January 2016 marks a new round for our programme on ‘Evidence-based Policy Research Methods’ (EPRM) – specially developed for working professionals. For people who want to improve their understanding of research methods, but don’t have the time to spend months away; for people with duties at home or who are simply unable to stop working. In order to serve this group, we developed a blended learning programme.
By this time last year, with a small team including PhD fellows, admin and communications officers, we decided to develop an entirely new programme. Having already run a blended learning PhD programme (GPAC²), and a 12-week full-time Maastricht-based training programme in research (RMS with the Maastricht School of Management), we were building on solid foundations. But clearly, each new programme attracts new people with new needs – making it all exciting as well as challenging!
We developed the content during spring 2015. We decided that three weeks in Maastricht would be doable, with two weeks for module one (on research design) to start the programme, and one week for module five (on research presentation and dissemination) to finish the programme. For these two modules we could heavily build on content from our existing programmes, and so felt comfortable about what we could offer.
Then came the new online modules – two, three and four – when the participants would return home, resume working, but still perform in EPRM. For these we had to develop online modules that are both interesting and manageable. We felt that a full-research cycle would be covered well with proposal development (module two), a specialised course with the latest academic content (module three), and research analysis methods (module four).
We ran the full five modules for the first time in autumn 2015. We felt that if this content would work for our pilot cohort — with participants working and living in Africa, Europe and the Middle East, both male and female — then we would have a good starting point. The team of teaching staff and programme management enjoyed the first run a lot. And we learned a lot!
Teaching in a blended learning programme is a different skill, as is teaching working professionals. While comfortable in face-to-face, we underestimated the importance of a clearly explained use of the platform for the periods abroad. Questions that we felt were self-explanatory, such as where to upload material as a student, simply needed to be covered.
Also taking into account the different time zones around the world, while gauging participants’ online availability, complicates the set-up of supplied materials. Then also the particular needs of working professionals have to be taken into account. For example, with full-time jobs it makes more sense to have assignment deadlines right after the weekend, rather than before. And it’s better to offer the full material for a period at the start, allowing participants to work at their own time and speed, thus making best use of their time.
Our participants do not really care for grades and credits – they simply prefer learning and gaining knowledge. For tutors this means being available at the time needed, instead of at the time planned. For the online course developers it sometimes means going back to the drawing board to review what is really required to pass the course.
Finishing the first run, we felt completely satisfied. We could not have wished for a better pilot cohort! With the help of the participants we were able to run the full programme, and at each stage they were open and constructive in their feedback to us. We wholeheartedly thank the participants for their positive attitude, patience and support. Based on their feedback, changes were made in the content of the face-to-face and online modules, and in the coherence between modules.
Now cohort two will start in spring 2016. Teachers are confirmed and excited to start, materials are uploaded and the coordination is running full speed to get the programme started in two weeks. With five new participants, from four continents and with a gender balance, we feel there is new room for learning – both participant learning and programme management learning.
One thing is clear: there’s demand for EPRM. Working professionals interested in understanding or doing evidence-based research in policy may be hard to find. It may be difficult to offer the right balance of content and support; and of course they may have limited time to invest in their studies. But they are the most motivated of students – precisely because they already have a degree and a job, and really want to learn but do not need to learn. All this makes teaching EPRM so incredibly rewarding.