Improved technology can provide a substantial boost to postgraduate students by allowing them to do their research anywhere in the world while at the same time remaining in touch with their home institutions, advisers and peers in relevant fields.
Helena Pozniak of the Guardian explains that thanks to mobile technology, even those doing their work in the most remote parts of the world can now maintain constant contact with those supervising their research as they keep up with relevant scholarly developments in their field.
This isn't just wistful thinking. Such virtual learning environments are already a reality in a number of schools, including the Caledonian Academy at Glasgow Caledonian University. According to Professor Allison Littlejohn, the chief barrier seems to be the students themselves. Even those who grew up with the internet and mobile phones still need guidance on how to use those tools to augment their studies effectively.
Collaborating and communicating with other people in your field is motivating and productive at a postgraduate level – akin to the buzz successful social media users might feel. Postgraduates already tend to do this quite naturally, say education experts, using tools such as Twitter and Facebook – the online equivalent of the student bar – mixing social and academic chit chat, drawing attention to research, exchanging notes.
And when cohorts get together in more orchestrated online settings, results can be inspirational, says Debbie Lawley, managing director of digital learning company WillowDNA, which creates and facilitates professional and academic learning environments.
A group of advertising professionals who came together online to discuss the quality of their postgraduate program joined in a discussion that was passionate, meaningful and useful to anyone considering taking advantage of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising program in the future.
Institutions looking to strengthen technological links between themselves and their students, as well as to encourage student collaboration, can look to the model developed by the Open University, a pioneer in distance learning. Niall Sclater, OU's director of learning and teaching, explains that for the school, creating a virtual community was a matter of necessity.
Naturally the OU excels at coaxing collaboration between distant learners – and this is especially important at postgraduate level, with active forums, unofficial social groups, moderation of discussions "students like to feel they are being listened to" and one-to-one communication with tutors.
"Email is still an excellent tool for that," he says. "Many elements of technology make study more interesting and easy in a way it wasn't before," says Sclater. "Expect a gradual evolution as these means become easier and easier to use."