Time and the Working Online Learner

Time and the Working Online Learner

Bill McNeill (The College of Estate Management, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-4651-3.ch002
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This chapter explores the issues surrounding the time use of the internationally located postgraduate distance learner who combines study with a home life and employment. It considers the nature of these students as distinct from other students within higher education and the factors that combine to have an impact on their available time for study. Researching time is challenging, and this chapter considers the techniques used in time use studies to build a holistic view of students’ choices regarding the duration and timing of their everyday activities. These techniques are applied in an investigation of a cohort of students to reveal evidence of their daily time use and decision making that have an impact on effective course design. It summarises apparent trends in time use and pays particular attention to students’ use of technology and their engagement with online activities. Throughout, the chapter emphasises time as the critical factor in the successful delivery of contemporary online studies.
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1. Introduction

Time is a critical factor for distance learners combining study with full-time employment and busy social lives. A study of their retention (McNeill, 2007) found that lack of time is the main factor responsible for working students dropping out, but that time is a complex issue with many dimensions which combine to cause pressures and constraints, particularly for working students.

Pressure from lack of time not only affects distance learners who work part-time, but also full-time students who are increasingly taking paid employment to offset the higher financial demands imposed by tougher government funding policies. At the same time many higher education institutions are turning to online delivery and support for some, if not all, of their provision. Consequently, across the higher education sector, a shortage of time has increasingly become recognised as an issue, as the proportion of working students has grown and the uptake of virtual learning by conventional institutions has increased.

As a result, the time issue is not whether a student is studying full- or part-time but whether they are working full- or part-time. This chapter explores those factors that influence the time use of working students and how the scarcity of time has an impact on their ability to study online at distance. It explores the factors and issues by considering a cohort of postgraduate students who come from diverse backgrounds, in respect of age, gender, ethnicity and location. The only requirement for entry on to their course was a prior degree qualification and competence in English, as the language of instruction. Otherwise, the students came from all sectors of the real estate and construction industry and from most regions of the world. They were employed as office support staff, trainee practitioners or qualified professionals, and consequently came from all levels of their organisations. Their work experience varied between short and long and their academic experience was minimal or extensive. Most worked in their country of birth but many were working as expatriates.

This chapter is structured in six sections. The remainder of this section introduces the space-time dimension experienced by distance and online learners. It considers the dilemma that exists for conventional higher education in setting policy regarding time and workload, and concludes by considering what differentiates between the full-time and part-time student. Section 2 continues this by identifying the time issues that distinguish working students from other more traditional learners, and looks at the importance to them of time budgeting. Section 3 considers the challenges in researching the use of time and the central role that diaries play. It examines the problems that exist for analysing time data and the solutions found within time use research practice. Section 4 explores what the research of this cohort of students tells us about the daily life of the working student and their use of technology. Drilling deeper, Section 5 looks in closer detail at what the research results tell us about how working students make decisions about their time use, and identifies trends that appear within the data. Finally, Section 6 examines the online participation of these students for lessons which can be learnt from their engagement with a selection of online activities.

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