Connectivity, socialization and identity formation. Exploring mental well-being in online distance learning law students

Jones, Emma (2019). Connectivity, socialization and identity formation. Exploring mental well-being in online distance learning law students. In: Field, Rachael and Strevens, Caroline eds. Educating for Well-Being in Law. Positive Professional Identities and Practice. Emerging Legal Education. London: Routledge, pp. 103–116.



The growing body of research on law student wellbeing from the US, Australia and the UK almost entirely focuses on law students studying in a full time, face-to-face learning environment. This is despite distance learning forming an established and significant part of legal education internationally. For example, The Open University has over approximately 57,000 students on its distance learning LLB programme, making it the largest provider of undergraduate legal education in the UK.
This chapter will consider whether (and, if so, to what extent) the literature on law student wellbeing generally can be applied to distance learners. It will focus on whether such learners are socialised into the traditional norms of the law school or whether their physical distance, together with differing demographics and study goals, mean that this socialisation process is less intense or significant within the student journey. It will draw on this discussion to explore the possible implications for both professional identity formation and wellbeing amongst distance learning law students.

In particular, a key norm which is vital in shaping professional identity is the concept of “thinking like a lawyer”. This concept is heavily promoted throughout face-to-face undergraduate legal education and has been implicated as an important factor in influencing law student wellbeing. Its emphasis on a form of rigid, analytical thinking, which requires the suppression or disregard of more experiential, emotionally connected forms of thought can be psychologically harmful to law students However, learning to acquire these skills is often characterised as an important part of professional identity formation for law students in face-to-face learning environments.

Although it may seem beneficial to distance learners if they are subjected to less pressure to think and act in this particular way, this could also highlight other, more problematic aspects of the distance experience. If the socialisation process is less intense because of the lack of physical proximity, are such students therefore missing out on the social connectedness with fellow students which is also seen as essential in promoting wellbeing? What other messages are they receiving about professional identity, and are they any more likely to promote long-term wellbeing?

This chapter will draw on existing literature from different jurisdictions, together with the results of qualitative empirical work conducted at The Open University to explore these issues and suggest areas for further research.

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