22 SES 01 A, Teaching, Learning and Assessment in Higher Education
In the last two decades, distance education has grown worldwide. Distance education at universities has grown tremendously also in Sweden and is characterized by a rising number of online courses. Accompanying this development, questions about low rates of student persistence have come to interest governments, institutions, and university management. Comparing face-to-face environment with online environment, student persistence and rate of graduation has come to be considered as a problem in distance education. Many research projects point to certain solutions for persistence in distance education, often depending on the way the question is asked. However, most research performed in the field ends up with a long to-do list and a recommendation of an overall solution integrating every step in a model. Looking beyond the national research literature, Simpson (2010) undertook a wide literature review in which he is critical of retention projects that present these long lists of recommendations without evidence of their effects, as he puts it. Critical reflections towards these lists were also frequent among the teachers taking part in the interviews and focus groups in the study presented in this article. They perceived the lists as elementary. In this study, I question what really matters by analyzing teachers’ views at one small university in Sweden in the light of a research review. What is of importance for persistence in distance education? What prerequisites are needed?
The research in this field has gone through a paradigm shift when it comes to the view of the distance student learner. Negative terms like “dropout” and “withdrawal” are history, and even “retention” is controversial. The more frequently used “persistence” is in accordance with this shift in theoretical perspective towards a constructive approach. New approaches are needed to achieve student success in distance learning, and new theories have been suggested based on evidence from studies that have confirmed increased retention or persistence. Existing models emphasizing development of learning skills and default support have to be considered. The theory of Proactive Motivational Support built on A Self Theory, Proactive Support and a theory of Strengths Approach is suggested. Embedded in these approaches is a shift from identifying weaknesses to enhancing strengths (Simpson, 2008). Tinto’s (1975) model, built on by Kember (1995) and Tresman (2002), emphasizes social and psychological factors. In this model, it is important to integrate students’ aims, needs, and perceptions of the life situation with their own priorities and to have the support of the institution, the tutor, and a certified level of course quality. It is a multi-dimensional picture that lies beyond reasons for dropping out and it has to be met by resources and strategies from the university and the tutor.
The focal issue of this article is situated in the discourse and theoretical framework that describes development in terms of a market economy with governmental steering. Universities have come to be driven like companies, striving to reach their customers (students) mostly because the number of students equates to the income provided by the state. Management principles mirrored in management terms like “excellence” are adopted in the hope of reaching efficiency and higher standards (Ball, 1997). Issues in education, however, are not solved by technics alone. Sociological theory is lost in this managerial perspective and is not in accordance with principles of management and development (cf. Ball, 1995). The market economy adopted in universities has abandoned one of the most important goals of education: the aim to build knowledge for the good society (cf. Carr, 1997). Open educational resources and distance education could play an important role in educational development in this sense throughout the world (Richter & McPherson, 2012).
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