Planning education primarily still occurs through contact-based programmes running on a full or part time basis. While distance learning offers an opportunity to widen access to students unable to access such programmes, the delivery model entails some challenges that can impede student experiences and learning due to isolation. Of particular concern is how soft skill development can be facilitated, a critical dimension within contemporary planning education and the associated professions. This contribution illustrates how novel online learning solutions can help overcome these challenges at least in parts drawing on recent experiences by the UK’s Joint Distance Learning Consortium which was an early trailblazer for distance learning in planning education. Following a review of the longstanding MA Town and Country Planning programme which employed a blended learning approach complementing a passive online learning approach with contact touchpoints to achieve assessment, cohort development, and student experience outcomes, a new programme was developed. This new programme requires no attendance, but instead utilises a virtual ‘classroom to coffee shop’ model comprising online platforms to create a series of spaces with different characteristics and approaches to control and ownership. Through this a digital student-centred collaborative learning approach can be delivered, aligned with current and broader pedagogical trends. The approach facilitates interactive learning, including remote group working, increased peer interactions, staff contact, cohort development, and a sense of place within a virtual university space. Initial feedback is positive and could inform developments for other distance learning programmes in planning education and beyond.
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