Exploring the impact of (im)materiality on the literacy and meaning-making practices of first year students at a South African distance education institution: implications for support

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Open distance e-learning has been implemented at South African distance education institutions as a way to redress the inequalities of the country's apartheid past by way of enabling access to higher education for everyone, irrespective of location. Teaching and learning are delivered through modern electronic technologies, based on the assumption that students have access to and can use these technologies. The affordances of the objects that distance education students utilise as they engage in key literacy practices, as well as the spaces within which these practices take place, has not been given much empirical attention as a constituent aspect of distance education. The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic foregrounded the significance of this focus when access to public spaces such as libraries or regional learning hubs became unavailable. This qualitative case study draws on the theory of (im)materiality (Burnett, 2015), Fenwick's (2015) notion of sociomateriality and its relevance to educational research, and Thomas Moore's theory of transactional distance (1997, 1989, 2018) to examine the ways in which distance education students' academic literacy and meaning-making practices are distributed across various personal and public sites and domains. In so doing it foregrounds the performativity of the distance education discourse through the material objects students use and the spaces which become materialised for learning. Semi-structured in-depth interviews were conducted with 16 first-year distance education students to understand their use and perceptions of these objects and their negotiation of the spaces within which they are used. Drawing on Fairclough's (1992) model of Discourse, a critical discourse analysis of a key material object – the tutorial letter which is used for the mediation of the students' learning – was conducted to explore the ways in which students are positioned and its implications for power and access. The interview findings illustrate how technology functions to influence the participants' engagement with literacy practices, with significant implications for those whose access to technological objects is compromised. In doing so, the inequality of the spatial resources that students have access to and how it affects their meaning-making and learning is foregrounded. The less space that distance-education students have access to, the more their enactment of their distance-education identity is restricted, which heightens all four types of transactional distance they experience. ii The critical discourse analysis of the tutorial letters yielded two salient themes. The first relates to the implications of the use of intertextuality in the form of hyperlinks in the production and consumption of the tutorial letters and the potential for this to affect students' meaning-making practices. The second finding points to contrasting views of literacy in the tutorial letters where the autonomous and ideological approaches to literacy are utilised simultaneously, as reflected in the use of discourse at the level of text via pronouns and vocabulary. These findings raise important questions about students' access to material objects and the implications of their production and consumption for students' engagement. The study draws on the above findings to propose an expansion of the theory of transactional distance by suggesting that another type of distance be considered: that of the distance between the student and the physical learning space. The study also takes into account one of the critiques of the theory of sociomateriality, which states that the role of social structures is largely not considered in research on this subject. This study illustrates how the social structures in which the sociomaterial intra-actions occur are central to students' meaning making practices. In so doing, it contributes to the field of higher education through the insights it offers into the ways of being of distance-education students and the significance of access to a conducive learning space and material objects. The study concludes by providing recommendations that contribute to raising awareness of the impact of these on the literacy experiences of distance-education students.