A juggling act: exploring student narratives of learning online

Farrell, Orna (2019) A juggling act: exploring student narratives of learning online.


This paper reports on a qualitative case study set in Dublin City University which explored student experiences of studying online. The project adopted a case study approach, following twenty-four online students over one academic year. The setting for the study was an undergraduate sociology module on the BA (Hons) in Humanities, an online programme delivered through DCU Connected at Dublin City University (DCU). Following an open and distance learning philosophy, DCU Connected aims to afford educational opportunities to adult students.

The research question for the study was: How do online students construct their narratives about learning online? Data was collected from participant generated learning portfolios and semi structured interviews. Two instruments were developed: a learning portfolio instrument and an interview schedule. Participants were interviewed with their learning portfolios, which were used as stimulus during the interviews.

A circular model of data collection and analysis was followed and data analysis was an ongoing and iterative process. The analysis followed a data-led thematic analysis approach based on Braun & Clarke’s (2006) six phases and comprised of several cycles of coding, theme generation, refining and reviewing themes. Through this analysis process five themes were constructed with reference to the research questions, literature and theoretical framework. The findings were constructed into five themes: motivation, peer community, module supports, studying while balancing life commitments and my approach to learning.

Findings indicate being a successful online student was impacted by the challenge of lifeload issues such as balancing competing demands of family, work and illness. In addition, the findings suggest that the learning portfolio gave online students a personal space to evaluate their own learning, to process their thoughts and experiences and to document their lives and learning in an authentic and meaningful way. Online students’ learning portfolio gave a unique window into their learning experiences where they documented the development of their highly personal approaches to studying. Another important finding was that participants placed a high value on the peer communities they formed.

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