The rise in popularity of distance education programmes, taught through web-based media, belies the difficulty in preparing, delivering and studying on such programmes. Preparing and providing quality material and a rich learning experience are key challenges. The physical and temporal separation of tutor and student, and between students themselves, can lead to feelings of isolation. The lack of interaction and discussion between students on non-cohort based courses lessens the richness of the learning experience and omits a significant element of the constructivist approach to learning. In order to provide maximum flexibility for students to study at a time, pace and subject issue of their choosing, the University of the West of England’s (UWE) MA Spatial Planning programme is delivered entirely online at a distance and asynchronously.
This research investigates this pedagogic problem through examining the experiences of distance learning students at UWE, exploring issues and barriers to collaborative study, and exploring student isolation. Recommendations are generated for building a learning community on a non-cohort asynchronous programme of study. These include: providing service level agreements to clarify expectations; designating ‘staging points’ to encourage and motivate; developing student generated content as footprints ‘buried’ in the material; humanising the material; and introducing mechanisms to provide students with their peer’s thoughts/views on course material.