Why This Blog?

Image by Colin Behrens from Pixabay

Is online education the great disruptor? Defined as ‘troublesome’ and ‘disorderly’ but also as ‘innovative’ and ‘ingenious,’ its meaning changes dramatically depending on context. For me, it is both.

My personal ‘advent’ of online learning will be logged as 2020, a year in which I suspect everyone reconsidered their priorities as life became simultaneously more unpredictable and more limited.

In many ways, I fit the mold of an ideal virtual student as envisaged by Palloff (2003): a belief in high-quality education on demand, self-motivated and with unlimited access to the necessary technology to participate. I finished my MA in 2003, with the intention of continuing onto my PhD; life had other plans. With work and family commitments, any desire to continue my postgraduate studies faded with the logistical and financial calculus. All of the reasons against returning to postgraduate studies melted away in 2020 and the arrival of COVID. With hours of commuting wiped away, I could study in the comfort of my own home, when I wanted, where I wanted. Ingenious.

This is my second term on the BOE programme and although I found the first term challenging, I was happy with my achievements given my long absence from formal study. My classmates are primarily academics whereas I am a bit of an outlier, working in a business development role. I was concerned that I would struggle with participating in the course compared to my peers. As someone who always enjoyed studying, it felt strange to undergo this lack of confidence. Is this associated with my identity as a nontraditional learner?

I work in academia, and while COVID gifted me the time and money to enthusiastically enter the swelling ranks of online learners, I also witnessed the damage it inflicted on the learners in my own institute. These students come to us to undertake their traineeships in chartered accountancy. They spend three intense, highly-structured years with us, balancing work and study.

It feels odd to categorise my students as the educationally disadvantaged learners Simpson (2012) discusses when laying out support mechanisms for “unconventional” students. They’re mostly – but not always – young, ambitious, and pursuing their qualification to secure well-paid jobs. Their previous educational experience has generally been positive with most of them achieving top marks at university to secure competitive places at our institute.

However, Simpson (2012) also emphasises the role of current circumstances on students as a mark of disadvantage. COVID has redefined our students’ educational and work experiences overnight. They are isolated, some of them furloughed. Many of them have tiny flatshares that are inhospitable to focusing on studies. The most confident students have crumbled under the pressure of technological glitches during assessments. Typically, their time with us would allow them to form peer groups to socialise and commiserate with in their limited free time. For most of them, the disruption has been more than troublesome; it’s been devastating.

These are generalisations, of course. Not all of our students come to the classroom with the same motivations or needs. They do, however, come with a set of expectations that failed to transpire in 2020.

Disruption wreaked havoc on our delivery model. The emergency pivot to a fully online model translated into days of lecturers speaking into a screen for hours in the hopes that there were students out there listening. Many of my colleagues who excelled in the physical classroom felt deflated and ineffectual online.

So, undertaking the module of Supporting the Online Student feels relevant in many ways. What does supporting the online student look like? Is it about helping them to negotiate the technology? Giving them freedom? Listening to their personal issues? Extending a deadline? Or is it some mixture of elements that is reconsidered for each student?

How do we support the staff to support the students? At my institute, we have had to reconsider what student support looks like and renegotiate our relationship with students. It’s not been an easy or comfortable for any of us. This blog will allow me to consider the themes this term in SBOSE and how they relate to supporting our students. It also allows me to reflect on my own experiences as a student on the course.

This blog will focus on the theme of disruption and will present my thoughts on the future of student support in online learning, including how we can harness the affordances of technology to better support a diverse student population. This disruption to daily life has not been welcome but it offers us opportunities to reconsider our relationship to our students. As both a student and an education professional, I’m excited and daunted by what the future holds.

Palloff, R. M. (2003). The virtual student: A profile and guide to working with online learners. Jossey-Bass.

Simpson, O. (2012). Supporting Students for Success in Online and Distance Education: Third Edition. Taylor & Francis Group. http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/napier/detail.action?docID=1114685

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