Distance Education as Work: Making Distance Education Work in Campus Universities
thesisposted on 10.01.2019, 14:23 by Helen M. Lentell
This thesis is about distance education as work in campus universities. It seeks to understand how distance education arose and has been sustained in campus universities. The research uncovers that critical to the development and sustainability of distance education are the workers (academic and administrative) who believe and are committed to this form of provision for those who are otherwise unable to study. The literature on distance education rarely addresses the role of the distance education workers. Rather it suggests that distance education is very unlikely to develop, let alone be sustained, if the appropriate infra structure is not in place to support it. More recently a contrasting approach, ignoring policies and organisational structures, suggests that the wide scale adoption of learning technologies will mainstream distance education into conventional university provision. There will be little or no difference between the two methods of course delivery. My professional observation was that neither accounts could explain the vibrant and successful distance education that had grown bottom up within departments in campus universities in the UK. This provision, whilst successful, remained marginal to mainstream university teaching and learning. The research for this thesis took place between 2012 and 2015. It utilises an iterative ethnographically informed interview process and was in two stages. The first stage was concerned with ascertaining what ten internationally well known and successful leaders of distance education provision considered to be the critical factors for successful distance education provision. Called the leader/experts in the research, I had anticipated that they would stress leadership and management - and they did. However what emerged from these first stage conversations was that above all else it was the people who worked in distance education who made it take off and thrive. Thus whilst infra structure and technology were important, they were second order considerations for success. These leader/experts pointed to the team working and shared values of distance education workers and their role, as leaders in distance education, was to provide an enabling environment for distance education workers. The second and substantive stage of the research explores how 27 distance education workers in 6 departments in three UK campus universities, describe their work and why it is important to them. The analysis of the research data suggests that distance education workers, in all research sites, saw themselves as working in non hierarchical teams where all, regardless of grade or role, supported each other, worked cooperatively and learned together. This is described as the distance education community of practice and is seen by the distance education workers as very different to the typical (individualistic and competitive) ways of working in academic departments. In addition the interviewees all stressed their involvement and engagement with their distance education students, and emphasised that in all aspects of their work they were student centred. Interviewees also stressed their belief in the benefit of distance education, in particular emphasising the values of access. These core ideas and dispositions are described in the thesis as the distance education habitus. The distance education community of practice and distance education habitus give the distance education workers a sense of identity separate to their campus colleagues and explains their tireless efforts to ‘work around’ the systems and processes of the campus university, which are not designed to ensure the flexibility distance education students require for successful study. However all the interviewees, but most particularly in two of the universities (A and C), also reported that these ways of working were being eroded and stifled by changing managerial practices that promoted what were described as more ‘efficient’ ways of running the university. These managerial practices included technology led systems approaches to the management of all students, and changing requirements demanded of academic staff. The thesis concludes by drawing analogies with other public sector provision and noting the contradictions that whilst higher education policy makers are addressing the need for flexibility the operational management of universities are making this harder to achieve.