Distance learners deserve a community and it is important for universities to help develop one

Distance learners deserve a community and it is important for universities to help develop one

I have been studying with The Open University since 2009, and will be completing my social sciences (with politics and social policy) honours degree next year. I chose the university, not only because it fits in with my life – I have work and family commitments - that means studying on campus was not an option – but because of the quality of the courses, the reputation of the tutors and the opportunity of further study.

"The impact of distance learning on a student's self-confidence and feelings of isolation was a topic that interested me, so I was pleased to have the opportunity to investigate it further"

However, the one aspect of student life that The Open University cannot pretend to offer is that of regular, face to face, student interaction. This is something many students at traditional 'bricks and mortar' universities I imagine take for granted, being able to get together with their fellow students over a coffee or a glass of wine to discuss projects they are working on, or purely for social reasons – the friendships developed at university are often those made for life.

The impact of distance learning on a student's self-confidence and feelings of isolation was a topic that interested me, so I was pleased to have the opportunity to investigate it further when I heard about a project from two academics in the Faculty of Social Sciences, Student Connections. This ambitious idea, from Dave Middleton and Karen Foley, was to run a five day conference on issues relating to social science - with a difference. Firstly, the entire programme would be online, live, and a number of new technologies implemented meant that thousands of people from all over the world could interact, in real time, from their computers or devices, whether to provide immediate feedback, chat with presenters, or vote on topics.

I put forward an idea for a piece of research looking at my fellow OU students' experiences of working alone and whether they experienced feelings of isolation and loneliness, and teamed up with two other undergraduates, neither of whom I had met before, in order to launch the project. We launched a survey online, and had 244 responses from 20 different countries within one week, a remarkable number for a project of its kind and a depth of quantitative responses significantly more personal and open than we could have imagined. The academics were all secretly envious of such an amazing response, and several jokingly remarked that they wish they had similar feedback on their research!

"Our data found that many felt marginalised, on the periphery, and were crying out to contact and connect with their fellow students."

We wanted to find out what OU students really felt about their studies and how they coped with working alone, juggling their other commitments. The results were fascinating – whilst all were broadly positive about studying with the OU, many expressed feelings of 'isolation', 'frustration' and shyness as a result of being a distance learner. I realised how lucky I was – I have access to transport and travel to tutorials regularly, which means I meet not only my tutor but my fellow students. Many of whom I can catch up with for coffee afterwards, or follow up by phone, email or Facebook, due to the close friendships we develop.

However, many of my fellow students don't have that luxury – particularly those who are restrained by work, family, finances or disability which keeps them from travelling. As a result of this isolation, it was affecting their confidence, which in turn made the idea of attending face to face meetings even more intimidating. This spiral could really affect someone's studies – I find it crucial not only to share ideas and cross-reference on work, but, often what is more worthwhile is being able to chat to a study buddy online at 3am while I'm finishing an assignment; it is so reassuring to be able to share this with someone in the same boat.

Our data found that many felt marginalised, on the periphery, and were crying out to contact and connect with their fellow students. That's why the Student Connections conference last week was so valuable. By signing up online, anyone, from anywhere in the world could take part, and not just watching, but interacting, chatting and really feeling like they belong to a community.

"As a result of this isolation, it was affecting their confidence, which in turn made the idea of attending face to face meetings even more intimidating."

The OU has come a long way since it first accepted students in 1971. It has really embraced change, becoming more contemporary, and moving a lot of its learning online to meet the needs of the majority of its students. This conference is an example of how it is exploiting the opportunities technology has provided, and ensured that online learning is an adequate, if not better, form of study.

Many may believe that distance learning is a personal choice – and that it is unreasonable to expect the same community ethos that undergraduates at campus universities enjoy. But as the introduction of tuition fees takes hold, I'm sure we will see more people pursuing distance learning as a form of study, many of whom will be juggling other commitments such as work and family. As such, the feelings of isolation and loneliness that our research identified will affect a greater number of people.

Distance learning is not the preserve of the OU. Many 'traditional' campus universities have increased their number of non-resident students. I just hope that as this sector grows, that more universities take into account the impact this will have, and introduce initiatives like this conference to help students connect with one another, and feel included and part of a community. Many of the undergraduates presenting at the Student Connections conference had never before had the self-confidence to stand up in front of others, yet by empowering them to feel they can be brave and speak out, universities can enhance the experience of these distance learners. Isolation and fear breeds on itself, and by equipping students with the confidence that comes from connecting with others, and forming friendships, the entire study experience becomes more valuable for all involved.

Rachel MacLeod, from Hertfordshire has been studying with the OU since 2009 and will be completing her social sciences (with politics and social policy) honours degree in 2015, when she then plans to continue her academic career with a masters and PhD.

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