Engaging Distance Learners in an Academic Community: Student Hub Live

Foley, Karen (2022). Engaging Distance Learners in an Academic Community: Student Hub Live. EdD thesis The Open University.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.21954/ou.ro.00013e51

Abstract

In higher education (HE), studies of effective practice relating to student retention, progression and attainment suggest that student engagement is a major factor in terms of success, and this involves a sense of belonging to a community. Studies have identified initiatives that have proved successful in traditional HE contexts, however ideas of belonging and community are problematic when translated to distance-learning contexts. Many distance-learning students, who are often mature and part-time learners, appear to be successful in their studies without identifying as a student or interacting socially with others, which calls into question the way in which belonging is conceptualised in distance-learning settings. The focus of this research was to identify the value of attending specific, live, online, interactive events at Student Hub Live (SHL) which were designed by the Open University to facilitate academic community and to provide a space outside of the curriculum for students to socialise and perform other aspects of student identity that require interaction with others. Using an ethnographic approach and grounded theory methods, chatlogs of four SHL events were analysed and the emergent themes informed semi-structured interviews which were carried out with six participants, all of whom had attended SHL events. Both sets of findings were combined and further analysed using thematic network maps. The finding was that communities of practice with shared repertoires enabled students to feel a sense of belonging through participating in discussions which created a conducive learning environment to develop skills, share experiences and feel validated. Community and belonging enabled students to deeply apply learning to their studies through sharing the experience and their experiences with others. In this sense, belonging and community matter to distance-learning students but for different reasons than for face-to-face students. The findings are relevant to other distance and face-to-face HE providers who are keen to engage students in virtual extracurricular spaces to support learning and facilitate community.

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