Advice for a successful postgraduate digital learning journey

Written by Helen Durham

With the march of internationalisation and an increasing growth of online distance learning, the implications of the different academic, cultural and experiential backgrounds of students has made the transition to postgraduate level study more challenging than ever. LITE Teaching Enhancement Project Leader, Helen Durham, discusses how her project can aid this process and offers tips on how to ease the ‘step up’.

A-level results day has been and gone again for another year and successes stories and statistics have been heralded in the media.

For our young people who have plans for higher education that momentous day has determined whether their place at university has been confirmed and are now busy preparing for their next exciting stage in life.

For new postgraduate students securing a place at university does not usually come with the same media fanfare but, nevertheless, is often a significant step.

With the internationalisation of higher education (HE), and expansion into online distance learning (ODL), students starting postgraduate degrees are increasingly either relocating to a different country to take up their study or starting a mode of study completely alien to all their previous university experiences.


In my first blog I posed questions on whether online distance learning meant the end of campus-based programmes and how much has ODL shifted the parameters of HE study?

I also questioned whether our students are ready for the challenges of digital learning courses?  Do these students need additional support?

These questions established the background for my Teaching Enhancement project.

As part of this I set out to test the hypothesis that the changing landscape of HE and the diversity of students’ backgrounds means that the transition to postgraduate level study can be more challenging, particularly where those students are distance learners.

The aim of my project was to research students’ ‘readiness’ for starting a taught postgraduate course in a discipline requiring strong quantitative methods and technical skills.

And to identify gaps that exist between the actual and desired digital literacy skills and basic data and information system handling capabilities of students starting on a postgraduate degree in Geographical Information Science.

The diverse academic, cultural and experiential background of our students means that the transition to postgraduate study can be a gentle incline or a more uneven step.

Casting the net

I wanted to gain a better understanding of the experience of ‘stepping-up’ to a postgraduate degree, and to obtain an insight into what would have better prepared students for their future studies.

To achieve this I carried out a survey of campus-based and distance learning students, who were studying Geographical Information Systems (GIS) modules in the School of Geography at the University of Leeds.

The focus of the survey was to evaluate students’ prior experiences in a range of basic IT skills relevant to the discipline.

The survey identified some interesting differences in the prior experiences of students who were studying on conventional, campus-based programmes versus those studying by distance learning but also highlighted some significant gaps in certain skills across the whole study cohort.

These findings are discussed in the Final Report.

When to help

So how do we support students who are starting their studies with very different experiences and skills?

For campus-based students running additional support sessions is relatively straightforward, notwithstanding the time commitment required by tutor and students to run and attend these extra tutorials.

The logistics for providing this intervention for ODL however is more challenging.

Recognising that support is needed in the early stages of study is paramount for the overall learning experience, but how is this done when students are based all over the world, in different time zones, and when day-to-day contact is by electronic means.

Where a student is needing early support, a tutor may more readily spot warning signs in students sitting in front of them in class, but it is more difficult when most contact is virtual.

There is the perception amongst academic staff that for ODL students, who may be better equipped in terms of life experiences but where, for many, the concept of studying online and at a distance is new, early nurturing is required.

postgraduate digital learning journey

LITE Teaching Enhancement Project Leader: Helen Durham

‘Whole’ experience support

In order to provide all of our students, whether campus-based or ODL, with a rich, interactive, stimulating and rewarding learning journey we have to consider their educational needs from admission to graduation, in what might be termed the ‘cradle to grave’ experience approach.

Given the results from the survey, the Teaching Enhancement project explored opportunities for the enhancement of the ‘cradle’ stage of a student’s learning journey in the form of ‘taster’ resources that students could access before starting their studies.

The added bonus of online resources such as these, is that their distribution is not restricted to just those studying by distance learning, but their existence is a spin-off asset for campus-based students too.

The Final Report outlines the project methodology and the development of a pilot ‘taster’ resource.

The students’ evaluation of the resource provides a valuable insight into their perception of their needs for a successful learning experience.

Don’t rush in

So, given that perception and recognition by existing students, should potential students of a distance learning programme reflect carefully upon some considerations before committing time and expense to embarking on their study?

If so, what are these considerations?

Whatever the standard of support and nurturing provided on a programme of study, distance learning is certainly not right for everyone.

As I reflect on the outputs and outcomes of the project, 10 ‘top tips’ spring to mind that I would recommend to those considering a postgraduate degree by distance learning.

They are very much presented from a Programme Leader’s perspective, and as you read them you may well think of a few of your own to add.

But if nothing else, these tips may give some food for thought before you – as a potential postgraduate student – dig deep in your pocket and set off on your digital learning journey.

Helen Durham’s Top 10 Tips for a better postgraduate digital journey

    1. Reflect on your lifestyle and whether part-time study fits neatly around other commitments.

    2. Are course interactions with tutor and classmates ‘real-time’ (synchronous) or flexible (asynchronous)? Does one approach  work better than the other for you? Select your course appropriately and decide which works best for you.

    3. Review the entry requirements and syllabus – find free online resources to refresh skills if required.

    4. Check out whether the course provider has produced any taster resources to review.

    5. Contact the course provider for recommended pre-course reading/activities.

    6. Be prepared to invest in a better computer to meet your course requirements.

    7. Ensure your internet access is strong and reliable. Probably an ‘essential’ for distance learning.

    8. Install course software early to avoid delays in your study. Seek technical support if there are installation issues.

    9. Engage fully with the course’s orientation and induction resources.

    10. Interact with your ‘classmates’ to avoid feelings of isolation and to improve your learning experience. You may even find you have a ‘study buddy’ living just down the road!

For more information or for future partnership work contact Helen at: