The Temporal Integration of Connected Study into a Structured Life

Helen Scott, PhD Candidate


From the point at which a learner commits to undertaking a
course of study, and conceivably some time before, that learner
holds an intention to study. This paper offers a theory which
explains how that intention to study is strengthened or weakened
as a course of study progresses. It suggests that it is much less a
matter of learners deciding to persist with or depart from a
course of study and much more a matter of continuing upon a
course of action embarked upon – of maintaining an intention – by
its temporal integration into the structure of their daily lives.
The theory of temporal integration explains the process enabling
learners to engage in the learning experience and how for some
students, the intention to learn is weakened to the extent that
they leave the course, most often by default.


The paper commences with an explanation of the main
concern of connected learners and, before presenting the core
category of temporal integration, will introduce the related
categories of connected learning and connected learner and their
respective sub-categories of time design and personal
commitment structures
. It will also detail the properties (and
their dimensions) of the category, connected learner which
includes personal competencies, value of study and satisfaction
with study
. A brief overview of the temporal integration process,
its three stages of juggling, engaging and evaluating and its
feedback loop, ‘the propensity to study’, will be presented next.
Different connected learners experience the temporal integration
process in different ways and are distinguished by their personal
commitment structures, personal competencies, value of study
and cost of failure. Using these distinctions, four main types of
connected learner can be discerned; juggler, struggler, fade-away
and leaver. Since the temporal integration process is experienced
differently by each, the temporal integration process is presented
in detail first as experienced by jugglers, followed by the differing
experiences of strugglers, fade-aways and leavers.

The Main Concern

The main concern of the adult connected distance learner is
to fit study into his or her life on an ongoing basis. Distance
learning is taken on in addition to existing commitments and
inevitably life intervenes and study gets in the way. The problem
is that the learning materials do not go away. The 24/7
availability of the learning environment accessible from
increasingly diverse locations and the persistence of learning
materials means that lectures are always there to be attended
and past discussions are waiting to be ‘overheard’. The difference
between the traditional distance learner and the online learner is
the mode of delivery i.e. the Post Office or the Internet. The
difference between the online learner and the connected learner
is pedagogy. Where collaboration is built into the learning design
then learners must communicate. This brings with it, its own
special strains on a learner’s diary; the more intense the pattern
of communication, the greater the strain.

The problem of fitting study into a learner’s life is achieved,
more or less successfully, through the basic social psychological
process of ‘temporal integration’. This is the process by which
the structure points of the time design of a connected learning
opportunity are combined into the personal commitment
structure of the connected learner. Thus two related categories
are of import to this theory; the connected learning opportunity
and the connected learner, as are their respective sub-categories
of time design and personal commitment structure.

Connected Learning

The studying process occurs under certain conditions which
are; the ‘technology’ used, the ‘language’ of the course, the
knowledge domain’ of the course, the particular mix of personal
commitment structures of the learners of the course and the ‘time
’ of the course. The time design comprises structure points
such as start points (e.g. start of course or assessment period),
end points (e.g. end of course or assessment period), assessment
(hand in dates, exam dates), organising points (start of
week, end of week) and emergent connection points (of learners
achieved through for example, asynchronous postings,
synchronous meetings).

The Connected Learner

Personal Commitment Structure

Prior to entering into a course of study there are typically
four main strands to a learner’s life: work, family, social and self.
Each of these strands contains structure points which may be
more or less fixed e.g. times to pick up the children from ballet,
school or football; times to arrive at work and depart from work;
times to be at choir practice or community meetings. The
combined structure points from the intersection of all those
strands form a unique structural condition which is the learner’s
‘personal commitment structure’. In undertaking a course of
online study the learner will expand his/her personal
commitment structure to include a fifth strand, of ‘connected
study’. For connected learners, temporal integration is thus the
process of combining or integrating the structure points of their
online study course into their existing personal commitment
structures’ enabling them to engage with and take part in the
process of studying.

Personal Competencies

A competent online learner will need to have or to develop
the core competencies and skills which will enable them to
manage the structural conditions and process the main concern
viz; personal competencies in the technology of the online course,
the language of the course, the knowledge domain of the course,
online learning skills and integrating skills. The particular mix of
skills of any one learner if graphed would illustrate the shape –
the dimensions (Strauss & Glaser, 1970, p. 12) of that learner’s
personal competencies. Figure 1 illustrates one of many possible
combinations of the dimensions of personal competence of one
type of learner.

Figure 1: Example dimensions of an online learner’s personal
competencies. [see PDF version for figures]

Temporal Integration

The ‘temporal integration’ of ‘connected study’ into a
‘structured life’ is the dynamic and iterative process of ‘juggling’,
‘engaging’ and ‘evaluating’. Juggling is about taking, finding and
making time in order to do the work of the course – to engage in
study. Engaging is about complying with the course instructions
and tussling with the issues of the knowledge domain. It is about
taking in information by reading materials, listening to audio or
video presentations and making sense of what is being perceived.
It is not about the act of expressing through online chat, writing
or posting. Engaging is thus the psychological aspect of studying
as distinct from the behavioural aspect of studying. Evaluating is
about assessing the value of study in terms of whether what is
being learnt is useful or relevant, assessing the costs of
integration and weighing the one against the other. The outcome
of the evaluation stage is an intention regarding how much effort
will be put in future juggling and engaging.

The Value of Study or ‘What’s in it for me?’

Each connected learner will have identified a greater or
lesser ‘need for learning’ expressed most usually as a need to
develop competence for professional or work related reasons.
Whilst for most learners, the principle need appears to be the
learner’s wish to possess professional competence, some focus on
validation of competence through certification. Only a very few
individuals identify a purely personal, primary need for selfThe
development and amongst the most committed learners are those
individuals with an altruistic need to contribute to his/her
society. A connected learner will also have initial expectations
that the chosen course of study will satisfy his/her need for
learning, and during the course, will continuously evaluate the
degree to which the course is perceived to be satisfying this need
asking: What’s in it for me? Is what I am being asked to do
relevant, useful, valuable, of interest, now or in the future? The
need for learning and the degree to which studying is perceived
to satisfy the need for learning determine the ‘value of study’ to
the learner.

The Cost of Integration or ‘Is it worth it?’

Each learner joining an online course will hold, consciously
or unconsciously, expectations as to how the course of study will
be organised. Severe tension can arise for those learners where a
mismatch of expectations occur particularly where the course
design expects the learner to flex his or her activities to the
course timing and the learner expects to be able to flex the course
to his/her life timing. The ‘juggling’ and ‘evaluating’ stages of
‘temporal integration’ cut across all the strands of a learner’s life.
However, where the learner ‘engages’ with the course in ‘doing’
study; the process of ‘temporal integration’, intersects specifically
with the process of ‘studying’ at the point of engagement where
‘engaging’ is the psychological aspect of the behaviour of ‘doing’
the work of studying. The consequences of ‘engaging’ in ‘studying’
– to whatever degree – are that work is consumed, competencies
are developed and time is used. To the degree that more time is
used than can be comfortably accommodated by the Personal
Commitment Structure, tension arises between a learner’s
current commitments, which the learner experiences as a state of
being. This is ‘Time Tension’ and which may be experienced
either positively or negatively. Extreme cases of time tension
result in a state of ‘time tyranny’ which is endured because either
the value of study or the negative consequences of failure and
likely future hardships are too high.

The question ‘what’s in it for me?’ is followed by ‘is it worth
it? The answer is expressed in the learner’s intention to continue
with study, i.e. his or her propensity to study and thus impacts
on the energies expended on future juggling and engaging efforts.

Propensity to Study

The relationships between and amongst the categories
discussed above combine to impact upon the learner’s ‘propensity
to study
’. In a little more detail, the propensity to study can be
viewed as a function of the ‘value of study as a means of
satisfying the learner’s need for learning’ (what’s in it for me?)
less the ‘cost of integration’ (is it worth it?). The cost of
integration being a function of the personal commitment
structure, personal competencies and the cost of failure where
the cost of failure may be counted in terms of reduced feelings of
self worth, lost opportunities and/or as a financial cost paid by
the learner. Describing the relationships results in a set of
propositions as follows and paves the way for the identification of
types of learners:

1. Where the value of study is high, the propensity to study
will be high.

(a) Where the Personal Commitment Structure is also fully
committed, there is likely to be a cost of integration. Personal
competence co-varies with the Personal Commitment Structure
to affect the level of pain experienced

• Where personal competence is also high, the cost of
integration is likely to be tolerable and may be
problematic (juggler)

• Where personal competence is low, the cost of integration
is likely to be problematic (struggler)

• Where personal competence is low and the cost of failure
is high, the cost of integration is likely to be hard to
tolerate (struggler)

(b) Where the Personal Commitment Structure is not fully
committed, the cost of integration is likely to be tolerable except:

• Where the cost of failure is high, the cost of integrating is
likely to be problematic (juggler/struggler)

2. Where the value of study is low, the propensity to study
will be low (fade-away) except where the cost of failure is high;
the propensity to study will be high. Thus also

(a) Where the personal commitment structure is full and

• personal competence is high, the cost of integration is
likely to be problematic (juggler)

• personal competence is low, the cost of integration is
likely to be hard to tolerate (struggler)

(b) Where the personal commitment structure is not fully
committed and

• personal competence is high, the cost of integration is
likely to be tolerable (juggler)

• personal competence is low, the cost of integration is
likely to be tolerable and may be problematic (struggler)
These relationships can be expressed as an algorithm thus:

Propensity to Study = {[Value of Study + (Cost of Failure x
(Cost of Failure/Value of Study))] – [Personal Competence
Structure – (Personal Competence Structure x Personal
Competencies)]} where Value of Study = Need for learning x
Degree to which study satisfies learning.
I.e. P = {[V + (F x (F/V))] – [S – (S x C)]}
V = N x D
P = propensity to study
V = value of study
F = cost of failure
S = personal commitment structure
C = personal competencies
N = need for learning
D = degree to which learning satisfies need for learning

The cost of failure has little impact where the value of study
is high and much greater impact where the value of study is low.
Two further propositions are thus:

• The value of study and the cost of failure are the
motivators for learners to engage in study or to disengage
from study,

• the cost of integration is only a consequence of
integration, and whilst it does not drive people to make a
conscious decision to leave a course it may lead learners
to re-evaluate the need for learning relative to other
commitments and to commence on a downward cycle of
reducing compliance and to fade away from the course.

A Typology of Learners

A type is defined by the level of tension of the personal
commitment structure in combination with level of personal
competencies, the value of study and where relevant the cost of
failure. There are four main types of adult online learners,
jugglers who value study highly, have high levels of personal
competencies and have full personal commitment structures;
strugglers who also value study highly and have full personal
commitment structures but have low levels of personal
competencies; fade-aways who consistently fail to integrate study
into their personal commitment structures and attribute a low
value to study and leavers who are principally defined by a step
change in their personal commitment structures. There follows
an explanation of how each type processes – or fails to process –
the problem of fitting study into their busy lives.


Juggling across all strands

Jugglers are the successful learners who exhibit strategic
behaviours prior to entering into a course of study; they
restructure their lives, plan and timetable study so that when the
course starts, there is already space for learning in their lives.
Jugglers value study highly, have exacting commitments to work
and or family and often also have social commitments. Whilst
jugglers may not hold all of the core competencies associated with
being an online learner, they will during the course of study,
develop them. In restructuring their timetables, jugglers may
negotiate time for studying from their employers or from their
families, perhaps agreeing a day a week from work to study or
agreeing a redistribution of family duties with a spouse. They
may take time from themselves by routinely extending-the-day,
getting up or early or going to bed late in order to study.

Learners juggle so that they can ‘fit in’ everything that they
need to accomplish across all the strands of their lives. They
juggle at an operational level (months, weeks, days) and at an
implementation level (hours and minutes). For jugglers, a plan or
a timetable is the starting point and the elements of the plan are
successfully re-organised as necessary, in response to triggers
received from their personal commitment structures. At an
operational level, the trigger may be a period of travelling on
business, a daughter’s dental appointment, an extra rehearsal, a
holiday. At this level, there is time to enable the trigger to be
incorporated into a schedule. At the implementation level
triggers are always unexpected such as missing the train home, a
child-minder failing to arrive, a friend needing help, becoming
unwell. Learners juggle and re-organise but under these
conditions, studying is the victim of the re-organisation and is
squeezed out. In order to squeeze studying back in again, the
learner might make opportunistic use of time, engaging in
studying whilst waiting an airport lounge or travelling on public
transport or may chose to extend-the-day. If the learner is unable
to retrieve lost time quickly then s/he is unable to complete
sufficient work and falls behind. Catch up strategies are
discussed below. Where this happens routinely the juggler may
turn into a ‘struggler’

Juggling within the studying strand

The aim of juggling is to find time in order to study; success
means that the learner is poised to comply with course
requirements and to engage in study. At an operational level, the
time design is the primary source of triggers. Time design is
latent in an educational opportunity. Work is required to be
completed, readings read, postings written, assessments handed
in. Each task will take an amount of time and course work is
usually organised by units of time. For example a course may
organise its work in units of one week with the beginning and
end of each week forming the Organisation Points. In the same
way, Assessment Points will mark the start and end of
assessment periods, within which period the work of the
assessment must be completed. An exam is another example of
an Assessment Point, preceded by a revision period marked by an
Organisation Point.

Jugglers pace their work, completing on time. The structure
points are known and jugglers scope the work estimating what
needs to be done by when and prioritise and plan their activities
accordingly. Variations in time designs conspire to thwart. For
example, the learner who juggles out study to holiday with family
may complete the required readings but may not be permitted to
make postings ahead of time and is either forced into catch-up or
is excluded from the activity. Where a poor time design requires
excessive amounts of work, all learners will be challenged and
jugglers, rather than over-committing themselves, will
consciously resort to a ‘partial withdrawal’ strategy prioritising
tasks and excluding some.

The single most important variation in time design which
causes learners the most problems is the ‘connection design’ i.e. is
the work designed to be carried out solo or in collaboration with
other learners? Can the work be done at any time (solo) or is it
required to be done at the same time as others (synchronously) or
at similar times to others (asynchronously)?

Solo design causes little problem, an example of which might
be a course teaching learners how to use a particular piece of
software. Work can be completed at any time and may or may not
be marked with a final assessment point or by an end point when
access to the course is withdrawn. However when collaborative
work is required, learners are constrained by being obliged to
connect with one another either within a period of time or at the
same time. The tighter the structure of the time design – the
more organisation, assessment and connection points there are –
the less the learner is able to be flexible, compromising the
learner’s ability to integrate, making it harder to complete the
work on time. The greater the number of people involved in the
collaboration, the worse the problem of organisation and
synchronisation, the greater the time wasted, compounding
problems of integration. Learners expecting the course to flex to
them will experience the greatest dissonance under this design.

The main issue for same time collaborations will be the
particular mix of the personal commitment structures of learners
of the course. The greater the differences between the
commitment patterns of learners, the harder it is for them to
time-match. Time imperialism is rife. Learners in time zones to
the west of the main group find it harder to time match and are
often excluded from synchronous meetings, as are shift workers
where the norm of the group is daytime employment. One learner
from the West Indies wrote:

We are 4 or 5 hours depending on the time of
year, behind the UK and this causes major
headaches in relation to the Virtual Classes. ALL
the classes are either held when I am sleeping or
when I am at work. This means I am always
either late or don’t attend many VCs……. [in one
course] we were placed into Virtual Groups. In
my group there were 3 guys from the UK and 2 of
us from the West Indies. Of course, we met very
sparingly and I don’t think we were able to
maximise the learning of being in a group.

The vignette in Text Box 1 shows a group of jugglers and a
struggler (Bill) driven by an approaching assessment point trying
to arrange a synchronous meeting during a synchronous meeting.
The struggler is effectively excluded by the needs of the other
group members, though the process is so subtle it is hardly
noticed by the other group members, who seem to have no
appreciation of Bill’s circumstances.

Text Box 1 Vignette: Time Imperialism and Time Matching

Bill enters the room Thursday 8.08 p.m.
Bill: apologies for late arrival, problems with v.slow
Carl: that people learn when they NEED to learn and lonely
what they NEED to learn at the time for their own reasons
Carl: Look at us with deadlines
Bill: Must leave for work in five-ten minutes,
Amy: Can’t we work on this on Saturday?
Bill: let me check…..
Carl: Yes Bill, I’m here for the duration – perhaps we should
piece together something for PD and reconvene at 9 pm?
Amy: does 12am on Saturday mean first or last thing on
Bill: sorry Amy, midnight Saturday.
Amy: Could we meet with Bill on Saturday (not cup final
Carl: Can we meet again on Sat am Bill?
Amy: About 10 am?
Carl: sounds fine
Bill: see you at 10am sat bye.
Denise: Is 11.00 too late?
— Bill leaves the room Thursday 8.36 p.m.
Carl: should we reconvene at 10am Sat for all of us then?
Denise: Edward and I need to go to the wood yard
Amy: I have to take my daughter to dance class between
11.15 and 12.15 so 12.30 would be fine too
Carl: I can fit in with the rest of you
Denise: 12.30 would be wonderful; do we need to email Bill?
Carl: Bill’s gone, and he says 10
Carl: yes ok email him
Amy: I’ll log on at 10am as well and let him know if he
hasn’t read the email
Bill enters the room Saturday 10:00am
Amy left the room Saturday 10:03am
Bill enters the room Saturday10:03am
Amy enters the room 10:04am
Amy: Hi Bill – we rearranged the time to 1230 as Denise
couldn’t make 10am
Amy: Can you make it then?
Bill: Hi, sorry that’s way past my bedtime!
Amy: Have you been working nights?
Bill: Yes – been up all night

Under these conditions there is little that the excluded
learner can do to resolve the situation other than remonstrate
with the course designers requesting that groups be designed
consciously and with awareness of the mix of the personal
commitment structures of the learners.

The problems of similar-time design are less severe than
those of same-time design since there is greater latitude
regarding the timings of connections. Extremes of differences
between time zones can cause patterns of interactions to cluster
around the postings of the individuals within time zones merely
because the timings work for them. A momentum forms and
carries the interactions such that it is hard for those in other
time zones to join in. The discussion has passed whilst the others

Depending on the pedagogic design of work, learners may be
dependent on one another or interdependent. The dependent are
vulnerable to the work patterns of others. For example the
Juggler who has to summarise the week’s discussion postings,
needs postings to be made in a timely manner and can be
resentful of those who post at the last minute since it upsets the
juggler’s ability to plan and integrate. Contrast this with the
experiences of those who posted late, who were working in a
different country having a working week which was organised
around different points to that around which the time design was
organised – and which caused these learners to be the last to post
and thus to miss out on the comments of others.

Thus there are times when the juggler’s integration skills
and juggling strategies are severely limited and the juggler
unable to successfully respond to the triggers emanating from the
time design. Under these circumstances the negative
consequences of exclusion, resentment and time tension are
experienced and absorbed. Successful integration is maintaining
a new and sustainable equilibrium in the expanded personal
commitment structure.


Engaging is to do with taking information in and tussling
with the issues. As an implementation level activity, it is also
about using the core competencies of an online learner to defend
the time won for studying by being focused, disciplined and
independently solving their own problems, finding their own
answers now’. One of the consequences of complying and
engaging in studying is that time is used. Implicitly or explicitly
the ‘time design’ will incorporate an estimate of how much time
that studying will take. As the learner complies, things happen to
waste time or to cause the learner to take more time. Specifically
there are triggers from the structural conditions; the online
connection is lost removing access to the learning environment,
the server is off-line for maintenance, the reading uses language
that is too dense, a new concept is used that is not understood, a
child wakes, a door bell rings, a colleague interrupts. Different
combinations of triggers from the different parts of a learner’s life
conspire to waste a learner’s time or to take the learner more
time than estimated or planned. To each of these triggers, a
competence may mitigate the time wasted or taken. Knowing
how to re-install the broadband access software, re-ordering
tasks such that offline work is completed whilst the server is
offline, organising support from family members and colleagues
to protect the learner from distractions. Technology can save time
in providing diagnostic software, translation programs or
enabling instant recourse to answers online. A learner may be
able to avoid wasting time through being technically competent
but have poor online learning skills such that s/he is distracted
by interesting but off-topic links or a visiting neighbour. The
personal commitment structure – including the time design of the
course – and personal competencies can co-vary within
themselves and between each other to cause or mitigate time
loss. Jugglers develop or possess the core competencies which
enable them to manage the triggers received from their personal
commitment structures to defend the time won for learning. The
consequences of engaging in studying are that time is used, work
is achieved, time tension is experienced and competencies
developed to whatever degree. The learner will also be forming
views on the degree to which this activity is satisfying his/her
need for learning.


During the Evaluation stage, the learner assesses the value
of work in terms of whether it is useful or relevant resulting in
an intention to study. This is not a linear process of actions more
an omnipresent state of mind. Whilst jugglers are busy, they are
also competent and manage to keep all the balls in the air
without suffering unduly. They have a strong need for learning,
and thus a high propensity to study which means that studying
as an activity will receive a high priority during the juggling
stage and jugglers will try hard to find, make or take time to
work. For all the while that the work is considered useful or
relevant, jugglers succeed and find great satisfaction in their
accomplishments. The conditions under which a juggler may
change abruptly into a leaver or turns gradually into a fade-away
are discussed in a later section.


Strugglers face the same issues as jugglers plus a few more
of their own. They value study highly, have jobs, social
commitments and are likely to have families but crucially will, at
least initially, also have lower levels of competence in one or
more of the core competencies of an online learner. This is not to
criticise the learner since the purpose of study is to develop
competence both in the knowledge domain and in the new skills
required to enable that learning in an online environment. At its
simplest, lower levels of competence means that studying takes
longer to accomplish thus what principally distinguishes jugglers
and strugglers is the consequent pain of integration and the
degree of time tension that strugglers experience.

Strugglers notice a simultaneous lack of structure and a
surfeit of structure. Strugglers bemoan the absence of structure
found in the face-to-face learning environment – requiring the
learner’s presence at a stipulated time and place notwithstanding
that this is the reason why they are unable to undertake face-toface
study. But whilst jugglers recreate the structure for
themselves, many strugglers do not. This may be due in part, to
the fact that those strugglers expect the course to flex to their
lives and commitments and thus do not see the need to
restructure their lives in order to make space for learning.
Instead, they rely on their spare time and their ability to make,
find or take time. This makes them much more vulnerable to
triggers coming from their commitment structures and a good
solution for strugglers is routinisation such that found time
becomes routinely available. For the main part, however,
strugglers are in a permanent state of ‘catch-up’ and

Strugglers then are over-committed. They have more to
accomplish in the time available to them than they can
comfortably achieve. Strugglers juggle in the same way that
jugglers juggle – they find, make and take time. Strugglers
engage and do the work of the course but are unable to
accomplish all of the work. For those who lack competence only
in technology and/or online learning skills, the problems caused
by triggers from the environment, e.g. malfunctioning software or
a plethora of postings, will diminish as competence develops over
time. For those who only lack competence in the knowledge
domain, the issues that mean that the struggler takes more time
to accomplish work than the juggler, will again, over time,
diminish. Developing competence in these areas is likely to
enable the struggler to grow into a juggler.

It is those learners whose native tongue is different to the
language of the course who suffer most. Gregory writes:

In my situation and with my language
background and non-daily use of English
literature, of course it takes much more time to
read, incorporate English texts. I translated the
texts, made abstracts in [my language] and this
took several hours.

Thus there is an extra step of preparation to enable the
learner to engage with the work and tussle with the issues. The
‘doing’ of work also takes more time: Sebina writes “I can say half
I want and it takes me twice the time”.

Couple this with a high need for learning and the
consequences of integration become severe. Gregory wrote:

Reading back my [journals] the time aspect was
dominant present, already from week 1: This
awful, horrible, frustrating, discouraging fear of
failure provoking time aspect was always
mentioned somehow in most of my [journals].
Most of the time or weeks, I had the feeling of not
keeping up, running behind, emotional fatigue
and pushing myself to contribute, even at two or
three o’clock at night sometimes………. I survived
this time terror’ with the focus on the learning
outcome “how not to design/coach a (online)

Gillie wrote:

But I know in those text was a lot of useful
information for me and for my country. Further
months after it, I will be start my first experience
like online teacher so that will very important for
me. Onde day I even cry!…. I was very tired and
stressed so I cry. I almost can’t to leave, I was
very busy ….we soffred!

For these people competence in the language of the course
improves but never sufficiently to alleviate the time tension.
Since the propensity to study remains high, the negative
consequences are cumulative and the tyranny of study is

Active displacement of study

Where jugglers usually engage, strugglers may displace –
though the active displacement of study can be carried out by
both jugglers and strugglers – in response to triggers from their
personal commitment structures. At an implementation level
some strugglers struggle because of the routine and active
displacement of study where some other commitment(s) becomes
genuinely more important. This commitment is juggled in and
study squeezed out. Jugglers are generally able to reorganise
commitments and enable study to be juggled back in again.
Strugglers, unable to negotiate the support that they need from
their personal commitment structures, are often unable to do

Sometimes the absence may be prolonged. The persistence of
materials means that the work does not disappear with time –
the videoed lecture is still available to be watched, a myriad of
postings have appeared and have to be navigated. Overwhelmed
students ask for a way in. The tutor may offer a catch up strategy
tailored to the individual; otherwise other learners point the way.
Since it requires too much time to fully catch-up, a partial
withdrawal from the work of the course is effected where some
work is prioritised, engaged with and completed and other work
is displaced and left undone.

Fade-aways: Evaluation and the Reducing Value of

A reduction in the value of study as a means of satisfying
the learner’s needs is brought about either by a step change in
the personal commitment structure of the learner such that the
relative importance of the need for learning reduces as some
other need increases, or; that this particular course of study is
disappointing and not meeting the learner’s needs as a means of
satisfying his/her need for learning. Or both.

Learners juggle, engage and evaluate the value of learning.
Whilst the need for learning remains the same, where the work
completed is judged less useful or relevant, the value of study as
a means of satisfying the need for learning falls. Where the cost
of failure is high, the propensity to study is maintained. If the
cost of failure is low, the propensity to study will fall and the
degree of time tension, which will be tolerated in order to
integrate study into the learner’s personal commitment
structure, will also reduce. The negative consequences of
integration are fed back into the evaluation reducing further the
value of study as a means of satisfying the need for learning and
hence also reducing the learner’s propensity to study. Under
these circumstances the juggler will be proactive and effect a
withdrawal strategy. The struggler however, will fade away by
default. A reducing propensity to study means that less effort is
put into juggling study ‘in’ and for every organisational period
(e.g. week) that this happens more work is left undone with no
intention to catch-up. There is thus reducing compliance where
work is passively squeezed out of the learner’s schedule and the
learner just gently fades away from the course. Fade-aways are
not therefore decisive, they merely keep failing to integrate until
an assessment point or an end point eventually prompts a
temporary withdrawal from a course where the learner requests
a study break or an extension. Eventually, however, the
temporary withdrawal turns into permanent withdrawal as the
fade-away slips into becoming a leaver.

Where the value of study falls, a high cost of failure will
maintain the struggler’s propensity to study and the cost of
integration will be severe where the personal commitment
structure is full and personal competence low and may also be
problematic where the personal commitment structure is less
full. Under these circumstances the struggler struggles on.


Leavers decide to stop. This is a strategic decision and is
usually the consequence of an unplanned and step change in the
learner’s personal commitment structure which causes a reordering
of priorities and commitments and the abrupt
transformation of the juggler or struggler into a leaver. The loss
of a job for example, or the debilitating illness of the learner or of
a close family member can render the need for learning
irrelevant. Planned step changes in the personal commitment
structure can also be a time of great risk, for instance the birth of
a baby or taking a new job. Where step changes are planned
however, there is also opportunity for re-structuring and may
even turn the struggler into a juggler.


In this paper, I have looked at the highly personal nature of
the decision to persist or depart and identified the major factors
that contribute to that decision. These are the learner’s need for
learning, the degree to which the learning opportunity satisfies
the learner’s need for learning – which together determine the
value of study – the learner’s personal commitment structure, the
learner’s personal competencies and where the value of study is
low, the cost of failure to the learner. Together these determine
the learner’s propensity to study. I have also identified a typology
of learners comprising jugglers, strugglers, fade-aways and
leavers and explained how the different types experience the
process of temporal integration of connected study into a
structured life.

The literature on online distance learning makes clear that
there are problems with the design and implementation of
distance learning courses (e.g. Hara & Kling, 2000; V. McGivney,
2004; Pierrakeas, Xenos, Panagiotakopoulos, & Vergidis, 2004).
It is not clear however what the problem is. Or what the
solutions might be. This study theorises that from the
perspective of the connected learner, the problem is to do with
time and how a learner might make best use of time given the
competing demands for attention from various strands of a
learner’s life. This theory suggests that whatever a learner is
asked to do must be relevant and useful and worth the
considerable upheaval that is caused to the learner – and to
others in the learner’s sphere – when the learner engages with
study. It theorises about what conspires to make life worse or
better for learners as they engage. Many of the issues were
known about but the large number and seemingly unrelated
nature of the issues meant that the complexity could not be well
understood. The power of this theory is in its encapsulation of the
main concern of learners, its theorising about the
interrelationships between the issues and how these
interrelationships determine a learners propensity to engage. It
is this power that confirms the choice of the Grounded Theory
method as an appropriate one for this research study. The
opportunity for this theory now is to inform designing for

Methodological Notes

The primary data for this study came from online interviews
with 32 adult online distance learners plus 3 campus-based
online learners from 9 different countries, 23 of whom had
studied on the same 20 week course and 9 of whom had studied
on courses planned to run over 2 or more years. Five interviews
were held with individuals using chat software; four were held
face-to-face and the remainder were conducted using email. All
courses were run from British Universities; 32 of the participants
took part in learning opportunities based on a pedagogic design
of collaboration. All participants had either first degrees or
professional qualifications. Further data was collected from
observations made whilst tutoring on postgraduate courses over
a period of 45 weeks on three x 3 week online courses and three x
12 week online courses plus supervising four online projects
students from 3 different countries; 2 for 3 months each and 2 for
15 months each. Secondary data was collected from the
literature. Secondary data was collected from the literature; for
example, Kember (1995; Kember, 1999); Kember, Ying, Wan &
Yung (2005);Simpson (2003), Pierrakeas et al (2004), Shin & Kim
(1999), Dupin-Bryant (2004), Lim (2001).


1. From this point on, a distinction is made between the
‘online learner’ who does not engage with a collaborative learning
opportunity and the ‘connected’ learner who does.

2. A competent online learner will be disciplined, focused, be
able to cherry pick postings, type, be independent in finding an
‘answer now’ and where required have online group working

3. The property is satisfaction (with study as a means of
satisfying need for learning) having a dimension of degree, i.e.
high degree of satisfaction – low degree or no satisfaction.

4. At the margins of type the balance between the personal
commitment structure and level of personal competencies
change. E.g. the juggler-on-the-margin will have a less full
personal commitment structure and lower levels of personal
competencies than other jugglers. And the struggler-on-themargin
will have higher levels of personal competence and a less
full personal commitment structure than other strugglers.


Helen Scott, Ph.D. Candidate
School of Computing
University of Portsmouth
Buckingham Building
Lion Terrace
Hants UK P01 3HE


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