The octopus in the string bag: Why regulations based on undergraduate, on-campus students don’t work for online PGT in healthcare

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In this post, Gill Aitken, Dr Tim Fawns and Dr Derek Jones, highlight the risks to students’ learning experience if online postgraduate programmes are scaled-up without due consideration to course design, academic regulations, and learning needs… 

Online postgraduate programmes are a key area for development across the University. They are well-regarded by employers in many disciplines, generally receive positive evaluations and can be empowering for graduates, in terms of both personal and career development. However, these benefits are dependent on good quality design and teaching, and sound pedagogy. In our view, these factors are at risk from endeavours to scale up without proper consideration of the relationships between teachers and students, the importance of dialogue and community-building, and the particular needs of part-time, professional students.

Postgraduate study is common amongst healthcare professionals (HCP’s) where additional study is undertaken either for professional advancement, interest or to meet the requirements of regulators, such as the General Medical Council. The College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine is one of the largest providers of online postgraduate education amongst Russell Group institutions, yet many of these programmes have developed organically, usually through the effort and interest of small members of enthusiastic and committed staff.

Online study offers many advantages to working professionals. Studies can be combined with clinical work as study is part time and there is no need to relocate or travel. Both are important factors, but the benefits of online study are not just practical; it offers key additional pedagogical advantages in the opportunity it affords for building both international, multidisciplinary communities and expansive understanding, broadening horizons in a way that would not be possible on-campus. For that reason, we believe that programme design must be based on a discursive model, allowing sufficient time for peers to interact with each other and also with their teachers. Those undertaking online postgraduate study are often well established in their profession and have a clear idea of their learning needs.

There is a well-established tradition in the health professions of individuals being learners and teachers at the same time, and HCP’s see no ambiguity in this position. In fact, this duality of role is largely the reason that online PGT is so successful amongst HCP, because they see the tutors as more experienced peers in the domain of study. Many who teach postgraduates online have relevant professional experience and use this to structure and support students’ learning, and this can been see to be an example of social learning in action. Vygotsky’s (1976) zone of proximal development describes the potential that an individual can attain with the support of a more knowledgeable other’s support and ability to scaffold appropriate learning activities.

We know from work with graduates that the benefits of online postgraduate study extend far beyond the degree and may exceed students’ initial expectations of their studies (Aitken et al, 2019). We found potential benefits that were of direct use in clinical work, such as enhanced confidence and an expanded worldview. Our graduates have told us this is largely related to the opportunity to share their experiences with others on the programme, and we suggest that online PGT programmes allow and encourage opportunities for discussion and sharing of experience in their design.

Through approaches like these, online PGT offers transformative learning opportunities for practising health professionals, but this is largely dependent on high-quality courses and teaching that has been well-designed and orchestrated by those who understand the learning needs of their students. It takes time, skills and commitment from the educators and is not a one-size fits all model that can be scaled without careful consideration and appropriate resource (Fawns et al, 2019).

Current academic regulations and the traditional semester structure, developed largely to meet the needs of on-campus undergraduates, are often problematic when applied to online students. This shoehorning of what could be a flexible and innovative offering is, for us, akin to securing an octopus in a string bag. It has been good to see some realisation of these different needs, such as the revision of the extensions policy to allow for unexpected and significant increases in workload, but difficult decisions still need to be made regarding the future development of online postgraduate education to satisfy academic regulations, economic priorities and the different needs of our students.

You can read more about this conversation in Tim, Gill and Derek’s commentary in a recent issue of the Postdigital Science and Education journal.  


Aitken, G., Jones, D., Fawns, T., Sutherland, D., & Henderson, S. (2019). Using Bourdieu to explore graduate attributes in two online Master’s programmes. Advances in Health Sciences Education.

Fawns, T., Aitken, G., & Jones, D. (2019). Online learning as embodied, socially-meaningful experience. Postdigital Science and Education.

Vygotsky, L. (1976). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gill Aitken

Gill Aitken is the Programme Director of the MSc in Clinical Education and the Director of Quality for the Edinburgh Medical School.

Tim Fawns

Dr Tim Fawns is Deputy Programme Director of the MSc in Clinical Education and part-time tutor on the MSc in Digital Education. He is also the director of the international Edinburgh Summer School in Clinical Education. His main academic interests are in education, technology and memory.

Derek Jones

Dr Derek Jones is an Academic Coordinator on the MSc in Clinical Education. He is also the PhD Clinical Education (Acting) Programme Director, and Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. His first degree is in Sociology and he is a Health & Care Professions Council registered Occupational Therapist. Derek’s academic interests are in research methodology and pain education.

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