New paper from the project: the campus imaginary

The ‘campus imaginary’: online students’ experience of the masters dissertation at a distance
Higher education research has overlooked online distance Masters students’ experiences of independent research, and this is an important gap at a time when increasing numbers of taught postgraduate programmes are delivered online. This article discusses findings from interviews with eighteen graduates from four online Masters programmes. It introduces a key theme from the research: the concept of the ‘campus imaginary’, which emerged during analysis as a way of accounting for interviewees’ tendencies to attribute challenging experiences to being at a distance from their supervisors, peers and the university campus. Common issues for Masters students, such as unexpected obstacles, difficult supervisory relationships, lack of time, and feelings of isolation were interpreted by students as features of the online dissertation process. We argue that the over-privileging of the campus and the face-to-face experience affects students’ campus imaginaries, but that imaginaries also leave space for more productive ways of engaging with online students at the independent research stage.

Ross, J., & Sheail, P. (2017). The ‘campus imaginary’: online students’ experience of the masters dissertation at a distance. Teaching in Higher Education, 0(0), 1–16.

Introducing ‘Dissertation Situations’ – a discussion-based game for online supervisors

2016-02-02 17.11.16‘Dissertation Situations’ is a scenario-based board game designed for academic staff who supervise or will be supervising online distance masters students. It aims to provide opportunities for discussing the potential situations and challenges a student may face in the dissertation process, and for exploring a range of responses to these situations. The game situations are drawn from data generated during the Dissertations at a Distance project at the University of Edinburgh in 2015-16.

The game can be played with 2-4 players, but works best with at least three. Players can pair up if there are more than four in a group.

The game was played for the first time at an academic development workshop in February 2016, where online supervisors from across the University gathered together to discuss supervision at a distance. The feedback from the game was extremely positive, with participants generating a lot of new suggestions, for an online version, a student-facing version, and ways of using it to generate resources and other discussion spaces for supervisors.





Here’s how the game works:

Goals: Each player’s goal is to help their student get from dissertation enrolment day to graduation day. The player whose student arrives at graduation day first, wins.


Rules: Each player begins with their playing piece (representing a student) at the ‘enrol’ position that matches the colour of their piece. Players also each receive two ‘resource’ cards. At each player’s turn, one dice is rolled. The active player moves their piece ahead the number of squares indicated on the dice.

situation cardSituations: When a player (Player A) lands on a blank square, they draw a situation card, and read this out loud to the other players. Each situation card describes an aspect of the online dissertation experience that a student or supervisor might encounter. Once all the players have heard the situation, a timer is set for 3 minutes, during which time Player A can discuss their response to the situation, and other players can ask questions or offer suggestions. Once the 3 minutes are up, it’s the next player’s turn (Player B). Some situation cards are blank/wild cards. The player who draws one of these can either share a situation of their own or ask another player to share a situation. This is then discussed as above, with the timer set for 3 minutes.

screenshot_390Events: There are several ‘event’ squares on the board. A player who lands on an event square draws an event card. An event card describes an incident that will require the player to move backwards or forwards, or to skip a turn. Take the action required, or use a resource card to cancel the event.

Resource Cards: A resource card, if applied to a relevant event, can cancel out a skipped turn or backwards move. Relevance is decided by a vote from the other players. A tie goes in favour of the player.

Game ending: The game can end when someone reaches graduation day. Time permitting, players can alternatively continue to play until everyone reaches graduation.

Optional extra: If workshop organisers want to add an extra dimension to the game, they can create small ‘prizes’ (in the form of chocolate or something else) – each player starts with one or more prizes that they can choose to award to other players at any time during the game, on the basis of interesting stories, insights or suggestions.

How to get the game? There are up to ten copies of the game available to borrow, free of charge. Contact if you’d like to borrow copies of the game!

Credits: With thanks to our graphic designer – Sigrid Schmeisser, and the Principal’s Teaching Award Scheme at the University of Edinburgh for funding the ‘dissertations at a distance’ project.

‘Dissertation Situations’ – a discussion-based game for online supervisors

We’re proud to say that our game for online supervisors is complete! ‘Dissertation Situations’ will be tried for the first time at the Supervising at a distance: understanding the ODL dissertation experience workshop at the University of Edinburgh on Wednesday.

‘Dissertation Situations’ is a scenario-based board game designed for academic staff who supervise or will be supervising online distance masters students. It aims to provide opportunities for discussing the potential situations and challenges a student may face in the dissertation process, and for exploring a range of responses to these situations. The game can be played with 2-4 players.

The game situations are drawn from data generated during the Dissertations at a Distance project.

There are up to ten copies of the game available to borrow, free of charge. Contact if you’d like to borrow copies of the game!

2016-02-02 17.11.16

Project outputs and dissemination plans

The project has formally drawn to a close, and we are working on a number of dissemination activities and outputs, including:

9-11 December 2015: Campus imaginaries and dissertations at a distance (Jen Ross & Phil Sheail). Society for Research into Higher Education Conference, Wales, 9-11 December 2015.

The topic of this paper emerged from an analysis of interview data from a research project investigating postgraduate student experiences of undertaking independent research at a distance. These interviews exposed a number of ‘counterfactuals’; ‘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). Taking this definition as a starting point, can the campus imaginary be seen to enable the university, and if so, how? How should the existence of a campus imaginary shape our thinking about how we support online Masters students and supervisors?

10 February 2016: Online Distance Supervisor workshop, University of Edinburgh. At this workshop, we’ll be introducing the main findings from the project, and trying out one of our outputs: a board game for supervisors! More info on this coming soon. This photo is of some of our very kind colleagues on the Digital Education team playing a very early prototype…

2015-09-30 14.48.45

May 2016: ‘Hospitality at a distance’: supervisory practices and student experiences of supervision in online Masters dissertations. (Phil Sheail & Jen Ross). Networked Learning 2016.

In this paper, we focus on the recurrent themes of connection and disconnection which emerged from our analysis of interviews with recent dissertation students. These themes are considered in relation to student accounts of positive experiences of support and continuity in supervisory relationships, juxtaposed with other reports of disconnection and isolation during the dissertation process, which were often accepted as an inevitable part of the experience of working on an independent research project. Building on Ruitenberg’s (2011) work on ‘an ethic of hospitality’ in education, we explore 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 rethink what it is to ‘leave space for those students and those ideas that may arrive’ (Ruitenberg 2011) from beyond the campus. We suggest that 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 and welcome that accompany the distanced encounter.

February update

We’ve now interviewed 17 graduates from across the four programmes, in locations all over the world, and their insights about the dissertation experience have been fascinating. We’re beginning to analyse this data and search for cross-cutting themes and ideas. Ultimately our goal is to produce a resource for other students conducting research at a distance from their institutions, but we are also feeding findings from this stage into a series of workshops with supervisors in March and April. Those workshops will get the supervisor perspective on the issues involved in dissertations at a distance.

We’re working on snapshots of each of the programmes, too, with help from the programme directors on the project team. It is striking how different programmes handle the dissertation process quite differently – including issues such as timescales, selection of supervisors, structures for peer support and networking, and more.

Finally, we had help from a fantastic colleague in Student Systems, who’s worked with the data reporting system ‘BIS’ to deliver the raw data we can use look for possible patterns in the quantitative data of graduates from the four programmes. We aren’t yet sure exactly what we may find here – but will be looking at things such as relationship between taught course and dissertation marks, trajectories and timescales, and so on. There may be nothing to see, which would of course be interesting in its own right.

The other thing that’s emerging at the moment is the development of systems for supporting distance PhDs at the University. This continues to be discussed, and we hope that some of our project findings may helpfully contribute to those conversations.

the project begins… some early questions

The Dissertations at a Distance project formally began on 1 October. We’ve received ethical approval for the research, and have met once as a project team. Phil & I also met last week to plan first steps, which includes a programme of reading and discussion that I’m especially looking forward to.

Some questions that have emerged from our preliminary discussions, and which we want to explore further:

  • What does it mean to have a teacher, and be a teacher, in the context of dissertations at a distance? How do supervisors and students consider issues such as trust, guidance, and support?
  • What significance does the materiality of the teacher, the campus, and the university hold for students at this stage of their studies?
  • How do students experience working independently as similar to or different from other parts of their programme? For example, is isolation a factor, and in what ways?
  • What dimensions of time (for example disrupted time, quality time, sustained time) are experienced as important by online distance students at dissertation stage?
  • What creates stability during the dissertation process, and what creates disruption?
  • How do people feel about their dissertation experience, looking back?
  • What is the nature of the dissertation? Is it a process, a product, a performance?