University of Tasmania

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Early school leaver re‑engagement through distance education

posted on 2024-07-02, 00:38 authored by Debra Urquhart

Early disconnection from school and disrupted learning results in early school leavers not attaining the requisite level of skills, knowledge, and literacy capability in preparation for life beyond school. Without educational redress, these young people experience sustained disadvantage and social exclusion. At some stage post-school, they may attempt to re-engage in second chance literacy learning, whether by choice or due to welfare obligations. Dependent on the circumstances, a distance education literacy program may provide the only option for those constrained by location or their school experiences.
As access to education is a human right and literacy enhances and widens other capabilities, distance education may provide equality of opportunity and the possibilities of attaining the learning missed out on at school. However, some education and employment stakeholders working with young people question the suitability of early school leavers learning off-site from teachers and the institution. Such beliefs arise from a deficit perception that early school leavers may still retain those life barriers that caused disadvantage at school and so, may impact on their capacity to manage their learning independently post-school in distance mode. As a result of these beliefs, these stakeholders consider an enrolment in distance education may offer more challenges than opportunities and is, therefore, unsuitable for these young people.
Beliefs hold weight as they influence actions, including interactions with young people. This raises questions regarding educational access and an early school leaver’s capacity to address missed learning and literacy gaps, especially if there are few other options available to them than distance education. Therefore, the central aim of this thesis is to explore in what ways literacy learning through distance education can be inclusive and beneficial for early school leavers.
Using case study methodology, this research focused on the multiplicity of experiences and perspectives relating to a cohort of early school leavers enrolled in a literacy qualification at a distance education campus of a public vocational education and training institution. Findings were generated through semi-structured interviews of both learners and teachers, complemented by course and policy documents and learner outcome results. To address the overall aim, the research considered learner and teacher views on distance education and the impact of relationships and the nature of learning in distance education on the learners’ experiences. Emergent themes were elicited utilising Gee’s tools of discourse analysis and then theoretically explored using Sen’s capability framework and Massey’s understandings of space, place, and identity to undertake further in-depth thematic analysis. Sen’s and Massey’s conceptual frameworks enabled a greater understanding of how interactions and interrelationships in the spaces of distance learning may foster belonging and the ability to flourish or continue to perpetuate educational exclusion and rejection for early school leavers.
Through the thesis, I demonstrate that a principles-based approach to a model of distance education facilitates positive, empathetic relationships; offers learning fit to purpose; and thereby builds belonging to the learning and the achievement of educational and employment pathways for early school leavers. I argue that the suitability of distance learning for early school leavers warrants a more positive approach and a considered position in educational re?engagement programs for young people and within policy and program offerings. This consideration necessitates appropriate equity strategies to be embedded in the provision of distance education along with applicable funding to enable relevant outcomes for young people and the expansion of valued capabilities.



  • PhD Thesis


xi, 296 pages


Tasmanian Institute of Learning & Teaching


University of Tasmania

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