discussion and other online fora. For many students this provides an opportunity to develop their skills and enhance their curricula vitae that would not be possible through traditional on-site courses.
These online programmes in research and evaluation skills have attracted students from diverse occupational backgrounds, locations and life-cycle situations and help to foster networks across a wide range of boundaries. Some students come from central and local government and government agencies, others from the NGO sector in economically developed countries but also in developing countries – particularly students who work with development agencies. Students have been based in Ireland, North and South, Great Britain and other parts of the EU as well as Australia, Botswana, Canada, Iraq, Liberia, Malawi, Sri Lanka and Switzerland.
Síle O’Connor is Professor of Social Policy and Course Director of the University of Ulster Social Research Skills programme by distance learning. For more information on the programme visit www.ulster.ac.uk/elearning/programmes/view/course/10249 or phone 028 7167 5434.