BACKGROUND: Innovative curriculum designs are vital for effective learning in contemporary nursing education where traditional modes of delivery are not adequate to meet the learning needs of postgraduate students. This instance of postgraduate teaching in a distributed learning environment offered the opportunity to design a flexible learning model for teaching advanced clinical skills. AIM: To present a sustainable model for flexible learning that enables specialist nurses to gain postgraduate qualifications without on-campus class attendance by teaching and assessing clinical health care skills in an authentic workplace setting. METHODS: An action research methodology was used to gather evidence and report on the process of curriculum development of a core unit, Comprehensive Health Assessment (CHA), within 13 different postgraduate speciality courses. Qualitative data was collected from 27 teaching academics, 21 clinical specialist staff, and 7 hospital managers via interviews, focus groups and journal reflections. Evaluations from the initial iteration of CHA from 36 students were obtained. Data was analyzed to develop and evaluate the curriculum design of CHA. RESULTS: The key factors indicated by participants in the curriculum design process were coordination and structuring of teaching and assessment; integration of content development; working with technologies, balancing specialities and core knowledge; and managing induction and expectations. CONCLUSIONS: A set of recommendations emerged as a result of the action research process. These included: a constructive alignment approach to curriculum design; the production of a facilitator's guide that specifies expectations and unit information for academic and clinical education staff; an agreed template for content authors; and the inclusion of synchronous communication for real-time online tutoring. The highlight of the project was that it built curriculum design capabilities of clinicians and students which can sustain this alternative model of online learning.