MSc in the Clinical Management of Pain

Being an online student

Online Learning is not better or worse, it is different.

What is online learning?

When we think about learning in a school or university, we often picture lecture theatres or seminar rooms, but these are just the venues where learning takes place.  In online learning, this is a virtual ‘space’ that can be accessed from different locations at different times, allowing more people to join in the experience regardless of where they are or what challenges they have in their life.  Learning takes place through study, interaction, experience and thought, and does not rely on a physical place to happen.

The University of Edinburgh has an online platform or ‘Virtual Learning Environment’ (VLE) that holds all of the learning material including lectures, tasks and areas for discussion, just like there is in a teaching programme that is delivered in a physical environment.  One of the major differences though is that students are not expected to be there at the same time, and the programme is structured to work in this way.  It is a different experience from traditional classroom learning but just as active, with opportunities to interact with the students and staff in different ways.  If you are considering an online programme you may have heard some of the myths around online learning but it is important to know that an online degree is every bit as real and as challenging as any other.

What are the benefits?

This not only makes it particularly useful for fitting study into busy lives, but means the learning experience can be adapted to suit an individual.  Students move through the courses at their own pace: lectures can be paused, watched multiple times or at different speeds; and topics can be started and worked through when it is convenient to do so.  Moreover, the virtual learning environment allows students from around the world to join the programme, making connections with people who think in different ways.

What are the challenges?

Any new experiences brings challenges and online learning is just the same.

On a personal level, students need to adapt to the activities that are specific to working in a virtual learning environment.  Discussion boards, for example, require students to post comments but may limit the number of characters used.  Using discussion boards can be challenging initially, but it is a skill that develops with practice and also allows students to make points they may not be confident in saying out loud, whilst also allowing other students to take their time to consider what has been suggested.

Online learning also requires some technical skill including the use of MSWord as many assignments will be completed in written form.  Students need to be at ease with submitting their assignments via an ‘electronic portal’, or communicating with programme staff via email, telephone or video call.  These skills don’t need to be fully formed before starting a programme, but a degree of confidence is needed so students are not overwhelmed during their learning.  Students should also be aware that they may be asked to use technological tools they may not be familiar with and therefore, students need to be curious, enthusiastic and willing to learn new skills.

Finally, there is a practical challenge with managing the flexibility of learning in this way.  Assignments and activities do have deadlines that need to be met, and whilst the University will work hard to support students in their development, it is important to think about any life pressures that may impact study in this way.

What do students think?

Although it is often described as a new way of learning, online study has become an established and popular part of the way teaching is delivered.  The experience of online study has improved over time and many students have told their stories of their experience learning in this way, and some on other programmes have made short videos about their experiences as an online learner and how they make it work:

Day in the Life of an Online Student | Student Vlog – MSc Equine Science

Day in the Life of an Online Student | Student Vlog – MSc in Clinical Animal Behaviour

You can read more about what many of the students stories who study online at the University of Edinburgh felt about their experiences studying at the University, including distance programmes here, as well as our own students on the Clinical Management of Pain programme about starting the course online.

Making online learning work

So much of modern life is online that people are more familiar than they ever were with the virtual space, and online programmes can be a rewarding and very effective way of learning.  You are not studying alone and there is help available for new students who are studying online and to develop the skills you need, just as there is for those on campus.

Embrace the experience

Online learning is an opportunity to learn in a way that suits us as individuals, and students can really thrive with a few key attributes to make the most of it:


Online learning is student driven, it is the student who oversees the speed and manner they work through the material.  Being motivated to lead this process is important to its success and allows individuals to recognise the role of each step and to make sure they are keeping on track.

Effective Communication

Successful online learners ask questions and reach out to their fellow students and programme staff to help improve their understanding and learning.  This is important in an online programme when students are using it from different places at different times.  They are able to say what they are having trouble with in a clear and concise way.

Time Management skills

The flexibility of online learning means it can fit in with personal preferences and busy lives, but it requires organisation and planning to complete tasks and make the most of learning opportunities.


Learning is hard, and new experiences can be challenging regardless of your mode of study.  Students need to be able to respond and resolve problems to keep going, and seek and use feedback effectively.


If you decide that online learning is for you then to be successful in your studies it is helpful to:

  1. Set Clear Goals

Know what getting better will look like.  That way you can recognise when you are moving forward and when you are getting stuck.

  1. Schedule and Plan your Time

Think about what else you have to manage and how this might impact your learning.  Try to think ahead and be realistic about what you can do, what it requires, and how long it will take

  1. Reach out when you need to

Use the support in the programme team and resources in the wider University.  Online learning can feel lonely when it doesn’t have to be.  The University and the students are there for you as they would be on campus, just in a different way.

  1. Get involved

You are part of a programme with others and helping other students will help them and your own development.  Support each other and help your virtual learning group feel just as connected and real as on a physical course, and make the programme come alive.

  1. Embrace the benefits

Online learning is not the same as a traditional approach, so don’t try to do it the way you have always done before.  Make the most of learning in this way.

  1. Netiquette

As we see on social media, being online can be uncomfortable at times.  Think about how you are presenting your comments and thoughts, and the manner in which they were intended.

Would you like to know more?

If you want to know more about online learning at the University of Edinburgh there is the Postgraduate Online Learning you can visit.