Distance learning in veterinary education

How do educators create engaging and informative CPD through online delivery?

23 December 2019, at 9:00am

The introduction of comprehensive online learning programmes in continuing professional development (CPD) has become more frequent in the last decade. With a rise in internet activity, the development of digitalised knowledge and the use of virtual learning environments and learning management systems (LMS), an innovative world of educational experience is now presented to learners and educators within the veterinary education system.

Today many learners are dubbed as “digital natives” and as a result, educators must find ways to educate through new technical advancements. However, concerns can arise with the development of these courses and whether programmes can be delivered successfully to promote learning and the development of fundamental skills. Educators must consider whether their current andragogy and/or pedagogy models are suited to online learning platforms. They must also take into consideration the work and life balances of their target audience. With vets and nurses working a variety of shift patterns, programmes must meet the needs of the audience, whilst maintaining their ability to deliver learning.

Three key priorities of a distance learning programme for these learners must be having content and a platform which is easy to engage with, comprehensive content for self-directed learning and opportunities to engage with content at any time of the day, any day of the week.

Many educators, such as Salmon (2000), Filcher and Miller (2000) and Beluce and Oliveria (2015), strongly agree that a structured approach to online learning with a strong emphasis on motivation and socialisation is key.

When considering the above with the use of an LMS, these systems can provide a great range of activities and support to learners, whilst maintaining key traditional aspects demonstrated within face-to-face programmes – be this through new or adapted forms.

It is worth noting that although LMS are seen as revolutionary, little research has been conducted into establishing if these systems are actually “learning” or “technology” driven. In my own current experience with distance learning as an educator and student, if carried out correctly then LMS systems can be extremely learner driven. The ability for online CPD to be “learning” driven is strongly based on its structured approach.

As mentioned previously, distance learning does not currently have its own model of learning but an enhancement of face-to-face models. One model in particular, “Five Stages” by Salmon (2000), has been fundamental in creating a structured approach and supportive framework to educators, to ensure a positive experience towards distance learning. The model consists of five key stages which provide educators with information on what to provide, through the use of scaffolding. The model uses e-tivities and paced learning to promote a learner’s self-awareness, increase current skills, become confident in social networking with peers and develop knowledge. When creating a distance learning programme, educators need to ensure that the learners’ basic skills needs are met, which will allow the higher order thinking skills to develop through the duration of the programme.

So how can educators ensure that learners are provided with meaningful learning through their distance learning programme?

There are key features of distance learning such as self-evaluation, a mini induction process and being able to socialise with peers through online forums and discussion boards. Content needs to be well structured and quick and easy to navigate, and needs to necessitate critical and practical thinking. Summaries and activities for learners to
work through at their own pace enriches distance learning. The use of additional software can provide enhancement of learning and using a range of interactive activities to engage and promote learning can be beneficial – activities such as problem-based learning to replicate real-life scenarios are very popular with learners. Support from tutors and lecturing staff throughout is key.

It is important to be reminded that distance learning programmes must create the same environment for each learner: a challenging concept for educators to guarantee. Therefore, student monitoring is vital during the course to be able to identify those students who may require further support in achieving their programme of learning.

Distance learning can be a daunting concept for both learners and educators, but with the right planning and framework, educators can produce distance learning courses which still retain the powerful impact and motivation that face-to-face courses demonstrate.

Author Year Title
Beluce, A. C., & Oliveira, K. L. 2015 Students’ motivation for Learning in Virtual Learning Environments. Paideia, 25, 105-113
Filcher, C. & Miller, G. 2000 Learning Strategies for Distance Education Students. Journal of Agricutural Education. 41, 60-68.
Salmon, G. 2000 E-Moderating, Kogan Page, London

Stephanie Godfrey, FdSc, BSc, PGCE, is the Veterinary Programme Tutor at Improve International. She has worked in the land-based and veterinary industries for the last nine years and is currently undertaking an MA in education with a strong influence on online learning.

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