Friday, 3 June 2011

Networks of support in open learning

‘Student support in open learning: sustaining the process’ (Dearnley, 2003)

Dearnley explores the types of support required, and the structures which provide them, by adult, open learners. The context of the paper is around nursing education, offering conversion courses to otherwise have limited (if any) experience of higher education, but the findings are thought to be transferable to other adult learner groups. 

3 major supporting networks sustain learning and development: academic, professional and social, providing 3 types of support: practical, academic and emotional.

Key points:
  • Appropriate student support can make the different between student success and failure.
  • Student support plays a crucial role in sustaining the process of learning and development.
  • Students will experience life responsibilities (which are generally constant and predictable) and life events (which should be expected, but what or when is unknown; should be accommodated by curriculum designers).
  • Support networks need to interact - and the academic network (in particular) may need to react to changes in the other two (for example if social or professional support breaks down).
  • Social networks seem to form the foundation of all support networks - ""domestic harmony" is an essential ingredient in sustaining the motivation and ability for mature learners to continue studying".
  • Students rely on a complex mix of emotional and practical support from within their social and professional networks.
  • Students beginning from a received knowledge (i.e. the "authority" is always right, I must learn all the facts") orientation may be used to or expect the tutor/course to tell them what to think or do. Taking responsibility for their own learning can be a substantial challenge. 
  • Academic peers provide academic, practical and social support. Group tutorials in particular can be useful for friendship, developing trust and motivation. 
  • Good tutors provide support in the academic, emotional, practical and technical domains. The must be approachable and accessible - knowing that support is available can be more important than the means by which it is accessed. 
  • Development requires a mixture of challenge and support - too much or too little of either will reduce the potential for development.
Studying (particularly in parallel with a job or family commitments) requires a re-alignment of priorities and activities, especially domestic roles and responsibilities. I've been fortunate that my own circumstances have allowed this to happen quite smoothly, but I still strongly related to the statement that domestic harmony is necessary for motivation and continuation of studying - when other aspects of my life, (eg. health, relationships or work) have been harder, my energy for studying is very rapidly depleted.

Has our own tutor group supported me through this? I suppose it has given me the visibility that some of my peers are struggling in similar ways, and so reduced isolation. Practical study related help such as supplying links and resources has also been useful. However, ultimately I still feel like I have to get through this pretty much on my own wits - if I let myself slip so far behind that I cannot catch up, then that's my fault, so it's up to me to pull myself up by the bootstraps. That said, the experience of seeing wide fluctuations in the level of contributions to our online forum does help to remind me that I don't have to respond to every activity in complete fullness and perfectly on time - there's a wide variation in what is acceptable, after all, this is open learning at Masters level, and so responsibility for one's own learning management is an expectation.

The paper notes that students beginning from a received knowledge orientation are likely to be less tolerant of ambiguity, to collect facts and to be surface learners. While I think (hope!) I'm generally fairly well engaged in the knowledge construction this course affords, at times, perhaps when I'm tired, that effort of having to think, question, re-process for myself can feel hard. Similarly, if I "get" something straight away then I'm likely to be able to quickly move on to elaboration or application of the information, but if it was a concept I found more challenging then I can be inclined to slip into attempting surface learning. I think here that blogging really helps me, as it's often not until I try to start writing that my thoughts and reactions emerge... and then I write much more than planned (like this post which I meant to finish half an hour ago - a useful lesson in why these activities sometimes take me longer than I wish ;-) ).

Dearnley, C. (2003) ‘Student support in open learning: sustaining the process’, International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning [online]

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