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‘Finding an appropriate fit for me’: examining the (in)flexibilities of international distance learning

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The concept of ‘flexibility’ lies at the heart of contemporary post-compulsory education. Educational institutions are now expected to take a flexible approach to their provision of courses, as well as staffing, curriculum and assessment arrangements. Similarly, individual learners are expected to take an increasingly pragmatic, adaptable and reflexive approach to their studies. While a number of academic critiques have focused on the implications of these shifts from the point of view of educational institutions and those who work within them, less attention has been paid to how individual learners encounter and act upon the presumed flexibilities of their educational engagement. This paper examines how notions of flexibility were present within the individual ‘learner experience’ of a varied sample of distance learners (n=60) from around the world, all taking UK-provided degree courses. Drawing on in-depth interview data, the paper highlights a set of recurring tensions between individual agency and social structure that appear to underpin the distance learner experience. In particular, the paper discusses how most learners managed to sustain only a limited ‘strategic flexibility’ towards their learning—especially in terms of negotiating issues of time, space, place and existing familial and employment roles. Moreover, the extent to which individuals were able to ‘conduct’ the nature of their studies appears to be influenced significantly by gender, lifestage and employment/occupational status. The paper therefore concludes by discussing the need to adjust academic and policy assumptions of the ‘freedoms’ of globalised distance education.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Institute of Education, University of London, UK

Publication date: 2011-06-01

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