In their own words: Student stories of seeking learning support

Mark Brown, Helen Hughes, Mike Keppell, Natasha Hard, Liz Smith


Many Open and Distance Learning (ODL) providers report that their students are prone to lower rates of retention and completion than campus-based students. Against this background, there is growing interest around distance-specific learning support. The current research investigated the experiences of students during their first semester as distance learners at Massey University in New Zealand. The overarching methodology was Design-Based Research, within which phenomenological data gathering methods were used to study the experiences of twenty participants from their own point of view. Using video cameras, over twentytwo hours of self-reflections were gathered between July and November 2011 using a technique adapted from previous studies. A grounded theory approach was applied to the process of thematic data analysis. Results revealed how participants varied in their engagement with learning supports, including orientation events, outreach activity, cultural services, learning consultants, library services, fellow students, lecturers, residential courses, and other people. The discussion reflects on clusters of participants who utilised learning supports effectively, moderately and barely. The paper concludes by summarizing how the current research has had an impact on the design of learning support services at one of the world’s leading providers of distance education.


distance learning, study support, phenomenology, impact

Full Text:



Allen, E. & Seaman, J. (2013). Changing course: Ten years of tracking online education in the United States. Wellesley MA: Babson Survey Research Group.

Anderson, T. & Shattuck, J. (2012). Design-Based Research A Decade of Progress in Education Research? Educational Researcher, 41(1), 16–25.

Anderson, B., Lee, S. W., Simpson, M. G. & Stein, S. J. (2011). Study orchestrations in distance learning: Identifying dissonance and its implications for distance educators. The International

Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 12(5), 1–17. Retrieved from

Appana, S. (2008). A review of benefits and limitations of online learning in the context of the student, the instructor, and the tenured faculty. International Journal on E-Learning, 7(1), 5–22.

Retrieved from

Baxter, J. (2012). Who am I and what keeps me going? Profiling the distance learning student in higher education. The International Review of Research In Open and Distance Learning, 13(4), 107–129. Retrieved from

Braun, V. & Clarke, V. (2006). Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 3(2), 77–101.

Cashmore, A., Green, P. & Scott, J. (2010). An ethnographic approach to studying the student experience: The student perspective through free form video diaries. A Practice Report. The International Journal of the First Year in Higher Education, 1(1), 106–111. Retrieved from

Complete College America. (2011). Time is the Enemy.

Department of Employment, Education and Workplace Relations. (2010). Higher education statistics. All students. Canberra, Australia: Author.

Deloitte. (2011). Making the grade 2011.

Entwistle, N., Tait, H. & McCune, V. (2000). Patterns of response to an Approaches to Studying Inventory across contrasting groups and contexts. European Journal of Psychology of

Education, 15(1), 33–48.

Guri-Rosenblit, S. (2010). Digital technologies in higher education: Sweeping expectations and actual effects. New York, NY: Nova Science.

Guri-Rosenblit, S. (2012). Open/Distance Teaching Universities Worldwide: Current Challenges and Future Prospects. Magazyn edukacji elektronicznej, 2(4), 4–12.

Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). (2009). Part-time first degree study: Entry and completion.

Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). (2013).

Higher education in England: Impact of the 2012 reforms.

Heyman, E. (2010). Overcoming student retention issues in higher education online programs. Online Journal of Distance Education Learning Administration, 13(4). Retrieved from

Jones, B. (2010). An examination of motivation model components in face-to-face and online instruction. Electronic Journal of Research in Educational Psychology, 8(3), 915–944.

Jones, C., Ramanau, R., Cross, S. & Healing, G. (2010). Net generation or digital natives: Is there a distinct new generation entering university? Computers and Education, 54(3), 722–732.

Kift, S. (2009). Articulating a transition pedagogy to scaffold and to enhance the first year student learning experience in Australian higher education: Final Report for ALTC Fellowship Programme. Sydney, Australia: ALTC Resources.

Ministry of Education. (2010). Provider-based enrolments. Education Counts, New Zealand.

OECD. (2012). Education at a glance 2012: OECD indicators, OECD Publishing.

Online Learning Task Force. (2011). Collaborate to compete: Seizing the opportunity of online learning for UK higher education. Report to HEFCE by the Online Learning Taskforce, January 2011.

Poskitt, J., Rees, M., Suddaby, G. & Radloff, A. (2011). Engaging with university at a distance: The differences in levels of student engagement among extramural and campus-based students.

In A. Radolf (Ed.), Student engagement in New Zealand’s universities (pp. 70–76).

Reeves, T. (2006). Design research from the technology perspective. In J. Akker, K. Gravemeijer, S. McKenney, & N. Nieveen (Eds.), Educational design research (pp. 86–109). London: Routledge.

Riddle, M. & Arnold, M. (2007). The day experience method: A resource kit. Retrieved from

Russo-Gleicher, R. R. J. (2013). Qualitative insights into faculty use of student support services with online students at risk: Implications for student retention. Journal of Educators Online, 10(1), 58–90. Retrieved from

Shillington, S., Brown, M., MacKay, A., Paewai, S., Suddaby, G. & White, F. (2012). Avoiding the goulash: Closing gaps and bridging distances. Open Learning: Journal of Open, Distance and eLearning, 27(1), 65–80.

Simonson, M., Schlosser, C. & Orellana, A. (2011). Distance education research: A review of the literature. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 23, 124–142.

Simpson. O. (2009). A formula for retention? Presentation.

Liyanagunawardena, T., Adams, A. & Williams, S. (2013). MOOCs: A Systematic Study of the Published Literature 2008–2012. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 14(3), 202–227. Retrieved from

Veenstra, C. P. (2009). A strategy for improving freshman college retention. Journal for Quality and Participation, 31(4), 19–23.

Waldrop, M. (2013, March). Campus 2.0. Nature, 495, 160–163.



  • There are currently no refbacks.