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


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.

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    The MSc in Digital Education, based in the School of Education at the University of Edinburgh.

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    For more about the ‘New geographies of learning’ project and its methods, see the web site at:

  3. 3.

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    In presenting the data names have been changed and deletions of certain material (date and time-markers, and interjections from the interviewer, for the most part) are indicated through ellipses. Occasionally clarification is inserted by the authors in square brackets. Data is otherwise left unedited from the original Skype text chat transcripts.

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    All students have the opportunity to attend a semi-formal graduation ceremony in the virtual world Second Life. This event is well-attended by students and staff.


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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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Correspondence to Sian Bayne.

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Bayne, S., Gallagher, M.S. & Lamb, J. Being ‘at’ university: the social topologies of distance students. High Educ 67, 569–583 (2014).

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  • Distance education
  • Mobilities
  • Space
  • Online education
  • University