It's August, and the learners on the new ACCA Pathways that we are running are having a well-earned break, before starting again in September. As facilitator of the pathways, I've been reflecting on the first weeks and how the pathways have been progressing.

Firstly, a bit of background. At the beginning of June we launched a new initiative in partnership with ACCA and we created two ACCA learning pathways. The pathways are designed to help ACCA members to achieve their next career goal. Each pathway is 20 weeks of study online, providing an hour of CPD each week, following an approved curriculum based on ACCA's extensive research with key employers. The learners on the first two pathways: Mastering Communication and Building Your Professional Skills have reached week nine and are currently in the middle of a four week break before week ten starts at the beginning of September.

When we began to create and specify the learning design for the pathways, our objectives were to ensure that learners were given a structured approach to their CPD, to provide them with an hour of online study each week, and to offer them access to a facilitator who would encourage and support them through their learning. As well as this, we wanted to make sure that the approach was flexible, so that learners could have choice in both what they wanted to learn and when they wanted to learn it. And importantly, we wanted to build a sense of community within each pathway, using an element of social learning where learners could share their learning with each other, giving them the opportunity to learn from their peers as well as from the online materials.

So how do the pathways work? Each week, a new set of learning materials is made available, along with guidance from the facilitator about how to approach the week. Learners are encouraged to complete their learning and then share their thoughts in a discussion area before submitting a piece of reflection to gain their one hour of CPD. If learners miss a week for any reason, they can always catch up on preceding weeks as we thought it important to keep previous weeks available to give learners flexibility.

We already publish over 150 online courses that learners can use for their CPD, but this is the first time we have offered a more structured approach to online learning, with a cohort of learners each needing to complete, in theory, an hour of CPD per week. What are we learning? Well, firstly, the learners, on both pathways, started enthusiastically, working diligently through the learning materials and actively sharing their learning experiences in the discussion forum. Now, nine weeks in, the enthusiasm hasn't waned in terms of people going through the learning material, but I've noticed two things. Firstly, some learners are less vocal in the discussion forum, and secondly, some learners are skipping weeks, either due to work pressures, or holidays and are then catching up at a later date.

In reflecting on these two things, I've realised there is a bit of a trade off. Yes, some people aren't doing their CPD every week, but are instead catching up if they miss a week, and I think this is absolutely fine. I believe it's important to provide learners with flexibility when doing their CPD online. These people are busy. They have busy jobs and lives and they need to be able to fit their CPD in when it's convenient. Our ACCA pathways allow them to do this. Learners can't jump ahead, but they can catch up if they fall behind. This cannot happen in the same way in the classroom and is an important benefit to learning online. And then with the discussion forum, when I looked more closely, there have been a few less comments in latter weeks, but then I realised that this is to do with the fact that learners haven't necessarily completed that week, due to the flexibility, ie they might be holiday or catching up.

What I have realised is important in this process is the role of the facilitator. Learners have signed up to 20 weeks of learning online. They need to be reminded that the learning materials are there, coaxed into going through the materials if reluctant, encouraged if they start to feel a bit despondent and fall behind. The facilitator has the ability to help make this a successful learning experience for the individual learner. Yes, during a structured online learning experience, building community is important, contributing to discussion is important, but the key thing is to encourage the learner to learn, to complete their 20 hours of CPD and to help them progress in their career. From the individual conversations I'm having with the learners on the pathways, I feel very positive that we are helping to make a very positive contribution to their professional development.

The way we have approached the creation and facilitation of the pathways is endorsed by some research into structured online learning undertaken by Marion Coomey (Ryerson Polytechnic University, Canada) and John Stephenson (Middlesex University, UK) who concluded that there are four key features to successful structured online learning, that they classify as DISC (dialogue, involvement, support and control). They suggest that dialogue (eg our discussion forum in the pathways) provides learners with an opportunity for active participation and for in depth reflection and thoughtful responses. Involvement includes responses in structured tasks, active engagement with material, and this is something that we provide the learners with each week. Support, is obvious in that it's important that facilitation and help when the learners require it is available. And finally control. This is something we feel strongly about as an organisation. With learning online, to stay engaged and motivated, learners need to feel in control of what they are doing, rather than being dictated to. Even with a structured learning experience this is still critical. On the pathways, learners work through the same syllabus every week, but they have a choice of learning materials and they can work through them at their convenience. Essentially we are putting the learner in charge of what they are doing. They are in control.

It's only a few weeks away now until week 10 kicks off in September. I'm looking forward to it, and to the launch of four more pathways around the same time! They are proving popular, and I'm excited to see how the new cohorts of learners respond to the approach we are taking.