Making distance visible: Assembling nearness in an online distance learning programme


  • Jen Ross University of Edinburgh
  • Michael Sean Gallagher Institute of Education, University of London
  • Hamish Macleod University of Edinburgh



online learning, distance education, e-learning, higher education


Online distance learners are in a particularly complex relationship with the educational institutions they belong to (Bayne, Gallagher, & Lamb, 2012). For part-time distance students, arrivals and departures can be multiple and invisible as students take courses, take breaks, move into independent study phases of a programme, find work or family commitments overtaking their study time, experience personal upheaval or loss, and find alignments between their professional and academic work. These comings and goings indicate a fluid and temporary assemblage of engagement, not a permanent or stable state of either “presence” or “distance”.

This paper draws from interview data from the “New Geographies of Learning” project, a research project exploring the notions of space and institution for the MSc in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh, and from literature on distance learning and online community. The concept of nearness emerged from the data analyzing the comings and goings of students on a fully online programme. It proposes that “nearness” to a distance programme is a temporary assemblage of people, circumstances, and technologies. This state is difficult to establish and impossible to sustain in an uninterrupted way over the long period of time that many are engaged in part-time study. Interruptions and subsequent returns should therefore be seen as normal in the practice of studying as an online distance learner, and teachers and institutions should work to help students develop resilience in negotiating various states of nearness. Four strategies for increasing this resilience are proposed: recognising nearness as effortful; identifying affinities; valuing perspective shifts; and designing openings.

Author Biographies

Jen Ross, University of Edinburgh

My name is Jen Ross, and I am a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh in Edinburgh, Scotland, where I am the programme and technical director of the MSc in Digital Education, and part of the Digital Cultures and Education research group, both based in the School of Education. My research interests include online learning, digital futures, reflective practices, and cultural and educational institutions online. I supervise masters and PhD students in these and related areas.

Michael Sean Gallagher, Institute of Education, University of London

My name is Michael Sean Gallagher. I am currently a doctoral student at the Institute of Education, University of London. My research focus is on developing mobile environments & communities to support academic practice in the Humanities in higher education. My specific focus are the universities of Korea. Aside from mobile learning, I am most interested in elearning, online community development, and open learning.

I am a facilitator of the MobiMOOC course and a member of the MobiMOOC Research Team. I am also on the Advisory Council of Beni American University in Nigeria. I continue to work with the MSc in Elearning team at the University of Edinburgh on several projects, all of which are listed in the Research page of my blog.

Previously, I was the Education & Outreach Manager, Research & Learning Environments at a very large academic database. In this capacity, I focused on the creation of scholarly networks of activity surrounding the sciences. I also conducted much of our organization's social media presence. Formerly, I worked for Aluka, a not-for-profit digital library of scholarly materials by and about Africa. In that capacity, I worked quite in Africa conducting workshops on information literacy and online research.

I have a background in education, having worked as a teacher for many years both in the United States and Korea. I have a Masters in Library and Information Science degree (MLIS), with a concentration in the management of digital information. I also have a Masters in Education (elearning) at the University of Edinburgh.

Hamish Macleod, University of Edinburgh

I am a Senior Lecturer within the Institute for Education, Community and Society (ECS), and Programme Selector for the MSc. My background is in biology and psychology, and particular interests are in the uses of computer-mediated communications and game-informed approaches in teaching and learning.



How to Cite

Ross, J., Gallagher, M. S., & Macleod, H. (2013). Making distance visible: Assembling nearness in an online distance learning programme. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 14(4).



Research Articles