Resource Database: Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences

Title Sustainable and Virtual Distance Learning
Originator Gordon Walker and Liz Young
Department Geography Division, Staffordshire University, College Road, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, ST4 2DE

The Division of Geography at Staffordshire University has recently developed innovative new internet-delivered postgraduate distance learning courses. MA Sustainable Development and MSc Sustainability and Environmental Management make use of the COSE (creation of study environments) virtual learning environment (developed at Staffordshire under the JISC Technology Applications Programme and now marketed by Longman) to provide access to flexible and interactive postgraduate study from anywhere in the UK or Europe (and in due course further afield). These awards build on an existing face-to-face MA focussing on sustainable development which, despite its problematic conceptualisation and political connotations, has become firmly embedded in international, national and local government discourse. It has also emerged in new national geography syllabi at school level and is a central conceptual framework for new directions in geography and environmental analyses.

The course design is outcome-driven and based around a philosophy of active learning which is embedded within the conceptual and pedagogic principles of the COSE virtual learning environment. The programme of work for students is structured around the specification of projects, activities and tasks making heavy use of web site resources, electronic journals and key texts provided as part of a learning pack. The students meet at two workshops per year but then are in contact during the rest of the course through electronic tutorials and learner groups. COSE provides for a number of modes of student-student and student-tutor interaction, including sharing of notes and prepared work, email groups and discussion boards.

The Learning Development Centre at the University has worked with Geography staff in developing the award, providing advice, training and technical support. The 'Building a Learning Community' programme which has been in place at Staffordshire for a number of years also provided a strong foundation for the development work.

It has fascinated and excited all those designing the award to appreciate the range of material available electronically and to modify traditional pedagogical techniques to facilitate interactive, distance-based learning. One of the most difficult tasks has been selecting the most pertinent material from the amazingly rich offerings now available online. Some of the world's most critical and polemic writers and thinkers have been amongst the first to publish online and alerting students to the availability of these materials had to be balanced with two other issues; the recognition that their time is limited and the appreciation that the sheer availability of material may, in itself, be a terrifying prospect for a conscientious student.

Student support has been another crucial issue for the course team and the University (these are the first internet-based distance learning courses developed at Staffordshire). Protocols for academic support have been established and various parts of the University have had to formulate new policies and structures for supporting students at a distance.

For more details about these awards visit our web site at:

or contact Tracy Evans,
School of Sciences,
Staffordshire University
College Road

We are planning to develop a further interconnected award MSc Sustainable Transport to start Sept 2001 drawing on expertise within the Centre for Alternative and Sustainable Transport based within the Geography Division.


Distance learning
Virtual learning environment

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Page created 28 July 2000
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