The academic journeys of returning postgraduate students: perceptions of appropriate educational provision for their web-based learning

Angove, Nancy Christine
Strauss, Pat
Crothers, Charles
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Doctor of Philosophy
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Auckland University of Technology

This thesis makes an original contribution to research into the challenges facing mature postgraduate students returning to web-based study. The distinct challenges this cohort faces distinguish it from other student groups, but little research has been conducted on the transition process these students undergo in adapting to the online environment. In particular, the thesis focuses on the academic literacy needs of these students. It seeks to capture both the challenges this cohort encounters and also the enabling strategies that facilitate their studies. Using a grounded theory approach, the study explores tutor, support staff and student perspectives regarding these challenges and strategies. In this way the thesis addresses a gap in the existing literature. Data collection involved focus groups, semi-structured interviews, and a document and records review. Three parallel streams - tutors, support staff and students from five New Zealand universities - participated. Findings revealed continuing tension between the traditional view of academic literacy practices as autonomous and transparent and the contemporary perspective of writing as socially situated practice. The findings, which are in agreement with the literature, confirm that there is a distinct gap between undergraduate and postgraduate studies, and particularly in the area of web-based studies. The students need to find ways to manage this gap. The thesis identifies four main areas of challenge faced by students in adjusting to the academic environment: managing the gap though induction, developing self-management, developing critical reading, and developing critical writing. Student experiences demonstrated that face to face induction was an enabling strategy which established expectations, began socialisation processes, and familiarised students with the web-based mode. Self- management, along with induction, established the foundation for student learning. Students spoke of creating a study environment, being a self- starter, and employing time management strategies from course commencement. Support, both in their home environment and from the institution, was important, along with the confidence to proactively seek assistance. Reading was often perceived in terms of reading to write, with a focus on required readings. Some students described their initial experiences as being at the level of reading for understanding, rather than reading critically; consequently strategies which encouraged reading for a purpose, combined with interaction on discussion forums (DFs), were valued.
Writing for assessment included both traditional and applied genres and digital text formats, which differed according to context. Writing was often framed by an emphasis on structure, having a sequenced argument, demonstrating an acceptable tone, integrating readings, and staying within the ideas expressed in the literature. When writing, some students felt that new viewpoints, even if supported by the literature, were not encouraged. Recommendations arising from the findings include making the detail and purpose of course activities explicit, providing specific links to institutional web-based support, ensuring the availability of targeted assistance, and responding to individual needs at induction. Further research into the perspectives of other non-mainstream cohorts in the web-based environment would add to knowledge in the area. Research that focuses on the challenges of the online environment from course coordinators’ perspectives would also inform teaching and learning. This study has indicated that there is insufficient cooperation between various support services and postgraduate academic staff at New Zealand universities, and this area requires further investigation. These are issues of great concern in a rapidly changing educational environment.

Returning postgraduate students , Academic journeys , Web-based study , Appropriate educational provision , Grounded theory
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