Student Support in Research Capacity Development: Reflections on Experiences of Peer Support in ODL Context
Van Rensburg, Gisela H.
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Session presented on Thursday, 21 July 2016 and Friday, 22 July 2016: Embarking on postgraduate studies entails a magnitude of unexplored learning territory. Entering into postgraduate studies imposes the veiled expectation that students as adult learners should possess and execute the embedded abilities and skills to conquer further study prospects with ease. Students might experience a feeling of desolation at the onset of entering into a postgraduate study programme amidst the supporting services that are being offered by an open distance learning (ODL) university. In acknowledging the challenges that students might encounter when entering into postgraduate studies, a study supervisor at an ODL university in Gauteng encouraged her collective group of students to form a cohort. The foundation of the cohort establishment was to promote engagement and support to members on an ad-hoc basis. In addition to the anticipated value of peer group support to contribute to a positive learning experience, peer group members became participants in a study to explore their experiences regarding the support rendered in their developmental progress as researchers. Siemens (2005) uses Driscoll's (2000) definition of learning that implies that learning is a lasting state of change that is brought on as a result of experiences and interactions with content and other people. Informal learning interaction with other people comprises a significant aspect of learning experience because learning occurs through communities of practice and personal networks (Siemens 2005). As research participants, individual cohort members were facilitated to reflect on personal experiences and feelings towards their own study journey, as well as sharing their perceptions and experiences on the role of peer group support as a contributing factor to ease the academic journey. The cohort members reflected on subjective experiences in informal conversations with one another and the study supervisor and through narrative essay writing during various stages of the proposal development phase. Being a student engulfed in the process of mastering the learning environment and learning expectations whilst using peer support as a conscious strategy towards study assistance, concurrently to the fact of being aware that one is under observation as study participant, generated a developing appreciation within the individual student of the value and empowerment of peer support. Students as cohort members benefitted on both cognitive and affective level because applying the strategy of peer support re-iterated the synergistic value of a supportive peer network when commencing in postgraduate studies. Peer support, under the guidance of the research supervisor served as an innovative strategy to reduce the novice researchers' initial anxiety and uncertainty and contributed significantly to establish a positive learning experience. Purpose: The presentation aims to explore the experiences of novice researchers regarding the unique contribution and value of peer support in open distance learning and to describe the experiences of participants regarding learning during proposal development in an ODL context. Methods: A case study using a qualitative explorative research design was used to explore the experiences of participants regarding using a cohort to enhance peer support during the initial process of commencing the proposal phase of research. Data were collected by means of reflective accounts between participants such as informal conversation and written narratives in reflective journals. Narrative data were analysed by an independent coder. The reflective conversations of cohort members were analysed as field notes to enrich the identified themes derived from narrative data. Members of the cohort used a conceptual framework in educational design for transfer of learning to describe their experiences related to peer support. Results: The main themes that emerged were the specific context, support and the different role players. Through participatory learning the students benefitted both at cognitive and affective level. The role of the supervisor as a guide in the unknown territory of research was described as much more than being a cognitive role and responsibility. On the affective domain, peer support addressed different levels in terms of the relationships between the students and supervisor as well as amongst students. The findings therefore emphasise the value of mutual support in participative learning. Both formal and informal peer support approaches encouraged critical reflection in the process of research capacity development. Conclusion: Peer support in an ODL context alleviates the feeling of distance and loneliness by increasing the interaction between fellow students in various direct and indirect ways. When students with homogeneous learning tasks engage with each other in an unstructured social environment, students construct progressive emotional independence gained from the initial support framework that establishes informational, instrumental and emotional support foundations. Individual attitude and action towards peer group engagement during this initial entrance into the world of post graduate academia, might contribute to the ease and confidence of post granduate students towards further progress aiming at academic development as a researcher.