Amid government moves towards the United Kingdom's first e-university, Ulster University's pioneering virtual school is celebrating its first anniversary.
The virtual school within the science faculty, which claims to be the only one of its kind in Europe, has more than 120 registered postgraduates since going live last February. The school was launched by UU's school of biomedical sciences, rated five star in the latest research assessment exercise, offering postgraduate diplomas and MScs in biomedical and medical sciences. It will shortly add courses in medical ultrasound and has now branched into environmental science with an MSc in coastal management.
Bernie Hannigan, dean of the science faculty, said: "We believe the courses that will work well in distance learning are those that are successful in the traditional campus format."
Professor Hannigan said she had been surprised to find the majority of students were based in the UK near higher education institutions, with only a quarter logging on from Europe, Asia and North America.
"It's a time factor - you don't have to travel from your workplace or home."
All of the students are employees, most working full time, mainly in pharmaceutical companies and hospitals.
Professor Hannigan said the students were taught by five-star researchers, but also had access to a large number of support tutors, who were at least at postdoctoral level.
"The biggest thing you've got to plan for is human contact, through phone, email and videoconferencing."
Development officer Angela Cathcart, who coordinates the virtual school's student support services, said all students had their own tutor for help and guidance.
"This is a tough, work-intensive programme, and it requires a lot of commitment by the students in terms of time. That's why our tutor support initiatives are so important in making the students realise that although they're far away, they are not on their own."
All students and staff have their own web pages, with photographs and biographies. Professor Hannigan said UU was investigating making the staff photographs "live", both through prerecorded audio and video links, and allowing the academic to be contacted directly at designated times.
Students are brought together through regular online seminars. "That helps them introduce themselves to each other, and enables them to form professional and social relationships among themselves, albeit long distance," Dr Cathcart said.
Many of the students had been out of formal education for up to 20 years and had not been able to see a way back.
"For those people, I feel we offer an excellent alternative to the traditional on-campus programme," she said.