Teaching and Learning Forum 99 [ Contents ]

Reducing isolation for distance students: An online initiative

David Lake
Teaching and Learning Centre
Murdoch University
Many tertiary students, including many first generation tertiary students, are now choosing to study at a distance. However, they face significant problems, particularly when they have minimal experience of tertiary study and less understanding of the expectations of the university. The result has been unacceptably high failure and withdrawal rates. This paper describes an online course designed for distance students who were having difficulty adapting to the expectations of the university culture. It describes how the physical structure of the university was used as a metaphor to contextualise the online delivery. Emphasis was placed on developing peer support mechanisms through the assessed as well as the less formal aspects of the unit. This approach reduced the geographic and temporal aspects of physical isolation, as well as the psychological isolation from peers and academic staff.


The face of higher education throughout the Western world has been changed by political, technological, and social change. Political change has been characterised by the replacement of collegial control with managerial (Dudley & Vidovich, 1995 pp.131-146). Technological change has allowed the materials of education to be dispersed more widely (Blaxter, Dodd & Tight, 1996). Social change has impacted on the higher learning community with many mature-age students entering study (West & Hore, 1989). Recyclers upgrading their non-university qualifications are predisposed to distance education because of their employment commitments (Blaxter, Dodd & Tight, 1996). Similarly, many deferrers who failed to take up offers of University places, did so because university education was an exception in their social grouping. Returners who discontinued their studies often did as a result of perceived isolation (Peters, 1992; Rogers, 1990), while early school leavers often come to study with negative memories of educational culture. Overall, social change is producing a large body of external students who enter the university with little idea of the university culture and few avenues that will allow them to acculturate.

The stress reduction during acculturation has been linked to four factors (Berry et al. 1992 pp.284-290). Firstly, time is a factor with the greatest stress during initial contact with the new culture. Secondly, individuals need to integrate their previous experiences. Thirdly, a network of social groups is needed within the new culture. Finally, the individual should be able to accurately appraise their situation and control the direction of their acculturation. However, for many distance students feedback from the university is limited, and interaction with other students and staff may be non-existent. This paper describes an attempt to overcome the isolation of distance education students through an online unit.

As with most universities (Peters, 1992), external students in our institution have the highest risk for withdrawal from studies of any group with an astounding 43% drop out rate in the first year at the university. Since 1 659 of the university's 10 967 students are enrolled fully externally, this is an issue of considerable economic as well as social concern. On-campus students who are on the verge of withdrawal have had the opportunity to enroll in A120, Introduction to University Learning. This unit has been particularly successful in increasing institutional fit as described by Tinto (1975) and Peters (1992), and reducing isolation among students (Lake 1996). It seemed likely that the same variables were likely to be qualitatively similar to, but quantitatively more important for external students, so an external version might address the isolation causing withdrawal of distance students (Tinto 1975; Peters 1992; Rogers 1990; Okun, Benin, & Brandt-Williams 1996; Hipp 1997).

The use of the university as a metaphor in online delivery

The unit needed to mimic the frequent, student-centred tutorials of the on-campus unit, together with open access to academic staff. Online interaction also encourages more meaningful communication than found in face-to-face tutorials. Firstly, reflective students are not silenced by extrovert students. Similarly, students from non-Western cultures who express wisdom through initial silence (Wober, 1974; Goodnow, 1976) can contribute in a timely manner. Finally, the face-to-face tutorial discussion mediated in English discriminates against NESB students. Written communication allows time to formulate ideas and can be preferred in academic situations for this type of student (Lake, 1996).

While mail-based systems were clearly unsuited for the interactive aspects of the unit, they were used to create atmosphere (using videotapes to let students to see the activities and interactions, or lack of them (Ward & Bodner, 1993) that occur during lectures). Hard copy readers were supplied to improve readability. Students were permitted to return assignments through the mail. However, by the end of semester, all students were submitting assignments online.

Online communication opened up several new possibilities to providing opportunities for non-threatening interactions with other students and academic staff. So communication was directed through a web-site constructed using the metaphor of the university, and using a range of simply implemented but powerful online capabilities: email, html pages, forms and discussion groups. One-way communication took place in the 'Lecture Theatre' web pages, while structured, two-way discussions took place in the 'Tutorial Room', and unstructured, private chat was encouraged in the 'Cafeteria'.

Simplest in concept and delivery was the html-mediated, one-way communication for the 'Lecture Theatre' space. The 'Lecture Theatre' space also included a weekly 'Announcements' page allowing the tutor to respond to common queries, and make general social chat, vitally important for distance learners (Stevenson, Sander & Naylor 1996). It also enabled coordination and communication with the on-campus tutorial groups removing the perception of a neglected underclass that is common among external students.

Email allowed students to communicate privately with each other, or with the tutor, as they would in his or her office. A virtual 'Cafeteria' page listed the names of the students in the tutorial, and the tutor. The students' first task in the unit was to email the tutor a brief paragraph about themselves that they wished to share with the other students. The 'Cafeteria' allowed students to access this paragraph, the students' email addresses, and, to email them by a click of a mouse button.

The discussion group format allowed students to interact simultaneously with all other members of the tutorial, and respond to specific questions posed by the tutor, as would normally occur in tutorials. A 'General Discussion Group' was created in the online unit for students to raise any issue they. Content discussion groups focused on the readings, while skills discussions centred on different academic-related skills such as essay structuring. Each week students responded to a new, open-ended question drawing on student experiences and related to the reading topics. Students were encouraged to respond (constructively) to the comments of others, and assessment for the unit took into account their involvement. A 'Glossary' discussion group allowed students to clarify the meanings of jargon they encountered during their reading. The thread structure had an additional bonus by organising questions and responses into an indented hierarchy of ideas that was used when discussing essay structure.

The off-campus student also faces a problem when it comes to the weekly tasks favoured by many unit coordinators. On-campus students hand them in during tutorials obtaining timely feedback. By comparison, the off campus student typically submits tasks in batches, receiving feedback only after it can make a difference. To alleviate this, a 'Study Cubicle' set of pages was incorporated into the online unit. Each week the students completed a text-based task ranging from a critical numeracy task to an essay-structuring task. Each task contained instructions with associated text boxes for students to enter responses. A cgi-script provided a simple method to email the responses to the tutor at the press of a button. Most exercises were designed to cause a copy of the student's submission to appear on their screen together with some suggested responses from the tutor attached to each response following submission. Submissions were filtered into a separate directory using Eudora so the tutor could monitor the time management of students and provide rapid feedback.

To encourage students to experiment with different approaches, an open resubmission policy for assignments was promoted. Students were encouraged to read feedback from the three essays, learning skills activities, and reflective tasks, then re-edit and resubmit papers as many times as they wished until they achieved results they were satisfied with, provided it was submitted prior to end of semester. At the same time it shifted the locus of control from the tutor to the student (Shapiro, 1988; Killen, 1994). Students were encouraged (but not forced) to exchange essay drafts, and compare the comments made on their submitted work. The tutor was not overwhelmed with work since the students were required to do three essays of increasing complexity, and a number of other activities in the space of ten weeks. The tutor made a copy of the essay, attaching comments to the body and in an appended criteria sheet permitting the student and the tutor to track development of the work. The criteria sheet highlighted both structural and content based features of the essay, providing space for individual feedback for each aspect, and giving context-specific evaluations.

The assignment content was also used to encourage and enhance communication between students, particularly in the first weeks of the unit. The three phases of collaborative learning (see for example Jaques, 1991) were built into assessable tasks. The first stage, where individuals worry about what they can contribute to the team, was dealt with by having each student write an autobiographical paragraph for the 'Cafeteria' web page. Stage two of the team building process requires students to interact with each other so a 'Study Cubicle' activity required each student to email every other student in the tutorial in order to discover two things they had in common (other than items related to their university studies). The completed list was then sent back as a form to the tutor. The third stage of collaborative work where individual capabilities and group interactions can be exerted to problem solve a task effectively was incorporated into a structured essay where students compared and contrasted their construction of 'self' with that of another group member. After this assignment students began using the direct email facility of the 'Cafeteria' extensively.

The pilot group

The first tutorial group was selected on the same basis as for on-campus students. That is, during weeks 3 and 4 of the semester they had become so disheartened by their failure to understand the culture of the university, and depressed with their lack of academic progress that they had decided to withdraw from their studies. I also interviewed all applicants (by telephone) to weed out those who needed only a small amount of encouragement, or minimal assistance with skills. All potential online students were required to demonstrate their inability to attend on-campus sessions.

The pilot group of five students satisfied all requirements for our target group. It was the first semester of university for all students, and four of the five had gained access to the university through alternate entry programmes. Two had full-time employment commitments during the day, and two others lived several hundred kilometres from the campus. Neither of these latter students was in paid employment, but both had young children. The final student, the only school-leaver of the group, attended on-campus for her other subjects, but her timetable prohibited her from attending the lecture, or any of the eight, three hour on-campus tutorial groups. English was a second language for two students. All were female, none of the students had studied online before, and all but one were computing novices. All five students completed the course. Gratifyingly, all reported that the online delivery not only allowed them to feel in control of their study, but also to feel a part of the university community.


The results strongly support the conclusions by Peters (1992 pp.264-265) that distance students require an orientation to university study that: supports goal commitment; provides real and symbolic interaction between academic staff and students; provides informal as well as formal contact to promote social integration; acts as a living institution in which the student feels an integral part; and most importantly, allows the student to become acquainted with, and train in, the techniques of independent learning and distance study through use of new forms of technological interaction.

It similarly reflects the summations of research relating to retention amongst on-campus students. Shapiro (1988 p.602) concludes that: "[m]ost importantly, the contingencies for performance, both during and after academic responding must be clearly articulated and constantly applied. Finally goal setting and ongoing monitoring of academic progress is essential" and Rogers (1990 pp.318-319) stressed: "the academic and social integration of the individual into the institution and the student's interaction with the social and academic systems as the primary determinants of student retention and attrition. It is sometimes important to remind ourselves as educators, and more particularly the educational administrators who can become obsessed with the technology and economics of online delivery, that the needs of distance students are the same as other students - but more so.


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Please cite as: Lake, D. (1999). Reducing isolation for distance students: An online initiative. In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context, 210-214. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/lake.html

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