Distance Education and the Muslim Student

Christie Elemam

Paper Rationale

When UWS called for papers for this forum, I had a simple message that I wished to convey. That Distance Education provides a real opportunity for students, but particularly female Muslim students because it enables them to achieve their educational goals. The discussion paper proposal was out in literally five seconds as I knew what I wanted to achieve.

Drafting the paper has proved much more difficult. In the first instance, I can count on my hands the number of Muslim students I know studying by distance education and there are great difficulties in obtaining statistics on Muslim students in tertiary education because it relies on self-identification. Secondly, perhaps the message I was wishing to convey was simply mine. There are only two students studying law at Southern Cross University who have identified themselves to staff as Muslim and I have been unable to contact the other student. To combat this I distributed a short survey amongst fellow students, colleagues, friends and acquaintances including their collective thoughts were possible.

The thoughts, comments and views represented in this paper are my own, they are not representative of Southern Cross University however I wish to acknowledge early on the support and assistance of the Law School particularly Jennifer Nielsen for her endless support and dialogue, not only for this paper, but of me in the pursuit of my studies.

Distance Education

What is distance education?

Distance Education is an emerging phenomenon throughout Australian universities. By necessity, it is rapidly expanding to cope with the increased demand for more flexible study arrangements. Many universities now offer this mode of study in a large array of subjects. It generally involves a student receiving a package of study materials, through which they work in order to complete the set tasks assigned throughout the semester, often culminating in an examination during a set time period. Examination centres are located in a variety of areas, in order to allow students convenient access to attend and complete the subject requirements.

Benefits of studying by distance education

The benefits of studying by distance education are individual reliant that is, the benefits will flow from the individual circumstances of each person studying. The survey responses noted that many considered the opportunity to continue with their employment a major benefit. Other comments included the ability to work at one's own pace and flexibility in the time and location as to study. One participant appreciated that there were no travel requirements each day whilst another indicated they appreciated having all the notes given to them.

Difficulties of studying by distance education

Distance education can be a difficult, isolated and lonely method of studying. Some of the difficulties expressed by survey participants were that there was no one to talk to when you needed it the most, there was no one-to-one interaction with lecturers, with a time delay often occurring between any contact, as well as missing out on the opinions of others and just the general sharing of ideas through social interaction.

Further, a number of respondents indicated that it was at times, difficult to maintain motivation as they often found themselves procrastinating. One respondent commenting that, perhaps the fact that there was little variety in the course materials because of the necessary modes of communication was a contributing factor.

Comparable success rates between internal and distance education students

According to Course Coordinator Jennifer Nielsen there was a real difference between the work of internal and external students and as such in their results. As the project has developed and changed to assist students in the best practices possible, the differences between internal and external students is barely distinguishable between the two groups.

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Personal Experiences

My distance education experience

At the end of this semester I will have completed five years of distance education, obtaining two degrees along the way, a Bachelor of Legal and Justice Studies and a Law degree. Throughout my first degree the only people who were aware that I was Muslim were those whom I met at the exam centres twice a year. This was for just a few hours at a time, when we were under incredible stress. Not much social interaction took place, with the relief of finishing often sending us our separate ways with a quick good luck and a see you next time.

Upon acceptance into the LLB I was informed that I had one week to plan a week long trip to Lismore to participate in the first of three workshops. Having grown up in the country as a non-Muslim I was not particularly excited. I knew the type of prejudices that existed in many country towns. I spent the week bracing myself for worst, more apprehensive about the reaction from the townspeople than the university. I pondered it the whole way on a 12 hour bus journey.

On arrival the first morning, as students gathered around the allocated room making small talk and eyeing off the competition. I was approached directly by a middle age student who bluntly, but quite loudly, asked if I had been searched by the police on my way up to Lismore, particularly for explosives. I looked at her in surprise then realized she was quite serious and that was my first discussion at the on- campus workshop. They day was a mixture of nice people being nice, people pretending to be nice and an array of thoughtless questions regarding my personal hygiene, my wardrobe choices and my level of education. At the end of the day at a welcome reception for students to get together with staff in an informal session, a fellow student's wife, in my presence declared, 'Isn't it nice that they let the Muslim girl come to law school'. I left the reception questioning myself, my decision to pursue these studies but also, sadly, my future as an Australian Muslim.

However, things were not all ghastly. The Law School staff, particularly my year's coordinator, really made an effort to make me feel at ease, having made provision for vegetarian food options, non-alcoholic beverages and encouraging my participation in the event through dialogue. By the week's end, there was a mixture of positives and negatives, ranging from blatant racist and xenophobic comments, through to the making of wonderful friendships that continue today with staff and students alike.

I attended the second compulsory workshop in June and again, I was not looking forward to it. I was steeling myself for the anticipated comments and snide remarks which I had received from the small group of the first workshop and found instead that these people from the original workshop were not in attendance for various reasons. This time the groups were smaller and much more welcoming. The lecturers and administration staff had obviously taken it upon themselves to utilise the information they had gained from my last visit and the social events organized had been organised with my needs in mind including the late moving of a dinner for the entire class from a pub dining room to a restaurant within the same locality. Rather than being perturbed by the late change, my fellow students were welcoming, many acknowledging that whilst it made little difference to them, it was good that I would be able to participate.

The workshop was a great success both from a learning perspective and personally. I enhanced my existing friendships and developed some new ones. I also found that people were much more willing to ask me what they thought might be personal questions about Islam and my beliefs. Some people mentioned that this was the first time that they had had the chance to ask these questions.

The next workshop, and sadly my last, will be held next week, and I am glad to say I am looking forward to it. The willingness of the staff and students to learn more about Islam and Muslim' needs and to adapt where necessary and appropriate, means that I am guaranteed of being able to participate at the highest level. I also further believe that it has paved the way for more Muslim students to participate with greater ease in law programs at the campus.

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Support facilities for Muslim students via distance education

As a Muslim student I believe that I receive no more or no less support from the law school than other students. We all have access to lecturers and support staff by the email and telephone when pre-arranged; there are online forums which are geared towards encouraging group discussion and interaction; lectures are made available on MP3 recordings and assessments are designed to incorporate collegial learning through case notes etc due by different students on different weeks. This is the equality approach of the university. Students who utilise these facilities gain from them, those who do not are at no disadvantage in terms of the curriculum but may miss the social interaction and support of others.

Moreover, the Law School at Southern Cross University has a strict computer policy which outlines the conditions and terms of use for participating in the discussion boards and online forums. The staff at the school closely monitors the conversations that take place on these sites and are quick to intervene when necessary.
Following my first workshop, numerous comments were made, over a short period, through anonymous postings, which in essence where directed at my attendance at the workshop and my participation in the course. Within 6 hours of the first posting, all such postings had been removed from the site, an on-site warning had been issued to all users by the LLB Course Coordinator and nothing more was raised over the contents. However, the school did revamp the discussion boards the following semester, removing the ability for people to make anonymous postings. This example is relevant to Muslims only in that it was a Muslim student who was the target. The school follows similar stringent processes regardless of the target, as I have witnessed on one other occasion since.

The universities' policies and procedures are a great support to Muslim students, as they are to each and every student in their programs, because they provide equity and support diversity. They guarantee the Australian 'fair go for all' whilst embracing the difference of each person.

Support facilities for Muslim students at on-campus workshops

The campuses of Southern Cross University are extremely Muslim friendly despite that fact that only a small percentage of their staff and students across their three campuses are Muslim. Tweed Heads offers halal food because of a small group of Malaysian students is located there and all three campuses have incorporated prayer rooms into their religious facilities.

On a side note, on day one of the first workshop, come lunchtime I was drained and ready to prayer. I located the campus Muslim prayer facilities in the vicinity of the Christian chaplain's offices. I entered the rooms and the Chaplin was more than welcoming. I asked if it was OK for me to use the prayer room and he invited me in saying of course, 'Would you like me to prayer with you?' I stood silently for a moment bewildered, I checked I still had my scarf on and simply said 'I think we do it a little differently'. He smiled and replied, 'But of course but if you need me I will just be out here'.

Muslims also benefit from the diverse student populace at Lismore campus. Given that there are many vegetarian and vegan students, it is quite easy to find nice affordable lunch choices, and there are numerous cafes for meeting in areas away from the local Uni bar.

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The Hard Questions

What does distance education offer to Muslim students?

Distance education provides Muslim students with the opportunity to continue their education, whether it be following on from completion of the Higher School Certificate, or completion of a degree which they had previously started. As a generalization of my group of friends, it is fair to say that most married young, had children at an earlier age and often close together and are now juggling to get the balance right between their own needs, their families' needs and their career/education aspirations. As such, pools of talented individuals are left out of the career/education market place.

It is often said that 'Women can have it all - career and family' and that is as true for Muslim women as it is for any others. Distance Education has provided me personally with the opportunity to fulfil a life long goal of obtaining a law qualification while at the same time building a life with my husband and two young daughters, and at other times continuing to build my career with employment.

What is stopping more Muslims from accessing distance education?

Muslims are not accessing distance education in as great a numbers as those wishing to study. There are many barriers such as young children and family commitments, work, cost and time and motivation which are all able to be overcome through the support of family and friends.

However, the biggest barrier to distance education could possibly be the community itself, with many individuals being of the opinion that qualifications obtained by distance education are not as valid as those obtained by on-campus students. As such, the support networks are not encouraging of distance education with myths such as these being perpetuated, thus creating doubt for many about pursuing distance education.

Is there equal access for Muslim students to distance education?

Access to distance education is equally available to any person who wishes to pursue further education. The law school at Southern Cross University has developed a tiered education structure which allows people to study an Associate degree of Law first, if they are in doubt about the suitability of studying for them or about their abilities to complete the workload. It also allows individuals who have not obtained the pre-requisites for immediate entry in the Law degree to study in the area with an opportunity of transferring over upon receiving a credit grade point average from their first year's results.

Does distance education offer full inclusion to Muslim students?

Distance education is by no means an easy option for obtaining tertiary qualifications for any students and the level of inclusion in the activities and planned interaction is up to the individual and equally available to each individual.

When it comes to workshops, distance education providers who have never had Muslim students as part of their programs will not be aware of the needs of Muslims students until they are informed of the same. As such the onus really is on the Muslim student to communicate effectively with their distance education coordinator and workshop lecturers to let them know what particular things they may be requiring. In my experience coordinators and workshop staff are more than happy to accommodate needs, but they are not mind readers. Course coordinator Jennifer Nielsen suggests that through my involvement it has 'help[ed] us anticipate things we need to do the next time, and ways to coordinate activities so that they are as friendly as possible to anyone who might attend

Can distance education provide Muslim students with successful outcomes in their education?

Distance education is an excellent forum for allowing Muslim students to obtain tertiary qualifications whilst maintaining their responsibilities to their commitments and their religion. However, success will only be achieved in my opinion, by ensuring that the student has a supportive network which is encouraging of their studies and where the individual has self-motivation and desire to achieve their goals.

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