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

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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. © Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)569-583
Number of pages15
JournalHigher Education
Issue number5
Early online date3 Sep 2013
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2014


  • distance education
  • mobilities
  • space
  • online education
  • university


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