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Running an online MSc: the benefits, challenges and differences

Lynsie Chew (UCL School of Management), programme director for MSc in Professional Accountancy, talks about her experience of developing an online Master’s programme for professionals.

17 March 2017

She shares the benefits, challenges and differences compared to face-to-face teaching and learning.

What does the online MSc involve?

The programme is a venture with the University of London International Programmes (UOLIP) and the ACCA (Association of Chartered Certified Accountants).

We launched the programme in January 2016, with phase two launched in July 2016.

We had circa 1,000+ registrations last session and our third session started on Monday 9 January 2017 with around 1,300+ registrations.

Each module on the MSc is weighted at 30 credits and last for 22 weeks. The modules top-up a student’s previous professional studies which UOLIP will formally recognise. The programme is still in its infancy and we’ve been learning on our feet!

How did this course come about? How did you end up working with these partners (University of London International Programmes and ACCA)?

The programme was conceived through discussions between the UOLIP, UCL School of Management, and ACCA and further market research, which identified a demand for accounting professionals to have a Master’s qualification alongside their professional award to acquire and demonstrate the broader academic outcomes achieved on a postgraduate programme.

Why online?

Central to the mission of the University of London’s 158 year history, and the 112 year-long mission of ACCA, is widening participation for learners globally and having an on-line provision helps with that reach.

I have to point out that the programme is not solely online - there is also a local institution supported option in various locations around the world where we have approved learning partners who also provide face-to-face support.

These learners get access to all the virtual learning environment (VLE) materials plus their local institution support. The web learners have the VLE materials, an Online Tutor and a Student Relationship Manager. However, currently the vast majority of our students are web learners with only a small number of local institutions who have been approved to provide local support. This is to grow in the future.

Did any of your team have any experience in designing/developing online courses or was this new for all of you?

One of the founding members of the team, Dr Alan Parkinson, used to work for the Open University and so had a wealth of experience.

Also, we had the support of a part-time Digital Learning Technologist from UCL Digital Education.

The rest of us, were pretty new to it although team members had dabbled at different levels with incorporating e-learning within our UCL modules using flips, online quizzes etc. UCL School of Management was one of the first to go fully online for submission and marking of assignments at UCL and two members of the team were instrumental in that movement. 

Who is your target audience and what do you want them to get out of this course?

This is a fairly select market: students progressing through their ACCA professional level studies and working professionals who are ACCA qualified members already.

Many of them are working part-time and studying for their ACCA qualification or they are working and have been working for a while perhaps and have come back to gain an MSc.

For the ACCA students (Pathway 1) - by coming onto the programme they will be able to become professionally qualified (ACCA will recognise our two double-credit modules as equivalent to 2 of their professional modules) and if they complete one more project module they will gain their MSc from University Of London.

For those who are already qualified members and affiliates (Pathway 2), the MSc is their gain and depending on where they are in their career track, this can add to their profile and add a professional as well as academic development dimension. Pathway 2 students complete a Pathway 2 specific module plus the project module to gain their MSc.

Have you managed to attract a global audience?

Within the first year of delivering the programme there have been 2,218 new student registrations, located in 116 countries - the largest proportion is the UK, followed by China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Pakistan and UAE but also include the African continent, Australia, Canada, the Caribbean and others.

What did you find different from developing a face to face course?

Everything had to be up and ready for launch without any room for tweaking!

We couldn’t really respond to a live face-to-face audience like we normally can here at UCL which was challenging.

Also the writing of materials in collaboration with many colleagues and filming of videos was a mammoth task as we were trying to squeeze it all in between our normal workloads.

Working with publishers to get rights to book chapters was a challenge (the MSc students get access to the reading materials for free as part of their studies - they don't need to go and buy textbooks as we provide that to them).

But I think the major thing was the amount of time to pre-prepare the materials on a tight timeframe, using design templates explicitly linked to learning outcomes was a new way of working for some of us which we often do implicitly, writing scripts for videos, narratives for topics - all the things you would stand up and deliver live without a second thought had to all be delivered upfront, revised, edited and revised again. So the time pressure was really on!

Did you find from an educational content point of view that it was relatively easy to create online content or did you have to completely rethink things?

For many things I think we just had to get our heads around how to lay things out in a fashion that was easy for the people back-end to load into the VLE (it was a bespoke VLE based on Moodle which is meant to link higher learning outcomes and topic objectives in order for students' progress to be mapped). But it was fairly straightforward I think - I am sure that it is not perfect and there are improvements I have already seen that can be made which I am looking to implement soon.

What were your biggest challenges?

Time, as ever. We started the whole project a little later than anticipated - there were holdups at a higher level which meant we couldn't get going for a while.

There were also unforeseen changes in the team composition, sourcing colleagues who had the time to contribute, delays with permissions to selected texts, all in addition to doing our normal jobs.

How do you feel your team benefited from this process (I.e. creating an online course)?

Well, I guess we know we can do one! It may not be the most exciting of courses in its first iteration due to time constraints but we can see where we can improve and how we can approach matters if we were ever to do it again. So the experience itself has helped see how we might approach things in our ‘normal’ modules at UCL to add a blended element to our teaching.

How do you feel your learners have benefited from being able to do the course online?

Many of our learners are working full time and/or studying and working part-time - so this allows them to have another option of how they manage their time, family life, work life and study time - and for some it is a new way of learning for them.

It allows access to the opportunity to gain a University of London degree (some of them may not have a UG degree let alone an MSc) and to add value to their professional profile.

The fact that we have so many students from so many countries shows that accessibility to this programme is a great feature which they can do from the comfort of their homes. No accommodation fees, no international student fees etc.

Also there is flexibility in the programme in that they could in theory complete (depending on which pathway they are on) within 6 months or take up to 5 years to complete.

I think for many of these specific type of learners, the mode does suit them. It isn’t for everyone, of course but I think many choose to do it because it affords them the flexibility that a ‘traditional’ programme may not be able to offer.

Do you have any advice for other academics who want to do something similar?

  1. Make sure you have the time to do it but I suppose this applies to everything in life!
  2. A good team of colleagues with the goodwill to get involved will help immensely.
  3. But also consider getting a learning technologist and/or designer on board to help you with the thought process.
  4. Oh, and have an open mind!

Interested in running a short course or CPD programme? 

The UCL Life Learning team in UCL Innovation and Enterprise provides UCL staff with advice, support and best-practice guidance on developing and promoting short courses and CPD.