The Dissertations at a Distance project was designed to better understand online distance learners’ and teachers’ experiences of undertaking Masters dissertations. As more Masters programmes are offered online, more students will have the experience of conducting a significant piece of independent research while at a distance from the University of Edinburgh. Student, programme and institutional success are at stake when students embark on the dissertation, and this project aimed to heighten our institutional ability to support online distance learning (ODL) students through dissertation to completion of their Masters programme, by developing our understanding of the factors involved in successful completion of dissertations at a distance. Framed around the concept of ‘success’, the project aimed to explore what supervisor, student and programme practices could be seen to align with successful dissertation outcomes for online distance learners.
Through a series of interviews with graduates from four online distance programmes at the University of Edinburgh, workshops and discussions with supervisors, and a review of programme practices, the project examined the online distance learning experience of independent research. Project activities included:
- Eighteen interviews with graduates from the four programmes involved in the research.
- Two workshops and a focus group discussion with dissertation supervisors.
- In-depth discussions with programme directors and co-ordinators, and a review of programme practices and documentation.
- Dissemination web site and events with University of Edinburgh colleagues.
- Conference presentations and academic publications.
- Development of the ‘dissertation situations’ game.
A number of findings emerged from the project:
- Online distance graduates across all four programmes reported positive experiences with independent research, supervision, support and their own development as researchers. Students particularly valued the welcome and encouragement they received from supervisors and other academic and support staff. The theme of ‘hospitality at a distance’ emerged in response to this finding.
- Where experiences with the dissertation were challenging or negative, these tended to be assumed by interviewees to relate to the online nature of the experience, rather than to common issues and concerns that many students, both on and off-campus, face. The theme of ‘campus imaginaries’ emerged in response to this finding.
- Interviews and workshops revealed that dissertation supervisors need and value opportunities to think about and understand the distinctive issues and concerns that arise for online distance students. To this end, we developed a discussion-based game for online supervisors: ‘Dissertation Situations’.
- No two programmes in the research approached the dissertation process and supervisory arrangements in exactly the same way, indicating that there are many potential models for organising the dissertation period and supporting students. We recommend a fuller mapping exercise to learn about the full range of practices across all ODL programmes, including the strengths and weaknesses of each, to give new programme teams scaffolding to support their own approaches.
- Although it was planned to analyse dissertation-related data from the four programmes involved in the research, this proved unachievable. Access to data was more difficult than anticipated due to a change in the University’s reporting software and processes, and the data itself was not easy to work with and appeared to contain errors. Student systems may need to be made aware of these difficulties so they can put mechanisms in place for programmes to be able to analyse patterns in student achievement and activity.
The project findings can help us better support ODL students both in successful completion of the dissertation, and in achieving a high quality experience of the dissertation process. In particular, we recommend that:
- A fuller mapping exercise should be undertaken to understand the full range of practices across all ODL programmes, including the strengths and weaknesses of each, to give new programme teams scaffolding to support their own approaches.
- More programmes could consider running programme-specific events like the workshops we held with supervisors. These were productive in terms of generating shared understandings of supervision challenges and practices, considering student experiences on the dissertation, and identifying areas where programme directors may want to clarify or refine processes.
- Online distance programmes should look for more ways to engage with students about their expectations of conducting independent research.
Help and guidance should be provided for programme teams to understand what student systems data might be able to offer, and how to access this.
Key themes that emerged from the project data were:
Hospitality at a distance. A recurrent theme of ‘connection and disconnection’ emerged from our analysis of interviews. This theme is considered in relation to student accounts of positive experiences of support and continuity in supervisory relationships, juxtaposed with reports of disconnection and isolation during the dissertation process; experiences which were often accepted by graduates as an inevitable part of working on an independent research project. Building on Ruitenberg’s (2011) work on ‘an ethic of hospitality’, we understand these experiences within the theoretical framework of ‘hospitality at a distance’. ‘Hospitality at a distance’ is a useful framework in the context of distance education supervision, where home and host, the ‘at-home’, might be contested, and where we might need to rethink what it is to, ‘leave space for those students and those ideas that may arrive’ (Ruitenberg 2011 p.33) from beyond the campus. Achieving ‘success’ in dissertations at a distance may involve accepting the instability of relations between student and supervisor, that are marked not only by power dynamics, expectations, and performances of student and teacher identities (as all supervisory relationships are), but also by the varied and shifting conceptions of home, welcome, and ‘belonging’ that accompany the distanced encounter.
Campus imaginaries. Our interviews exposed a number of ‘counterfactuals’ or ‘if only’ statements that identified difficulties or challenges in the dissertation process and attributed these to being an online distance student, while simultaneously constructing ‘campus imaginaries’ in which these difficulties would either not have arisen or would have been resolved by being physically located on campus. Taylor (2004) describes the social imaginary ‘not [as] a set of ideas; rather it is what enables, through making sense of, the practices of a society’ (p.2). The campus imaginary can be counterproductive to students as they grapple with what are actually relatively common experiences and challenges encountered during periods of independent research: unexpected obstacles; issues with motivation; supervisory relationships; time and space to focus; isolation and doubt. If students assume these issues are related to their mode of study, they may be less likely to seek help or advice or to try to address these, thereby missing opportunities for development and support.
These themes are being further explored in conference presentations and journal articles.
 Ruitenberg, C.W., 2011. The Empty Chair: Education in an Ethic of Hospitality. Philosophy of Education Archive, pp.28–36.
 Taylor, C., 2004. Modern Social Imaginaries. Duke University Press.