Examining outcomes from a distance learning partnership

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Lynne Elliott
Lynne Elliott

Lynne Elliott is an International Consultant in Health and Development at Development Solutions. This project saw her working with Leeds Beckett University's Health Promotion team to run an impact assessment, measuring the impact and outcomes of its MSc in Public Health Promotion, which the university runs in partnership with Chainama College of Health Sciences in Zambia. The full report can be requested from Rob Stevens via email: r.stevens@leedsbeckett.ac.uk

The need to enhance support for countries to improve progress towards development (including capacity development), was highlighted by the 2005 Paris declaration on Aid Effectiveness and the 2008 Accra Agenda for Action. Indeed developing capacity has been identified as one of 'the most critical issues for both donors and partner countries'. Distance learning partnerships, supported in part by student scholarships, are one way of measurably developing capacity.

Since 2004, Leeds Beckett University's Health Promotion Team has managed a distance learning course, in partnership with Chainama College of Health Sciences in Zambia. The Masters in Public Health Promotion aims to support a range of professionals to enter into - or develop their skills in - health promotion or related roles. The course is run in Lusaka on a part-time basis over three years, with a strong participatory focus - students' learning outcomes are closely linked to practical assignments and research.

The Commonwealth Scholarship Commission (CSC), supported by the UK's Department for International Development (DfID), has provided some distance learning scholarship funding for suitable students to undertake this course in Zambia. This funding enables students from less well-off backgrounds to enroll onto the MSc, which provides a strong foundation in a crucial area of public policy and service. Such funding is especially important in developing countries like Zambia.

Assessing the impact

An independent evaluation was commissioned by Leeds Beckett University in early 2014 to assess the impact of the MSc on students and their practice, employers and the wider community in Zambia in terms of development and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Data was gathered by myself between March and July 2014, using structured interview schedules developed for students, staff, employers and strategic level partners. Impact was defined at a number of levels from the individual to the wider community and linked where possible to country priorities and the MDGs.

Using this multi-level approach to the evaluation we were able to assess the impact for individual students, including CSC scholars, and more widely for staff, employers and strategic level partners in Zambia.

Students, their colleagues and employers reported an increase in skill levels in a number of areas directly related to national and MDG priorities – a key finding in light of current development agendas which promote alignment and harmonisation of development efforts.

The Masters in Public Health provides students with an excellent opportunity to develop skills such as research, leadership, teaching and facilitation, effective use of resources, critical analysis, problem solving and wider skills such as partnership and multidisciplinary team working and collaboration. Practical application of these skills is integral to the design of the programme and it was evident that students were using the skills and knowledge they had gained on the course and were achieving impact against a number of key MDGs and national priority areas.

Wider benefits were recorded. As a result of the collaboration on the course, teaching capacity in both Zambia and the UK was developed. It also addressed gender equity, providing valuable opportunities for women and men to undertake postgraduate tertiary education in Zambia.

Do scholarships make a difference?

In light of this, can we say whether distance learning scholarships make a difference? Firstly we can look at whether it benefits the recipient, who has been able to study in their home country for a UK Master's degree, and secondly we can analyse whether the inclusion of scholarship-funded students has a positive impact in light of the course's aims – and subsequent benefits for Zambia.

For many respondents, a Commonwealth Distance Learning Scholarship provided an opportunity to study a course which otherwise would not have been possible. The location of the course in Zambia worked well for both female and male students. Females in particular commented that the location was critical in allowing them to combine family responsibilities whilst participating in the course.

Some highlights from the report:

  • ...the Masters had a positive impact on career progression with students being given increased levels of responsibility within their current posts...
  • [It provided] access to a high quality UK qualification without the need to travel overseas.
  • The course has been particularly valuable for providing female students with access to tertiary education opportunities in Zambia.
  • The link with Chainama College of Health Sciences was key... [and] commended in a guide 
to good practice produced by the Association of Commonwealth Universities and others.
  • [Employers observed]...improvements in students' research skills, problem solving, critical analysis and improved decision making, planning and management (including resource management).
  • There was evidence that the course had impacted on graduates' practice, allowing them to make progress against key government priorities and the MDGs.
  • Respondents said: 'The course was an eye opener; it really changed my standpoint on health', 'It [the course] challenges you to think strategically.', 'I'm a single mum, so the Leeds programme was great for me being in country'. 

Looking to the future

Looking ahead, the evaluation shows the MSc contributes effectively to workforce development in the areas of community development and health promotion, and is well aligned with both Zambia's priorities and the post-2015 development agenda.

The course provides individual students with an excellent opportunity to develop practical health promotion skills and more generic skills such as leadership, management and decision making, as well as effective use of resources. Employers reported seeing the benefits of the course in improvements on their employees work. At a national level there was an excellent fit between the skills and competencies which the students were learning in the Masters programme and the principles which drive the MDG, post-MDG and national country priorities in Zambia.


There was good evidence that the scholarships provided students with an opportunity to gain a Masters level qualification which would not have been possible for most students without funding.

The design of the course allowed both women and men to participate in and benefit from the course. Studying in the UK would have meant forsaking family responsibilities and for most female students this would not have been possible. The Leeds Beckett distance programme meant that UK qualifications were now accessible for women and men.

The study design went beyond more traditional approaches to this type of evaluation. We not only sought the views of students and staff, but also included interviews with students' employers and wider stakeholder interviews.

The interviews with employers were designed to track changes in practice and knowledge of those students who had either completed or were currently undertaking the course. Wider stakeholder interviews included: the Ministry of Health in Zambia, DfID, The British Council, The Tropical Health and Education Trust (THET) and the Zambia-UK Health Workforce Alliance.

The value of this approach was two-fold:

1. We were able to gather evidence on the impact of the course on students directly, as observed by their employers and use this data to triangulate data gathered from student interviews.
2. Scoping out and looking at strategic partners allowed us to more clearly define the operating context and particular needs in Zambia. This provided a framework within which we could analyse findings and allowed us to more accurately determine whether the course was in fact well aligned to development priorities in Zambia.