The course was launched in 2014, and they've grown from nothing to over 150 active students within two years.
Sarah Singer, programme director of the MA in Refugee Protection and Forced Migration Studies at the School of Advanced Study (SAS), says all of her students use Bloom VLE in a way unique for distance learning, showing that tech can and does enhance learning.
The location of Sarah's students is broad. There are students based in places like the US, Canada, Australia, Europe and Scandanavian countries, as well as in African countries like Nigeria, South Sudan, and Egypt. There are also students based in Afghanistan, a few in latin America and a couple in the far east.
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One of the reasons for setting up this long-distance learning programme was to enable access to postgraduate education for people based in the global south or difficult situations, which is pertinent to the research area.
Sarah estimates that about 90% of the students are actually working in the refugee protection field as they study, and notes that it has been a wonderful way of opening up access to postgraduate education for people who, for financial or other reasons, can't take a year or two out of their lives to go and live and study on campus in London.
The programme is designed to be studied as a part-time course, which enriches students' research to a large degree. The course tutors recently received their first set of dissertations, and found the students tend to focus on areas they’re working in as it gives them unique access to different groups of people, perspectives, and real understanding about mechanisims of refugee protection in the parts of work that they do. This allowed the students to go outside the bounds of library based dissertations you might expect from a social sciences or law degree.
In terms of the way the virtual learning environment functions, the team made a deliberate decision not to do live webinars because they have students based across the world with varying degrees of internet strength and time zone differences - they didn’t want to disadvantage anyone. They do however run the programme in a very structured way so that it mirrors as closely as possible an on campus experience.
Each module is divided into weekly or fortnightly topics with set readings and questions that the students are encouraged to discuss with feedback from their tutors. They do this on discussion forums and the tutors come in at appropriate moments pointing out positive points, highlighting further resources, or things they haven’t considered.
This is intended to mirror the seminar format that you would get in a traditional programme postgrad programme and it encourages student and tutor interaction to quite a large level; much more than traditional long distance and is a hybrid of both in that sense.
The assessment is also structured in a way that encourages student engagement in the modules while also building their skills towards assessments. One of the biggest issues with long distance learning is that it requires self motivation, so they set a number of online activities or 'e-tivities' with a small amount of marks attached to each.
All their work is written and submitted online via the VLE, as well as marked online by tutors wherever they are in the world. One of the unique things about this programme is that they can engage with teachers from across the globe; as an institution they are very small but they can draw on a huge network of academics, researchers, and practitioners. They can track them in to teach their specialist subject areas, enabling growth as well as more appropriate teaching that isn't limited to on campus staff. Plus, it enables them to divide students up into tutor groups of a similar size to an on campus programme so that they can get to know one another more intimately.
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They have tried to support students and increase interaction in a feasible and realistic way to ensure engagement.
They host many kinds of resources on the Bloom VLE: study skills information, for example. Some of these are formatted into videos, but there is also more traditional media like powerpoints and PDF guides. They have a student café area where students can discuss non-academic things, too. There are also links to other important information and areas, such as links to programme regulations, the online library, and information on where to go for things like extensions.
The tutors have also started developing little introductory videos which are embedded into each module. They are five minute long and introduce themselves and the selected topics on the module. It is intended to add a more human face to the distance-learning format.
They are also trialling selfie videos where students upload a short video of themselves to the other people on the course.
This year they started live Q&A sessions on different topics. At the moment the virtual learning environment doesn’t have the functionality to do that, so they have been using Facebook live, which has worked very well. Questions are posted in advance, during, and after live sessions. They then write up the key points that are raised in these sessions and share it on the VLE.
However, Facebook isn’t ideal as not everyone has an account, so they are currently exploring how Bloom VLE can be made more functional so that these live sessions can take place.
Positives and negatives of this type of learning
With the discussion forum format of seminars, they tend to get much more considered responses; students have thought about what they’re writing and posted it up. But to some extent Sarah notes that you do lose spontaneity; that dynamism you can get with an on campus setting. They have therefore been trying to encourage students to feel less inhibited.
Feedback from people on courses
The student experience surveys and module feedback have been broadly very positive, but as with all courses there are improvements to be made.
Regarding the format and structure, again the students were positive, but some students request more live webinars even though they've actively decided not to go down that route so that they don't disadvantage students (as mentioned earlier).
Overall, it is working well and Sarah is really pleased with the progress.