Bridging the Gap – supporting new distance learners

December 2, 2014 at 5:55 pm | Posted in distance, educational | Leave a comment

Mark Brown slide showing digital campfires quote

An interesting presentation at the ELESIG event hosted by Southampton Solent University, in which Professor Mark Brown, Director of the National Institute for Digital Learning, Dublin City University, talked about the project Experiences of First-time Distance Learners [full report].  This explored the transition of learners from college to university with an especial focus on online students in their first few weeks, driven by concerns about retention and completion.

In 2011 OECD data showed the New Zealand completion rate was 66%, while in the UK It was 79%. But of course there is wide variability between institutions and the kinds of students they cater for, and NZ has a much larger proportion of distance learners.

“Institutions have a moral and financial responsibility to improve student retention”

The project’s key research objective was to improve the supports and services available for first-time distance learners, and to utilise the students’ voices on their experiences.  20 ‘typical’ learners produced video diaries, created with the aid of a ‘reflective prompt framework’. Ethical dilemmas were encountered with example learners who were struggling – they were provided with individual help but of course this affected the study. And how to compare their very different stories?

It seems that 25% of distance learners are ‘support seekers’ who actively search out the help they need while the other 75% are ‘lone wolves’ who didn’t really want to interact.  Life happens… so for example there was a mismatch between first two weeks of university term and school holidays for learners with children… and mostly they had no idea what the reality of distance learning entails. A key finding was that having clearly articulated study goals really helped with resilience and success.

“Metaphorically, how can we use the new digital technologies to provide caves, campfires, watering holes and mountain tops which promote a stronger sense of belonging and connectedness?”

And of course we are really talking about the affordances of those spaces: individual study and reflection, storytelling, social exchange, and celebrating successes.

Finally, he made the point that MOOCs can give learners a taste of being an online learner in their chosen discipline, as part of a cohort – so they can really start to understand the amount of time, effort and self-discipline required.


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