Student support: Combatting isolation in distance learning

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About the project

One of the issues facing the distance learning community today is the need to adapt its support tools, practices and mechanisms to combat student isolation and encourage student retention.

This literature review serves primarily to compile and analyze a variety of support practices that help distance learners form and sustain the social and educational relationships that can alleviate the feelings of isolation these students may experience. In addition to looking at student support techniques and tools, the actors involved and the impacts of student support, the literature review also explores the questions raised and the theoretical models and methodologies used in research on this topic.

This research project is a systematic literature review drawing on the EPPI (Evidence for Policy and Practice Information and Co ordinating Centre) method from University College London. The literature search focused on academic articles published between 2012–2022. The inclusion criteria were articles on the field of education (and more specifically distance teaching and learning), higher education and support activities. In the end, 296 studies that met these criteria were deemed relevant to the project.

Key findings

The systematic review yielded four key findings:

  • Student support services are generally underpinned by a theoretical model, the most common being the community of inquiry model, the transactional distance model and the technology acceptance model (TAM). The COVID 19 pandemic also precipitated the emergence of two new theoretical models: emergency management theory (EMT) and COVID online learning (COL).
  • Variables such as the feeling of belonging to a community, self efficacy and regular social interaction with instructors and other students have an effect on a distance learner’s sense of isolation.
  • The factors that can combat distance learner isolation are forms of support that foster students’ autonomy and engagement, one on one guidance and the building of a learning community. Many of the articles reviewed discuss the implementation of a diverse array of support mechanisms (emotional, social, cognitive, technological, administrative, etc.) and collaborative activities, as well as the importance of interaction and timely, high-quality feedback.
  • Support tools vary depending on the mode of instruction (MOOC, synchronous, asynchronous, hybrid or dual mode). In addition to traditional media and learning management systems, the use of video conferencing and social media appears to be on the rise.

Policy implications

The research shows that, for students to successfully navigate the distance learning experience without being overwhelmed by feelings of isolation that could lead them to drop out of their studies, steps should be taken to ensure that distance learners have sufficient autonomy and that the modes of instruction include support and suitable forms of interaction. To that end, this research suggests two main recommendations for public policy. The first is to provide instructors with training on distance learning, and particularly on providing support in one on-one and group settings. The second is to teach distance learners about the practices, sense of autonomy and online interaction skills needed for distance learning, and to do so early enough in their studies for them to develop these capabilities. A course or module on this topic could be offered starting in the first year of university, given that most of the skills required for distance learning are generally equally useful for in person learning.

Lastly, it should be noted that isolation appears to be an underexplored subject in the literature, as no research was found that specifically looked at support mechanisms to combat isolation. Further research is therefore needed to gain a greater understanding of where these feelings come from and how they are experienced.

Further information

Read the full report (Available in French only)

Contact the researchers

Cathia Papi, professor, Department of Education, Université TÉLUQ:

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