Higher Education

, Volume 67, Issue 5, pp 569–583 | Cite as

Being ‘at’ university: the social topologies of distance students

  • Sian BayneEmail author
  • Michael Sean Gallagher
  • James Lamb


This paper considers how online, distance students enact the space of ‘the university’, in the context of the rise of distance education within a traditional, ‘elite’ institution. Aiming to provide insight into how students translate into distance the space of a university which has traditionally had its basis in conventional on-campus education, it locates itself within the ‘new mobilities’ paradigm (Urry in Mobilities. Polity Press, Cambridge, 2007), drawing on four different kinds of social space delineated by Mol and Law (Soc Stud Sci 24(4):641–741, 1994) and Law and Mol (Environ Plan D 19:609–621, 2001) in order to analyse narrative and visual data generated with distance students at the University of Edinburgh. The paper shows that the material campus continues to be symbolically and materially significant for a group of students who may never physically attend that campus. Distance students, we find, need their own version of the ‘spatial certainties’ of bounded, campus space. Yet, in exploring the ‘new proximities’ of online distance education, we also argue that to define institutional and academic authenticity solely in terms of this bounded, ‘regional’ space is inadequate in the face of the other topologies which also come into play throughout distance students’ accounts of what it means to be ‘at’ university.


Distance education Mobilities Space Online education University 



This research was funded by a grant from the Principal’s Teaching Award Scheme administered by The University of Edinburgh. We would like to acknowledge the input of the entire research team, which included Jen Ross, Hamish Macleod and Clara O’Shea in addition to the paper authors. We would also like to thank our students and research participants for their generosity in giving their time, words, images and soundscapes to this project.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Sian Bayne
    • 1
    Email author
  • Michael Sean Gallagher
    • 2
  • James Lamb
    • 3
  1. 1.School of EducationThe University of EdinburghEdinburghUK
  2. 2.Hankuk University of Foreign StudiesSeoulKorea
  3. 3.Lothian Equal Access PartnershipThe University of EdinburghEdinburghUK

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