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The challenges of teaching and learning on the edge of academe: A qualitative case study of student and tutor participants in a first year online unit

Dodo-Balu, Andrea (2018) The challenges of teaching and learning on the edge of academe: A qualitative case study of student and tutor participants in a first year online unit. Professional Doctorate thesis, Murdoch University.

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Abstract

This case study examines the experiences of participants in a core online Humanities unit situated at the nexus of three trends salient to contemporary higher education in Australia and internationally. Widening student participation seeks to include a broader range of social backgrounds from which students commonly enter the university, and to build a more socially just and educated society. Flexible online learning is embraced by universities as a way to achieve enrolment growth and demonstrate innovativeness. Casualisation of academic teaching is fuelled by tightened government funding for universities leading to an emphasis on cost-cutting and flexible human resource practices. These three trends propel the growth of two peripheral groups in the academy; non-traditional students who study online, and casual academic staff. This study aims to increase understanding and awareness of the impact that these trends and pressures have on those who operate on the periphery of university life in the current higher education climate.

This case study involved a small number of students and tutors who had recently participated in a first year online unit, pseudonymously named ATU100 for this research. The study is situated within a qualitative/interpretivist research approach with a focus on developing deep and detailed understandings of the experiences of research participants. Qualitative research methods, including in-depth interviews, questionnaires, and document analysis were utilised within an instrumental case study framework, which is one that emphasises the “micro-macro link in social behaviour" (Gerring, 2007, p. 1) and serves to advance understanding of a wider issue. Data were analysed using a combination of processes derived from Constructivist Grounded Theory and Thematic Analysis methods. Links between the experiences of the individuals involved in the case study and ideas of social justice in relation to pressures within contemporary higher education were foregrounded throughout.

Findings are detailed and explored through three articles and suggest that while non-traditional students can experience positive and transformative learning through online study, online tutors are negatively affected by their casual status. Empowerment was an outcome of participation in the unit for the majority of the students who were involved in the study. The inclusion model of social justice, which emphasises outcomes for individuals, captures the transformative value of the opportunities that online learning provides for these students. Conversely, the tutors who participated in the study reported feelings of disempowerment. Findings from the tutor participants indicated that their experience was constrained within a marketised and competitive higher education environment where, paradoxically, teaching quality is of crucial importance yet casual teachers are marginalised and rendered invisible.

Implications of the case study show the importance of understanding and nurturing the mutually beneficial relationship between universities and non-traditional students that policies for widening student participation can foster, and of acknowledging the significant role online learning plays in providing access for these students. It is important to recognise the effectiveness of online delivery for successful students and to make this mode of delivery more visible within university spaces, along with investing in an identified resource that is highly valued by students, the teaching staff. Also important is acknowledging the integral place of casual academic teachers within the academy, and beginning discussions which problematise the dichotomy between casual and permanent academic staff and which seek to redesign the casual academic role. These implications are key to moving online students and casual academics from the edge of academe to a more central place in the academy.

Publication Type: Thesis (Professional Doctorate)
Murdoch Affiliation: School of Education
Supervisor(s): Maor, Dorit and Saunders, Rebecca
URI: http://researchrepository.murdoch.edu.au/id/eprint/44780
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