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Posted by on Oct 25, 2012

AoIR Conference Presentation on Edinspace: the geographies of education on the internet

We (as in the other team members as I managed to get lost on the way to the conference center) presented our Edinspace project at the recent Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR) Conference in Salford, UK. The presentation dealt with the geographies of online learning, how learners situated themselves in reference to the university, and more. This was the result of a year long project at the University of Edinburgh’s MSc in Elearning team, full of data collection, coding, analysis, etc. And a chance to interact with some of my favorite people on this earth. The presentation itself is below and I provided the conference abstract below that for reference. More information about the project itself can be found on the Edinspace site itself.

Online distance learning in higher education is growing internationally, with many institutions providing programmes in this mode (White et al 2010), funding bodies encouraging further growth in its provision (Brindley 2011), and institutions investing in order significantly to grow their numbers of off campus students (for example the University of Edinburgh is investing £4.5 million over five years in new online distance programmes).

This distance education is sometimes described as place-less or border-less (Latchem 2005). However we know that the spatialities of online education are far more complex than such analyses imply. In this paper, we will draw on theories of spatiality which emphasise that educational practices do not take place either ‘within’ or ‘outside’ a space, but rather consist of a range of practices which themselves produce what we understand to be the educational ‘space’ (Fenwick, Edwards and Sawchuk 2011). In providing an analysis of what this means for online distance students, we will report on a research project which has used narrative, visual and mapping methods to explore with distance students the question of what it means to be ‘at’ University when they are not ‘in’ the University.

This research took place within a group of 150 students, spread across 35 countries, studying on a fully online programme at the University of Edinburgh. These are students who never visit the physical campus. Drawing on the ethnographic trope of the ‘arrival story’, we used narrative methods within a series of online interviews to explore with students the tales of their own ‘arrival’ at Edinburgh at the start of their studies. The notion of ‘arrival’ was used in this context deliberately to problematise the association of study with a fixed academic geography. Narrative methods have been little used in research into online education (Friesen 2008), yet the capacity for an arrival story to capture an intense moment as the familiar ‘place of home’ is brought intimately alongside the unfamiliar ‘place of study’ has proven to be richly generative for this project.

Alongside the interviews, we asked students to provide visual data in the form of an image which encapsulated something of their arrival narrative. This form of ‘respondent-generated’ visual data (Prosser and Loxley 2008) has been an attempt to work with the broader ‘iconic turn’ in higher education practice (Kress 2005, Jewitt 2005). We also asked students to submit digital ‘postcards’ which showed their study spaces, using these to make a map of course geographies and perspectives. The postcards are visual, in the form of an image of the student’s study spaces, and auditory in that they embed short clips of the soundscapes of the student’s study environments, in an attempt to work against the tendency among internet scholars to privilege image over sound (Sterne 2006).

We will report on themes emerging from the research, including what it means to have a sense of ‘home’ in an educational context, what it means to be ‘nomadic’ as a student, and what it means to experience ‘campus envy’. We will argue against the tendency within higher education to assume a ‘sendentarist’ view which ‘treats as normal stability, meaning, and place, and treats as abnormal distance, change and placelessness’ (Sheller and Urry 2006). In presenting the findings of our project, we will argue for a more nuanced theorisation of academic geographies, one which takes account of the ‘mobilities and moorings’ (Fenwick, Edwards and Sawchuk 2011) enacted within online distance education.

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