The loneliness of the long distance student: supervising students you rarely see

Middleton, Dave (2012). The loneliness of the long distance student: supervising students you rarely see. In: Gormley-Heenan, Cathy and Lightfoot, Simon eds. Teaching Politics and International Relations. Palgrave MacMillan.




There is little denying that higher education in the UK has changed dramatically over the past few years. The number of full-time students in part-time employment rose by 54% over the 10 years to 2006 (TUC, 2006). Since that report it is likely that the numbers have increased as public subsidy has decreased. Being full-time, for many students, no longer means having nothing to do but study. Education is something that students now have to fit in around the rest of their lives. Accompanying this has been a structural shift in modes of study. Part-time students are now 43% of the total student population (Million+, 2010). In 2009/10 there were 770,000 part-time students in the UK (HESA, 2011). Changes to funding mean that students now consider themselves as consumers and lecturers as service providers. If they cannot find the time to meet with us then, in this increasingly service orientated industry, we have to find the means to provide them with viable alternatives. In effect, the future for many higher education institutions is very similar to the present in my own – The Open University.
So, what does all this mean for those of us engaged in supervising students? The expectation that students can and will attend lectures, seminars and all the extra-curricular activities on offer will no longer hold for a large proportion of students. Let me be clear, however. These changes will not apply to all students: full-time will still be the major mode of study for most students. Not all part-time students will become distant learners, most will attend lectures and seminars and will build their studies into their lives in creative ways. But, as the proportion of students studying either at a distance, or on a part-time basis grows the ways in which we deliver the educational experience must adapt.
In this chapter what I want to do is suggest some ways in which academic staff might create more flexible learning methods better suited to this new type of student. In drawing upon work carried out on the HEFCE funded project PARLE (see Middleton & Bridge, 2008 for an overview, and Middleton, 2009 for some examples of the teaching), I want to suggest that e-learning far from being a threat (see for example Lambeir & Ramaekin,2006), or a nirvana (see for example, Salmon, 2005) provides a set of tools which can supplement the more tried and tested methods of supervision. Indeed, most of these tools can be used, with a little imagination, to supplement lectures and seminars too.

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