Underlying structures of power in online learning: lessons from early adopters

Josephine Adekola, Noreen Siddiqui, Alexis Barlow

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This paper explores underlying power structures in an online learning environment through the lens of the community inquiry framework. By drawing on interview data from 22 students and 12 module leaders across three programmes at one higher education institution (HEI) in the UK, the study explores how technology enhances or inhibits cognitive presence, teaching presence, and social presence in an online learning environment. The results show that the pedagogical or psychological characteristics and approaches to online learning can enhance learners' experience or silence them, diminishing their experience in an online learning environment. This paper's core argument is that online learning occurs in a virtual space aided by 'technology' in which learners can access, engage, and interact within a community for a meaningful learning experience. However, a degree of bias can arise from the asymmetries of power underlying a technology-aided environment. This bias is shaped by 'access' to the online environment, 'skills, and expertise needed to take advantage of opportunities in the virtual environment, the nature of 'curriculum design' and module 'delivery plan' that determine learners' ability to become reflective autonomous learners. These biases have the potential to enhance or inhibit the student learning experience. The paper sets out what this means within the broader context of higher education policy and practice.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)16-28
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Perspectives in Applied Academic Practice
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 5 Aug 2021


  • forced transition
  • power
  • online learning
  • community of Inquiry framework
  • early adopters


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