Graduates perceptions of success in online study: what makes a difference?

Simons, Joan and Leverett, Stephen (2018). Graduates perceptions of success in online study: what makes a difference? In: Global Online Summit, 16-18 Oct 2018, Toronto.


The body of students who study this programme have a number of recognised challenges which can cause disadvantage in studying. Many have low previous qualifications with 40% having less than A level qualifications on entry to study, the majority are women who are often in low paid (or unpaid) employment, with 16.3% from Black Minority Ethnic (BME) backgrounds, 10% have a disability and 20.7% are from a low socio-economic group (SEG). This combination of demographics can create significant challenges for students to be successful with their study, therefore using an appreciative inquiry approach to access knowledge on factors that contribute to their success provides information for the programme to enhance our provision to increase the likelihood of success of subsequent students.

The study took an Appreciative inquiry (AI) approach. AI originates in the work of David Cooperrider in the 1980s who, as a doctoral student, was studying what did and did not work in a clinic in Cleveland. He then made a shift in his approach to more specifically looking for those factors that contributed to the organisations health and excellence (Cooperrider and Srivastva, 1987). AI is more about learning and understanding something, and thereby valuing it, than it is about expressions of appreciation (Cooperrider et al 2008). We sought to gain greater understanding of what it was that influenced our graduates to persist in their studies, despite the challenges over what was for some students, six years of part time study, at a distance.

A sample to 300 students was drawn from the Alumni database of 1100 who had graduated between 2010 and 2015. The sample included a representation of the following demographic characteristics: age, gender, disability, socio economic group, education, motivation for study, occupation, qualification intention.
The 300 graduates were written to inviting them to participate in the study which would involve a telephone interview. We had 65 positive responses, (22%). A total of 51 graduates were interviewed. Of the fifty one graduates who were interviewed, there were 3 male and 48 female respondents.

The semi structured interviews were focussed around 4 main questions with some subsidiary questions. This presentation focuses on the first question:
What were the most influential factors that helped you to continue to study over the period of your degree?

When asked what factors influenced their ability to continue studying to complete their degree a range of answers were provided. The two most frequent answers related to support that was provided, for most respondents, by their family and their tutor. The second element reported that enabled the graduates to complete the course was the flexible nature of studying at a distance as well as the responsiveness of the tutors when life was challenging and an extension was needed to enable a graduate to complete their coursework.
The findings suggest that tutors play a key role in retention of students who may otherwise stop studying as a result of skill deficiencies and initial poor results. Flexible tutors who were supported by flexible university systems and resources were an important component of success for many graduates.
Some students explained what flexibility of online studying meant to them, for example:
…..being able to do things in my own time, so I could come in from work and do it or I could do it before work….that meant I could still work, I could still earn a living, you know, be relatively independent.
Some students who qualified for extra support explained how important it was to their success, for example:
‘…..I was diagnosed with MS halfway through.., it's affected my cognitive faculties really badly, but I spoke to the OU and, you know, the disability department, whatever it's called, were fantastic. They actually sent out my tutor to my house to give me a tutorial, which is a good thing, and I got extra time for my assignments.
The findings of this study have stimulated a number of initiatives including targeted telephone calls to new students early in their study to establish their support needs. This initiative means students don’t have to wait until they have problems to contact their tutor for support. The findings are also being used by marketing to promote the course in an informed way to prospective students.

Cooperrider, D.L. & Srivastva, S. (1987) "Appreciative inquiry in organizational life". In R. Woodman & W. Pasmore (eds.) Research in Organizational Change and Development. (1)129-169. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.

Cooperrider D., Whitney D., & Stavros J.M. (2008) Appreciative Inquiry Handbook: For Leaders of Change. 2nd Edition. Crown Custom Publishing Inc. Ohio.

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