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Distance learning from Dublin
  1. Diane Cashman


Distance learning is growing in popularity as a method of accessing continuing education. Diane Cashman, of University College Dublin, explains that this is particularly true in Ireland where many vets and nurses live in rural communities

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FOR veterinary professionals who are unable to commit to full-time campus tuition, distance learning is growing in popularity. Barriers to studying include the time and costs of travelling to university campuses. This issue is particularly noticeable for University College Dublin (UCD), as it is the only veterinary school on the island of Ireland, and many vets and nurses are located in dispersed rural communities across the country.

Veterinary medicine at UCD is exploring alternative methods to deliver graduate programmes and continuing education. Online education, for example, offers students the opportunity to study at a time and place that is flexible, thereby accommodating the busy lifestyle of a typical veterinarian.

Improving broadband infrastructure is enabling UCD to offer and deliver programmes online to veterinary practitioners across Ireland. Meanwhile, the development of online social networking technologies supports the implementation of innovative teaching and learning approaches. Online communities can be established and fostered to enable students to exchange knowledge, ideas and experiences in order to solve problems and discuss cases. This type of interaction between students encourages deep learning and fosters strong collaborative links.

Learner-centred approach

UCD is developing a suite of distance education programmes aimed at graduates who wish to participate in continuing education. To date, two programmes have been developed: the graduate certificate in canine sports medicine, and the graduate certificate in dairy herd health. The educational philosophy of the programmes is based on implementing a learner-centred approach to instruction to encourage self-directed learning, situational inquiry and collaborative learning. Both programmes are delivered using a blended approach that merges elements of online learning and face-to-face tuition.

The graduate certificate in canine sports medicine was designed to provide veterinary practitioners with the knowledge, skills and attributes required for the veterinary care of racing and breeding greyhounds and other canine athletes. The programme is aimed at veterinary practitioners working, or interested in working, with racing greyhounds.

Students undertake four taught modules covering topics on the greyhound industry, canine clinical pathology and pharmacology, orthopaedics and soft tissue injuries, reproduction and breeding. Two further modules (dissertation and case log) encourage students to explore a topic of their choice and to reflect critically on their interactions with cases in their practice.

The graduate certificate in dairy herd health has been designed as a direct response to the challenges facing Ireland's dairy industry in the 21st century, and is based on the disease priority themes that have emerged from Animal Health Ireland's expert opinion (a Delphi study).

On the modern dairy farm, it is the complex interaction of diseases, their relationship with nutritional strategy and housing environment, and the fundamental influence of social and attitudinal factors that make prevention and control of these diseases such a challenge. An integrated approach to herd health will be required to address the complex issues.

Students on this programme will be equipped with tools for herd data analysis, practical herd evaluation skills, and an ability to integrate the multiple facets of dairy herd health in order to develop holistic herd-level solutions that are set in the context of herd profitability and animal health and welfare. The course draws on experience gained by the UCD Dairy Herd Health Group in investigating many herd problems throughout Ireland. There are six key modules, which run consecutively and last for an eight-week period: herd health investigation skills; dairy herd fertility; nutrition and production diseases; milk quality and mastitis; calf health and heifer rearing; and biosecurity/infectious diseases and parasite control.

These programmes are delivered over an 18-month period and use innovative online-learning activities coupled with hands-on teaching of clinical skills at the UCD Lyons Farm or the UCD Veterinary Hospital.

Ten days are scheduled over the duration of the programme for practical sessions, which students are expected to attend.

Each week, students are expected to contribute to a range of online learning activities, and this will require approximately 10 to 12 hours of work per week. The learning activities involve contributing to an online community to discuss relevant topics in the area. The use of an online community discussion forum that will have a predetermined tutor input will assist in creating an innovative educational experience for participants. Problem-based learning will ensure that participants are exposed to relevant case study material in an environment where their peers' views and their own can be discussed to the benefit of all. Finally, some material is taught by e-lectures where participants can take the tuition at their own pace and convenience.

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