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Distance Education Student's Experiences of Participation and Inclusion in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education

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Distance Education Student's Experiences of Participation and Inclusion in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education

According to the Australian Government's Higher Education Review, higher education in Australia is lagging behind other nations in student participation rates, levels of student satisfaction and the quality of its educational programs (Australian Government, 2008). Given the relationship between a robust tertiary education system and a globally competitive economy, the Australian government has committed to providing opportunities for all capable Australians to participate in higher education (Australian Government, 2008). This agenda has resulted in a diverse body of student learners, including an increasing number of mature age and distance education students (Australian Government, 2008). This paper presents an account of distance education student's experiences of participation and inclusion in teaching and learning in higher education at one Australian university. For the purposes of this paper, distance education is defined as tertiary education that takes place off campus (Keegan et al., 2008).

According to Doyle (2011), students engaged in distance education are typically mature age students, between 25 to 40 years of age, who are engaged in employment and/or have family responsibilities (Doyle, 2011). Studies by Abbot-Chapman (2006) highlight the stress and difficulty experienced by mature age distance students in juggling the competing demands of study, employment and family responsibilities. According to O'Shea and Stone (2011) these difficulties are particularly significant for women, as they tend to simultaneously care for their families and study, and fit their studies in around meeting their family's needs. Despite these difficulties, distance education students typically select and prefer this mode of study, as its flexibility allows them to continue working and/or caring for their families while they further their education (Doyle, 2011).

The distance education experience is characterised by isolation, with students studying alone and rarely interacting with lecturers and other students (Rangecroft, 1998). Studies by Soon, Sook, Jung, and Im (2000) identified the absence of face-to-face interactions with peers and lecturers as a major obstacle to student learning. Furthermore, Sturgess and Kennedy (2008) report that the physical absence of distance education students from the university campus contributes to them being accorded a marginalised status. This subordinate status may result in distance students feeling detached from the university they attend (Sturgess & Kennedy, 2008). According to Moody (2004), this lack of connectedness, combined with feelings of isolation, diminish the quality of students' learning experiences and contribute to the high attrition rates of distance education students.

Higher education institutions have attempted to bridge the divide between face-to-face on-campus learning and distance education by utilising a wide range of information computer technology (ICT) in the delivery of distance programs (Bates, 2005). These ICTs may include: online lectures and readings, podcasts and links to relevant Internet websites. Within this learning environment, communication between students and their peers and lecturers occurs primarily via interactive forums and by email (Sturgess and Kennedy, 2003 cited in Sturgess and Kennedy, 2006). Studies by Mahle (2011) indicate that the use of interactive ICTs, that provide immediate feedback and allow for two-way communication with their lecturers and peers, enhance student motivation and learning. However, findings by Mckeough and Fox (2009) indicate that the incorporation of interactive features into online learning courses is frequently neglected by lecturers.

A review of the available literature on distance education reveals an abundance of studies exploring the utility of ICTs. Likewise, a number of studies identifying the demographic qualities of the typical distance learner and their attrition rates in higher education were found. The majority of this research appeared to have a predetermined focus, conducted by a researcher positioned in the role of 'expert' on issues impacting on distance education students. In contrast, exploratory studies informed by an 'insider's' perspective were minimal. No research focusing exclusively on distance student's experiences of participation and inclusion in higher education were found. These limitations indicate the need for further research. This study aims to provide an account of distance education student's perceptions of their experiences of participation and inclusion in teaching and learning in higher education.

Methodology

A qualitative approach is adopted in this research. It is anticipated that this approach will capture the multiple realities of participants engaging in distance education and generate rich and descriptive data. Qualitative methods will also allow the research to be participant-led, thus producing new knowledge about the topic, from an 'insider' perspective (Willig, 2008). The blurring of the participant's and researcher's roles permitted in qualitative research also makes this approach appropriate (Brodsky, et al., 2004).

This study is underpinned by a social constructionist epistemology and grounded in the principles of interpretive phenomenological analysis (IPA). Social constructionism is deemed an appropriate epistemology as it recognises the participants as individuals whose realities of participation and inclusion in higher education are socially constructed in response to their unique experiences. (Darlaston-Jones, 2007). Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis is considered a suitable methodology in which to ground this study as it will provide insight into the participant's subjective perceptions of their lived experiences in higher education and facilitate the researcher's interpretation of these perceptions (Groenewald, 2004; Larkin, Watts & Clifton, 2006).

The interpretive facet of IPA necessitates acknowledgement of the influence of the researcher on the research process (Brocki & Wearden, 2006). Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis requires the researcher to interpret the meanings participants ascribe to their lived experiences. The researcher does this by assigning their own meanings to participant's accounts of these experiences (Shaw, 2010). These interpretations are considered subjective, as they are shaped by the researcher's subject positions and cultural, historical, social and political situatedness (Shaw, 2010). The influence of the researcher's subjectivity on the research process will be discussed in the conclusion of this

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