Distance no object

countries have taken advantage of the opportunities distance learning has to
offer in the field of occupational health, so why have the UK academic
institutions been so slow to follow suit? OH students deserve to be offered a
better choice, by Nic Paton

in the words "distance learning" and "occupational health"
on an Internet search engine, and you’ll be presented with an array of OH
qualifications that can be gained from the comfort of your own home.
Unfortunately, they tend to be from  institutions
such as East Carolina University, the Tulane University School of Public Health
and Tropical Medicine in New Orleans, or the University of  Newcastle, Australia.

the nurse looking for a UK qualification in occupational health and wanting to
study by correspondence course or through distance learning, the options are
limited. While universities in the US and other countries appear to have
invested heavily in distance learning when it comes to teaching OH, their
counterparts in the UK have by and large steered away from this mode of

reasons for this are both practical and historical. Funding for occupational
health within universities has historically been pretty negligible compared
with other specialties. Setting up a distance learning course is, at least
initially, considerably more expensive than putting in place conventional
tutoring. Lily Lim, chair of the Association of Occupational Health Nurse
Educators Committee, estimates it can take months and as much as £500,000 to put
a comprehensive distance learning package in place.

would need to sell a distance learning package over the Internet so you would
have to have 24-hour support. If you are doing it with a lot of students then
it can be economical, but many people do not want to dip their toes in,"
she says.


is course leader for Middlesex University’s BSc specialist practitioner
qualification in occupational health and safety management. While she supports
the principle of distance learning, she argues that, in practical terms, it can
be harder for the student too.

of the benefits of meeting people in a classroom is that you develop a rapport
and can talk to each other. It is quite a difficult thing to do an OH degree
just through distance learning," she says.

she does tend to get a lot of queries from people about the possibility of
distance learning, she says. People working shifts or offshore or those
travelling a lot are commonly attracted to this form of learning.

a network is a very important part of doing the course and I design it into my
course. It is not just about people developing knowledge for themselves, but
includes mentoring, audit and looking at how other people work, what other
people are doing," she adds.

on her BSc course, which is a combination of face-to-face and distance
learning, all said it was important for them to have the interaction with their
peers and tutors. "OH nursing can be a very isolated job, there can be no
one to talk to you, so practitioners find it very useful knowing that they are
able to talk to their peers," explains Lim.

courses, for instance Nebosh qualifications, can be undertaken relatively
easily through distance learning. And some colleges, such as the Portsmouth
School of Health and Social Care, offer degree courses with a tailored mix of
distance learning and classroom-based study.

the only established distance learning-based specialist practitioner
qualification in the country is the Community Health Nursing BA Honours degree
that has been run for the past 10 years at Aberdeen’s Robert Gordon University.

Gordon University

who join the Robert Gordon course must already be working in the profession,
either permanently or on a placement, and have a diploma or degree in nursing.
Alternatively, students can go on a foundation-level access course.

go to Aberdeen for a three-day introduction and then return for a further six
days over the duration of the course.

degree generally takes around three years to complete, or at most four,
compared with an average of two for courses taught in the conventional way.
About 15 people are taken on at a time.

and the Internet have transformed how distance learning works, making it
easier, more effective and more accessible, argues Fiona Begbie, lecturer in
occupational health at the university.

all used to be done by telephone and by post. The amount of time it takes
depends on the student, what sort of support they have, and their working
environment. But we say just because it is not a day-release course does not
mean you should not spend a day a week on it," she says.

half the degree is practice based and students, who receive a comprehensive
teaching and reading pack at the start of the course, also have access to a
virtual campus on the net. However, Begbie admits that some students do not
find this resource particularly user friendly.

in touch

isolation factor is generally countered by the fact that when students attend
for the three-day sessions they tend to swap e-mails and addresses and keep in
touch that way. Yet, for all its flexibility, distance learning should not be
considered an easy option, quite the contrary in fact, she asserts. Students
have to be prepared, for instance, to argue with their employer to carve out
adequate time for study leave.

people cannot study effectively at 10pm at the kitchen table or at weekends. It
is still very hard work," she says.

is probably appropriate that there are options for students. After all, all
students have different learning needs. With distance learning, you have to be
quite self-disciplined. We are dependent on someone having internal motivation
as well as peer and employer support."

for places is "huge", she adds, and she is bemused by the fact that
more universities have not followed Robert Gordon’s lead.

got a product that sells and we would have expected more competition. But
logistically I suppose it can seem alittle daunting because there are distance
learning packages to prepare and the normal mode of delivery – standing up in
front of a class – is not possible.You have to find alternative teaching

have not had a problem with student recruitment in this particular pathway, in
fact we have had the opposite problem," she says.

where people are prepared to put time and money into setting up a distance
learning course, it is not straightforward. Graham Johnson, professional
development manager at Interact Health Management in Liverpool, has been
working on setting up such a course for some time, but has been rebuffed three
times by universities when he has tried to agree collaborative arrangements.

one they did not even want to discuss it. But we are now working with another
one in the Midlands," he says.

are not prepared to go with non-teaching institutions. But we certainly see the
potential for this market," he adds.

is looking to establish a BSc honours degree in occupational health combined
with a Nebosh diploma.

is hopeful further meetings with the university in question might result in a
tangible deal that could start to make the programme a reality. The team is
currently at the stage where it is writing the validation documents for the
first unit and module.

say they are getting sufficient numbers of individuals through their doors on a
full-time or part-time basis. But the nursing profession needs to push this
because it has a great deal of attraction for both employers and employees. It
is important to give people the option."


is not the only one who believes demand will grow. Dr Stuart Whitaker, director
of nursing for BMI Health Services, an independent provider of occupational
health, believes there is a definite need for academic institutions to tackle
the issue.

am sure the distance learning approach will gain more and become more
important, not only for basic qualifications but for updating and professional
development. In another five or six years the medium will be much more widely

problem from the academic department’s point of view is that it requires a lot
of effort and investment up front to prepare the materials. It is a very
different mode of working, you have to create a network of supervisors and
mentors and put in money to provide distance learning packs," he says.

he concedes that OH, as a discipline, lends itself to debate and networking.
"The majority of people, if given the opportunity to do a distance
learning course or a conventional course, would, I feel, find the latter easier
because of the peer group and networking opportunities.

said all that, there is a real need for distance learning because people have
different needs for their training and they often find it difficult to get to a

the fact it is distance-learning based, the Robert Gordon course is regarded in
a better light than some more conventional courses run by academic
institutions, he adds.

argues Begbie, if more universities offered conventional day-release courses,
and there was more choice for hard-pressed students, there might be less demand
and clamour for distance learning. Either way, this is a nettle the academic
institutions will have to grasp sooner rather than later.

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