Distance education once relied on the dull thud of a study manual on a doormat for education to begin. Now psychology schools in Australian universities are experimenting with technology to see if it can help to improve the experience of students taking external units.

One university - Southern Cross University, in Queensland - is offering podcast lectures, and online classes, to try to provide a study experience more like that enjoyed by those on campus. With a third of students studying externally, SCU has a strong interest in ensuring distance education works well.

Dr Stephen Provost MAPS, of the School of Health and Human Sciences recently wrote in the APS member journal InPsych that there was particular concern that laboratory classes were of benefit to fledgling psychologists, but difficult to provide in distance education.

The result is that key units have been provided via the podcasting of recorded lectures and then online classes delivered via a program called Elluminate Live! Using the program, students register online, and can speak with the academic moderator and each other, see - and annotate - powerpoint slides, and respond to content with smiley faces or applause (or frowns and thumbs-down).

A recent preliminary study has registered a mixed reaction, with some students preferring the provision of a full study manual at the start of the subject. But the university hopes to see if this method can be improved and whether it is particularly useful for those studying for whom a sense of community and interaction is crucial to the study experience.