Nearly a third of mature-aged students (over aged 24) in New Zealand study by distance so they can fit study into their full lives. Past research suggests these students enjoy and cope well with distance learning, but also have a high first year attrition rate. More is needed to identify better ways to engage these students to ensure their retention and success. Part of a wider project on student engagement, this paper explores how older distance students connect with the course curriculum. Nineteen first year distance students, aged from 26 to 59, took part in pre and post semester interviews and completed weekly video or email diaries throughout their first semester at a New Zealand university. Findings indicate that life integrated learning and assessments are key tools to engage these students. Students were enthusiastic about course content when they saw connections with their past, present, and future selves. This triggered a positive spiral, motivating them to spend time on study and making it easier to understand and learn content. These connections were not limited to work, suggesting that the current focus on work-integrated-learning is missing important opportunities to engage students. Assessments were a second key trigger for cognitive engagement. While enjoying learning for its own sake, the students were strategic and prioritised assessment tasks. Effective assessments do not just grade the students, they also engage them. The use of digital tools for content delivery and discussion was beneficial at times and problematic at other times. The findings highlight the need to design courses carefully and to enable students to find connections with their interests, experiences, and skills.
Conference proceedings: There and back: Charting flexible pathways in open, mobile and distance education, 2016, pp. 81 - 86