Exploring online distance learning

Exploring online distance learning: interdisciplinary collaboration and student experiences in international development studies.

Principal applicant: Sam Spiegel, School of Social and Political Science


  • Kevin Bardosh, School of Social and Political Science
  • Dr Barbara Bompani, School of Social and Political Science
  • Professor James Smith, School of Social and Political Science


In Europe, Africa, Asia and around the world, approaches for supporting collaborative online distance learning are becoming increasingly important. Innovative distance education tools are giving students new opportunities to deepen knowledge through flexible e-learning and to enhance analytic skills in the field of international development. Innovative online learning is of major importance to the University of Edinburgh, especially since many international students are not able to come to Edinburgh in person to study.

However, little is known about how students from different countries integrate their online academic experiences and practice-based work or how this integration might offer opportunities for enhancing collective group learning. Therefore, this project examines interactive peer learning and individual learning experiences with students abroad, exploring perspectives from participation in international development studies courses.

The project will involve skype interviews with 25 students from across five continents, who have all participated in the Virtual Learning Environments of the Global Challenges MSc programme - a programme offering interdisciplinary online courses addressing global development, environmental and health inequalities. Many of the students combine academic work with part-time or full-time jobs in the field with non-governmental organizations, international humanitarian and development agencies and other practitioner contexts.

The study will explore their experiences and approaches for collaborative group learning, independent learning and “activity-focused course design,” focusing on the extent to which distance learning strategies can build “communities of practice.” The study aims to contribute to interdisciplinary knowledge on approaches for enhancing collective group learning experiences online.

Final project report

Download the final project report (PDF)

Other Project Outcomes

Spiegel S, Gray H, Bompani B, Bardosh K and Smith J (2017): Decolonising online development studies? Emancipatory aspirations and critical reflections – a case study, Third World Quarterly  38 (2)