The surprising lack of pressure and speed in the centre of the vortex of a storm are in stark contrast to the force and destruction often experienced at its periphery. Many spectators watching a developing storm will be caught between fear and a desire to escape. The metaphor of a storm has been applied here to the emotions experienced by many students enrolling in online learning courses. Not only do the requirements of studying online collide with personal and professional commitments, the experience of learning online (often in groups) results in many students feeling displaced, scared or out of control. Learning diaries, especially in an online environment, present students with an opportunity to reach the centre of the vortex, though this may not be as quiet and safe as we may have presumed. This paper reports on students’ reflections in their learning diaries as a prescriptive part of the Professional Certificate in Management offered by the Open University. The research focused on the unstructured learning diary entries of 12 students from one tutor group over an 18 day period of a short compulsory online course. This phenomenographic study used grounded theory as methodology to analyse and describe students’ use of their learning diaries. The research found ample evidence that online learning diaries provide students with a safe space to reflect on the vortex around them. Without a quiet and reflective centre, students may be overwhelmed by the wider forces impacting on them. Students’ postings provided rich descriptions of the vortex of studying online and the function of having a centre to which to withdraw. There is, however, also evidence that posting reflections in learning diaries can itself be a dislocating and uncomfortable experience for some learners, while others question its usefulness. The work provides practical and useful information for managers of online learning experiences, instructional designers and curriculum developers
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