How online learning can disrupt the development of students’ key relationships in higher education.

Isabel J Hopwood

    Research output: Contribution to conferenceConference Paperpeer-review


    Purpose - Learning online is different to in-person teaching, but it is possible to create an interactive and supportive virtual learning environment. When the pandemic hit, a generous response helped faculty staff rapidly adapt course content and assessment for online delivery. While some students adapted readily to the online shift others struggled, experiencing anxiety, fear and stress. Anecdotal reports suggest some students chose to avoid synchronous online learning completely.
    Design/Methodology/Approach - Quinlan (2016) states that learning is relational and higher education students develop four relationships which are key: to Subject, to Teachers, to Peers and to Self. The quality of these relationships can influence the student’s enjoyment of their course, study habits and attainment. Is it possible that some aspects of synchronous online learning have disrupted the development of these key relationships? And is it possible to mitigate these issues through adjustments to pedagogical practice? This study analyses a subset of data (n=496) from a survey of students’ experience of online learning, collected in November 2020. Participation was voluntary and responses were anonymised. Participants were asked if they had avoided synchronous online teaching and could provide a free text response explaining why. A two-step thematic analysis using a coding frame derived from Quinlan’s four key relationships was conducted.
    Findings - Analysis indicates that the development of all four key relationships have been negatively impacted by participants’ experience of synchronous teaching. The relationship to Peers seemed to be most disrupted, with participants describing their peers as unfamiliar strangers. This led to inhibited and awkward interactions online. Anxiety about being judged negatively by these unfamiliar peers impacted the Teacher relationship too, as participants declined to interact or ask questions during teaching. Many participants felt isolated and disengaged, impacting their developing relationships to Subject and Self.
    Originality/Value/Implications - This paper extends Quinlan by showing all four key relationships are disrupted when the design of online learning includes limited opportunities for meaningful social interaction. It further argues that, in an online environment, the quality of the Peer relationship mediates the development of other relationships. It concludes that enabling the development of peer relationships is central to effective online teaching. Empirically derived suggestions for adjustments to pedagogical practice are given to facilitate this. This study is of interest to curriculum designers, programme leaders and teachers delivering blended and online learning in higher education.
    Original languageEnglish
    Publication statusPublished - 7 Jul 2021
    EventInternational Conference on Open and Innovative Learning: 2021 Conference, Open University of Hong Kong - Online, Hong Kong, Hong Kong
    Duration: 5 Jul 20217 Jul 2021


    ConferenceInternational Conference on Open and Innovative Learning
    Abbreviated titleICOIE
    Country/TerritoryHong Kong
    CityHong Kong
    Internet address


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