You’re not alone…overcoming isolation on the distance learning journey

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…By Nick Croft

“Cinders, you shall go to the ball…!”

The world has changed, significantly, since publishing our paper[1] a decade ago on student isolation in distance learning. At that time university distance learning programmes via the internet were still seen as something novel, innovative, unusual, maybe even a little odd – a venture viewed as largely residing in the domain of the Open University rather than more conventional physical campus-based establishments. Despite rhetoric around a desire to increase provision of this ‘flexible’ format it felt like a Cinderella approach amongst largely traditional face-to-face taught delivery.

With University education currently in a very different place, online study being the default approach, it seems opportune to reflect on what we’ve learnt about the ‘pumpkin to stagecoach’ transformation of distance learning.

Summary of the paper’s findings

  • Isolation and connectivity – although there’s no physical (geographical) connection this shouldn’t mean that the learning experience is a “solo mission”.
  • Tutor contact – students not knowing the extent to which tutors on different modules will engage and interact with them creates an uncertain learning environment and a mixed experience. Building a positive student/tutor relationship is key to overcome this.
  • Interaction with peers and colleagues – the ability to “bounce ideas off each other” helps to build a cohort, so facilitating the opportunity to do this is important. Linking study with practice (through workplace activities) can strengthen the purpose behind the learning experience.
  • Motivation and self-discipline – motivation to study can be difficult for those learning remotely from their peers. Setting targets, both embedded within the course and by the students themselves, is an important motivational factor, particularly where other external factors are present, such as work-home life balance.
  • Material and delivery – keeping material up to date and relevant is essential (for a vocational subject such as Planning this means providing a clear link to practice).
One of the findings boards from the 2010 research ‘sandpit’ event

Previously, back in the 1980s and 90s, distance learning involved paper copies of all reading material being posted to students, jokingly referred to as arriving on pallets – but it is true that entire store cupboards were devoted to reams of photocopied booklets. Then, with the arrival of the internet, paper was replaced by pages of online text requiring seemingly endless scrolling.  But effective distance learning, that meaningfully engages with its learners, requires more than this. And it goes beyond simply placing lecture capture online and providing resources for students to read asynchronously. Practical activities that engage the cohort and reinforce the learning need to be embedded within delivery.

This helps because students like to be reassured that their understanding of both the subject content as well as university processes are correct. Reassurance can take many forms, but the ability to speak to, and see, your tutor each week can play an important part – practical module-related tasks can contribute to this. The current use of Blackboard Collaborate software for meeting students in groups has helped significantly[2].

Redundant paper filing cabinets – a new world of desktop learning and teaching awaits.

Mutual reassurance between students also plays a crucial role. It can be difficult not having a friend/colleague sitting at the next desk, or across the table in the canteen, to bounce ideas off. What did the lecturer say about…? How did that theory the lecturer was talking about relate to your workplace? What format do we present the coursework in? I heard on the news that X happened, do you think this links with that lecture last week?

Since the paper’s publication we’ve tried numerous ways to create a defined ‘space’ in which discussion between students can occur to aid self-constructed learning. The most successful of these so far, judging by students’ comments, has been an interactive platform called Piazza[3]. This is aided by a keen, able and proactive Student Representative providing: a student-to-student link; a bridge connecting students and tutors; and a means of facilitating communication between the professional accrediting body[4] and the student cohort.

Additionally, we found that ensuring students feel the staff team are out there is essential – whether in a shared space or some other means of contact, knowing they can reach out and (within a reasonable timescale) will get something back. By adopting a memorandum of understanding that all module tutors are willing to follow it provides a baseline delivery standard to help create consistency and manage student (and tutor!) expectations. That said, commonality between modules is not necessarily the issue, it is more about students understanding how modules will work and having an equivalency in the quality of the experience. Taking the programme delivery team with you on the journey reduces the potential for a bumpy ride.

We’ve learnt a lot since the early days. Starting in September 2020 UWE launches a new online MSc in Planning and Urban Leadership[5]. Whilst the challenges identified back in 2010 still remain, and are potentially amplified by the current lockdown measures, taking students and tutors on the journey will be crucial to its success. Our delivery strategy incorporates understanding gained from interviewing alumni as well as feedback received in relation to current distance learning programme delivery.

Despite the passage of time our initial findings still hold resonance and, having recently passed the 100 citations milestone[6], combined with a necessary increase in remote learning, it seems Cinders shall go to the ball…


[1] Croft N., Dalton A. and Grant M. (2010) Overcoming Isolation in Distance Learning: Building a Learning Community through Time and Space, Journal for Education in the Built Environment, 5:1, 27-64

[2] It can also help to contribute towards the audit trail for student engagement in Degree Apprenticeship programmes. Other similar software is used for tutor meetings and more informal interaction such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, WhatsApp, Skype, Facebook Messenger.

[3] Concerns about data protection precluded the use of Piazza for our 2019 cohort.

[4] For the programmes referred to here the Royal Town Planning Institute’s Partnership Board is responsible for accrediting the programme and ensuring an effective and functional Planning School.

[5] https://courses.uwe.ac.uk/K4062/planning-and-urban-leadership-distance-learning [accessed 22/5/20]

[6] Google Scholar identifies 101 citation references of the paper [accessed 23/5/20]