Impact of Distance Education on Part time Learners

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Part-time study has been on the rise for quite some time, as professionals strive to improve their skillset in an increasingly competitive job market. For many postgraduate students, it is the only option, as work and personal commitments make it impossible to take off time to undertake fulltime courses, and in particular, when upgrading academic qualifications is an industrial norm or necessity.  For such students, distance education frequently represents a workable compromise between personal ,professional and academic life, as evidenced by the rising number of students enrolled in such programs all over the world (Lau, 2000). The number of academic institutions offering such part-time distance learning options has also grown both numerically and in terms of acceptance in employment circles (Lau, 2000). However, part-time study , by its very nature differing from full time studies, and by the profile of its students (i.e. generally with families of their own, or other dependants, and/or full-time work (Valenti and Leo, 2004)) has its specific concerns and considerations for those who embark upon them. It is these concerns that this study aims to address.

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Part-time graduate study is a topic of considerable relevance for educationists and researchers, particularly those undertaking such courses themselves. Thus, for part-time doctoral students (including myself) it was determined to be a suitable area for investigation, in a research methods module that aims to refine the students' qualitative research skills, amongst others. This paper is based on a qualitative interview-based study I conducted in response to this requirement, and details both the process and experience of doing so, as well as the implications for policy and future graduate students, thus derived.

Methodology

Research Method

A qualitative method (in this case, one rooted in 'grounded theory') was deemed the most appropriate for analyzing the type of data that would be pertinent to the objective of the study. Since the study aims to explore opinions of postgraduate part-time students on their experiences with their chosen courses, an interview technique was considered the best way to obtain a rich and detailed material regarding the topic (Hague, 1987).

The qualitative methodology used is based on the work of Glaser and Strauss, who developed the inductive data analysis technique known as grounded theory in the 1960's (Allan, 2003). Grounded theory differs in many ways from traditional research designs, which start with a literature review to generate a hypothesis and consequently rely on the data collected to prove or disprove it. However , in this method, the focus is on gathering data from real-world situations, which are assessed and analyzed without any 'preconceived hypothesis' (Glaser and Strauss, 1967). Thus, the data itself leads to the 'emergence' of a theory once relationships between the various codes, categories and concepts identified in the data have been noted. Most grounded-theory analysis is conducted almost exclusively on interviews (Allan, 2003) so it is an appropriate methodological framework for this study.

Grounded theory itself has been divided into schools of thought, the two dominant approaches resulting from the Strauss-Glaserian rift. Strauss , in his 1998 work with Corbin published coding guidelines which are build upon a model of micro-analysis, in which each line of the text is assessed and coded word-by-word. (Strauss and Corbin, 1998). This evoked criticism from Glaser , which was felt to summarize the problems faced by the researchers attempting to apply the approach at the time ( i.e. there was a 'data overload' , confusion and a risk of losing sight of what material was of value to the objective of the study). Glaser advocated identifying of key points rather than the line-by-line micro-coding, and I have elected to use this version of the grounded theory model as I feel it will be more relevant to my purpose, and keep me focused on the parts of the transcribed interviews that are significant. As a beginner in qualitative analysis, it also appears to be a much more manageable alternative. The key-points approach is in line with established approaches to coding analysis (Miles and Huberman, 1984), thus I have coded (labeled) those portions of the interviews which I deemed as having a bearing on the research questions I began with. Any interesting concepts that appeared along the way were included in the coding categories as well, thus, I went in with an 'open mind' in the true spirit of grounded theory analysis, having but a loose exploratory orientation, and allowing the information gleaned from each interview to inform my understanding and approach towards comparative analysis of the same.

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Data Collection

The data used in the study comes from interviews I conducted face-to-face, and in privacy, with three part-time postgraduate students pursuing a doctoral qualification through distance learning, in addition to working full-time in the higher education sector. The sample is convenience-based, as I selected three people whom I knew to be currently engaged in part-time postgraduate education. They were accessible, felt comfortable communicating with me and were willing to participate in the study, when approached, and this served my purpose in an efficient manner. All of the interviews were carried out within a short space of time from each other and in a quiet, comfortable room, at the college campus, free from interruptions. They were all recorded and later transcribed. An assistant checked the transcripts, independently, for errors. The participants were asked to verify the final transcripts and acknowledge them as a representation of their own opinions by signing an acceptance form. Prior to the commencement of the interviews, a formal consent form detailing confidentiality agreements (in which the researcher guaranteed that their real names would not be revealed, an d that the data would only be used for the purpose for which it is intended) had also been signed by the participants. Thus, key ethical concerns regarding confidentiality and data manipulation , usage and distribution were both discussed and agreed upon. No breach has thus far occurred, and in keeping with the agreement, I will be using pseudonyms for the participants.

As all the interviews were conducted by the same person (myself), it may be expected that interviewer-bias (if any) remained constant, and that the responses are free from the influence of specific stimuli associated with different interviewers. The interview itself comprised a serious of open-ended questions, based loosely around the themes of the motivations and challenges of post-graduate part-time study. Although I directed the interview towards these areas , the participants were allowed to speak at length, developing their own themes, putting forth a number of other concepts I had not previously thought of, and providing, therefore, a rich and detailed base for my analysis.

Analysis and Findings

Once I had the verified and complete transcripts from the three interviews, I first read through them cursorily to refine my understanding of what the dominant themes were. My working research questions had been "What motivated the subjects to pursue part-time postgraduate study? What are the challenges and rewards?" All three transcripts showed some recurring themes with regards to each, and I was able to identify broadly which areas pertained to which category. Through key-point coding, I began to label key phrases and sentences that were linked to each major area of initial interest : 'motivations', 'challenges', 'rewards' . I developed codes in the margins of all the interviews, and simultaneously wrote 'memos' at the bottom, as short notes to myself regarding the nature and development of possible links I saw emerging. Throughout the coding process, I kept refining the definition of each category, and through comparison both within the same interview and between interviews, was able to identify three additional categories of importance: 'coping strategies', 'support' and 'advice'. Glaser does not prescribe a specific mechanism or method to do the coding, and in fact recommends that, when unsure of the process, the researcher should simply analyze what is before him and write what he 'sees' (Glaser, 1978). Thus, focusing on key points and working towards what the theorists describe as saturation of the concepts I had identified, I felt that by the end of the process, I had made note of all the instances in which the categories I had identified were spoken of.

Personal research interests also figure as a prominent motivator, with John going so far as to say that he was unsure of what to do after being accepted into a doctoral program , because he had not then worked out his area of interest, and was not therefore sufficiently driven to commence. The emphasis on research interest is important as it appears to serve as a motivation for continuing the program even when the subjects reported experiencing doubt and difficulty (Sarah and John). The end of the course-based work and the beginning of research into an area of interest was motivating enough to give John "a second wind" and a new sense of enthusiasm. Therefore, the opportunity to work on a familiar and interesting topic of their choice as their project can be said to have helped Sarah and John push through.

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Courses with which the subjects were unfamiliar, in fact, posed some of the biggest challenges to Sarah and Ben, making Sarah question the validity of her decision ("am I in the right place?") However, Sarah goes on to acknowledge that the previously unfamiliar material has given her a considerable appreciation for a multi-disciplinary perspective and counts this as an advantage of the study, overall.

However, other prominent challenges include striking a balance between education and family (Sarah, in particular expressed concern, and even guilt for not being able to pay as much attention to her children as before), education and other work (John) and managing time overall. All the students felt that they were at a disadvantage studying in the UAE as they did not have access to the same type of libraries as their campus-based or western counterparts. However, there was some support to help them through these challenges, including both support from spouses and children. However, Ben was the only one who any had positive comments for academic support from his supervisors-Sarah and John expressed their disappointment equally ("I spend one month sometimes to get a reply from a professor"-Sarah). To deal with these challenges, all three had pet coping strategies, including greater self-reliance (even if fostered by a lack of alternative support) and lowering expectations for support. The two appear to be interconnected. When solicited for advice, all three participants stressed an aspect of the program that had been particularly motivating or particularly trying for them. While almost all three spoke of different aspects, John and Sarah concurred in their opinion that university ranking and standard must be investigated (possibly due to their negative experiences with academic support at the institutions in which they are enrolled). Ben , who enjoys self-study, stresses the right fit of learning mode. As for the rewards, all are unanimous in acknowledging the development of their critical thinking skills. The degree itself and the development of useful professional skills or knowledge were also ranked high in the list of anticipated positive outcomes.

After coding, I was able to generate some ideas and possibly point to the emergence of theory by working out how these factors affected each other, and whether the impact was one-sided or dual. In the preceding table, I have indicated interrelationships between the various categories. I have identified these roles through a careful consideration of how these concepts might be linked. For example, motivation to take up such study is obviously linked to expected rewards, and the nature of rewards themselves might become more expansive as a result of increasing motivation (to the extent where one appreciates even the increased discipline that the course has forced him to cultivate). Motivation to complete the study is also directly affected by the challenges it entails, and vice versa. The type of challenges being faced also directs the course of coping strategies adopted, and these in turn, affect the challenging aspects by resolving or making them more manageable. The level of support available, similarly, has a dual relationship with challenges of part-time postgraduate study, as increased support could reduce the number of problems, while if the problems are allowed to spiral out of control, they may severely tax any sources of support that do exist. Any advice that the subjects now choose to give is in essence a reflection of their 'lessons learned' and can be expected to be based on the problems they faced (challenges) and the ways in which they dealt with them (coping strategies).

The theory at this point appears to be based on the fact that research interest is a necessary requirement for not only entering part-time postgraduate study, but also to persevere with it, as it is a drive for the original research that may help sustain a candidate through the more challenging times. The professional opportunities provided by a doctorate also serve as an important motivator for undertaking such a course, and it may therefore be concluded that in higher education circles, a doctorate is considered the passport to greater success. It also appears that having family support (most significantly, in the form of a cooperative and encouraging spouse) is essential in helping manage all the conflicting demands placed on the time of part-time students who are not only parents, but also in full-time employment. It can also be seen that most of the challenges listed by the participants have also been dealt with in one way or another, and an outcome of doing so for each of them has been the development of some personal skill which they previously lacked (scheduling, organization, greater self-reliance).Therefore, the program can be seen to have affected the subjects in more ways than just professionally and academically-it may have implications for long-term habit formation. Even Ben, who was satisfied with the level of support from his academic instructors, felt that depending on one's self was the key to success. Also, the point he raised about the mode of education being appropriate for one's personality type is significant as much can be said about the nature of such part-time distance learning programs based on this. One thing that is clear, however, is that based on the findings, it seems that such programs are not for everybody and are a matter of serious consideration and long-term dedication and a commitment to the purpose, not only on the part of the researcher, but also (because of its demands on the student's time) his/her family members.

Conclusion and Limitations

The study has been a most valuable learning experience, in that assessment of limited but content-rich interviews has provided more substantive evidence of real-world themes and dilemmas than I could have garnered from a simple literature review or survey. Also, since the topic is so very close to home, it was of a particular interest to me, and I enjoyed sharing the post-graduate study experiences of fellow part-time students.

The study suffers from a few limitations , including some of the criticism against the general nature of grounded theory as a data analysis tool itself (Allan, 2003). In addition, the sample was necessarily small, and all working at the same college, and pursuing doctorates in the same subject.

Recommendations

From an institutional policy maker's point of view, it is important for higher education employers to understand the stresses associated with completing a higher qualification while working full-time, and while these qualifications are valued, their acquisition should also be facilitated. Academics completing such a qualification should be granted approved leaves (as per their request) or should have other time-management or assistance arrangements made in accordance with their degree requirements, to limit fatigue and frustration. Scope for further research exists particularly in the realm of coping strategies and how to reduce the psycho-social burden associated with taking up such a course of studies.