Bayne, S., Gallagher, M. S., & Lamb, J. (2014) Reflections

Being back ‘at’ university over the last seven weeks, after so long outside of more formal education has been a challenging, but invigorating experience. This week we’ve been building on previous themes around online environments, community and spaces to think about our experiences as distance education students, and what it means for us to be ‘at’ university.

Bayne, Gallagher and Lamb’s paper is a great resource as it dissects the views of previous MSc students on this very course – so fantastic material for IDEL and this topic!

Some key points I took from the paper:

  • Distance education is often theorised through the lens of on-campus education. There are inherent issues and limitations with this. “The distancing of education makes possible new spatial practices, new patterns of movement and ‘new proximities’.”
  • Traditional perspectives from social science on spaces are not adequate to look at the ‘hosts, guests, buildings, objects, and machines’ at play in the topology of courses such as this – the ‘new mobilities paradigm’.
  • The authors used 4 kinds of proposed social spaces to consider social and mobility aspects of distance learning – regional, network, fluid and fire. These are intertwined and occur simultaneously, they are not mutually exclusive.
  • The physical campus is important to distance students, but in varying ways to different students.
  • Some students have an emotional/sentimental/nostalgic connection with the physical location  – others very little.
  • Absence is as important as presence in looking at the relationship between university and student (and can be overlooked if just viewing through ‘on-campus’ perspective).
  • The campus can be fluid and transient – a “cognitive (piece of)… real estate”.
  • There may need to be ongoing calibration of what it means to study ‘at’ a university in light of this, for all stakeholders including tutors, administrators, academic leads and students themselves.

This paper came at a good time – I’d already been wrestling in my head what it meant to be studying at the University of Edinburgh. I certainly share similar thoughts to some of the students who were interviewed as part of the research, in particular, Matthew Gillon’s quote that:

“In a strange way, I didn’t feel that I wasn’t in Edinburgh.”

This double negative is important. I don’t feel like I’m in Edinburgh (as I’m not), but I don’t feel as if I’m not in Edinburgh – there’s an important distinction here.

Erik Credle’s perspectives also strike a chord:

“I feel a sense of belonging to the University, but at the same time I dont feel that I am actually part of the University.”

I certainly feel a sense of belonging to the course and the team behind it, my fellow students, but perhaps differently to Erik I don’t feel a real connection with the university. At present, I feel more of an affinity and connection with the city than the university, which feels like a contradiction in terms. I think this may be the way I am viewing the university, as a physical place.

Having strong interactions with the course and its various participants creates the bond with the course. I think having visited Edinburgh before, and being able to visualise/feel/experience the environment, this is an important contributor.

I can’t help but feel having never visited the university campus this has a detrimental impact on my relationship with the university, but in any case, I don’t think this an important factor for me. The university is almost more important pre-course, when gauging the likely rigour and quality gone into creating and curating the learning experience. I think I’ll need more time to let this percolate and consider fully!

Reviewing this paper in light of recent readings, I again spotted some recurring themes:

  • The course repeatedly questions the approaches used in current discourse within digital education. Like Friesen questions the instrumentalist and essentialist approaches to technology (and the blind spots this causes), in this paper this is echoed in the approach taken to viewing ‘non-campus education’. These critical approaches can only be a good thing, and is at the very core of good scientific practice!
  • Rather than seeing things as separate strands (e.g. Friesen’s view on essentialism and instrumentalism), there is an ongoing challenge to view things as symbiotic and intertwined (with good reasons why!). In here we see this approach taken to the spatial topologies discussed.
  • Again there are issues with terminology and the implications of the choices made on this. Like Bayne argued the weaknesses with the phrase ‘Technology-Enhanced Learning’, here we see a similar argument around ‘Distance Learning’. These could be seen as ‘growing pains’ with the increasing introduction and usage of technology, but important to be discussed and addressed.

Before reading the paper, and the comments from alumni as part of this, it was useful to consider the questions posed.

My own personal view of arriving at the University of Edinburgh was the rather overwhelming contact points and breadth of information sent to me by email! It didn’t feel like a smooth experience, but in retrospect, I think this was a key aspect of realising that I’m studying at university again. With all the different departments and administrative functions in contact, you get a sense of the size and scale of studying at an institution, and I think this was an important realisation. And I’m not sure of the importance of this yet, but receiving the invoice and paying the course fees also had an effect, I’m still trying to distill what this was! All these different touch-points contribute to processing and establishing the experience, and without this, I may have taken a different approach (or level of focus?) to the course. As a contrast, you don’t get this with a MOOC for example (emails on matriculation, information on freshers week), and this inevitably adds to the unconscious feeling of uni ‘-lite’. As someone who is involved in positioning and marketing of products, this really stood out.

On reflection, I think twitter has been an essential tool for me to get a wider understanding of the University of Edinburgh. Although I’ve not actively engaged with them, it’s interesting that I feel I have a connection with two of the writers of the paper, Sian Bayne and Michael Gallacher. I see what they are discussing, what peaks their interest, who they, in turn, engage with. It helps position them as thought leaders who are in active debate and makes the course feel even more ‘alive’ and ever-evolving. I think it’s interesting that Twitter’s not been a central part of the course, yet without this, I feel the wider experience would have been poorer.

Finally, I absolutely loved the concept of a ‘digital postcard’. Wow, what a fantastic idea. Naturally, the first thought is “why not just use a video, that’d capture audio?”, but video forces you to go along with the pre-set pace and narrative, rather than allowing the viewer to explore and digest at their own speed. When tool we use heavily in my business is H5P. It’s a WordPress plug-in, used to add interactivity to media using HTML5 (think of it as being a poor person’s Thinglink). Continuing the experimentation, here’s my own digital postcard from my place of study.

(Caveat – my desk isn’t usually this untidy. It’s been a crazy week, but all the junk adds to the experience!).