Who am I?: Identity Transformation Through Distance Learning

Ena Hollinshead, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

Hollinshead, E. (2021). Who am I?: Identity transformation through distance learning. Relay Journal, 4(1), 40-45. https://doi.org/10.37237/relay/040106

[Download paginated PDF version]

*This page reflects the original version of this document. Please see PDF for most recent and updated version.


Identity is hard for many people to articulate. It is something that is always evolving and which varies depending on the context you are in and the things you do. In this article, I outline my journey through distance learning and the profound impact this had on my sense of identity and how I see myself and my place in the world. I will discuss the challenges and the support I received along the way and how autonomy played an important role for my identity transformation.

Keywords: identity, distance learning, autonomy

How a person understands his or her relationship to the world, how that relationship is constructed across time and space, and how the person understands possibilities for the future. (Norton, 2013, p. 45)

This explanation for identity struck me and made me wonder what my identity is. I currently work as an administrative staff member at a university of international studies in JapanI am a worker. I have been married for over 10 yearsI am a wife. We have two childrenI am a mother. I am a Japanese citizen who holds permanent residency in New ZealandI am an immigrant. I am currently studying towards a Masters in TESOL at a university in New ZealandI am a student.

What am I to the world? Who am I?


Making a decision to go back to university to study for myself and to invest in a new career was not easy. This was not only because I have two energetic boys at home, but also because I live in a society where starting anything new or changing directions in life, especially after a certain age, is often considered as being more unusual than exciting. Some people might say, “Why now?” (meaning “Isn’t it too late?”). Others might think, “But, you have a family and kids to look after,” (meaning “Don’t be selfish.”).

Adapting myself to a distance learning environment was another challenge, that is, to find time to study in my everyday life as a mother, a wife and a full-time worker. I believe many Japanese people still think that women are responsible for domestic duties and should dedicate their lives to their families. As Nagatomo (2016) mentions, “being a wife and mother is given a high priority in Japan,” (p. 210) and it seems that this is true for many Japanese women. In fact, against both my reason and my will, such an idea lives deep in my unconscious mind and affects my decisions. I do sometimes feel guilty about affecting my family’s lives because of my decision to study. This kind of social construct can be problematic and cause significant difficulties for those who choose to live their lives in any way opposed to it.

Finding a university where I would be able to study online was also a challenge. Financially it was unrealistic to study full time Monday to Friday on campus, which would require me to quit my job. Alternatively, there were universities which offered weekend classes on campus. However, it was not fair for my husband to sacrifice weekends to look after our young children every weekend for me to study. Although distance studying requires studying at weekends, there is much more flexibility in managing my time. Surprisingly, there were not many universities which offered online study as an option when I began my search at the beginning of 2019. Even if I could find a university somewhere outside of Japan, there was a financial challenge as an international student. Fortunately, I found a university in New Zealand which would allow me to study online. An added bonus was that I was considered as a domestic citizen in New Zealand because of my permanent residency. However, this was the only university in New Zealand where I could study by distance. I do hope that in the future, there are more universities available for someone in a similar situation as myself so that they don’t have to give up because of the same kinds of limitations. One of the unforeseen benefits of the current worldwide pandemic might be that online education is rapidly expanding in educational contexts, so people might have more choices for their learning environment in the future.

Lastly, there was the challenge of those outside forces that I cannot do anything about. One stormy night, I had to give up studying because my sons were scared of the thunder and needed their mum to stay in bed with them. There are times when you cannot control the situation around you. However, dealing with those times is a part of autonomous learning, I believe.

Distance learning has been a great opportunity for me to train myself how to learn again, and it certainly contributes to developing my autonomy as a learner. There is no one who will tell you to study. You do need to “take charge of your own learning” (Holec, 1981, p. 3). 

Motivation and Investment

Crabbe (1993) says being in charge of our own learning may consequently increase motivation, and a motivated learner is often a successful learner. Ushioda (2008) gives two key principles to maintaining motivation; these are “1) motivation must emanate from the learner, rather than be externally regulated by the teacher. 2) learners must see themselves as agents of the processes that shape their motivation” (p. 30). I have always had high motivation for learning English beginning when I was a student at secondary school. This motivation stayed with me and ultimately pushed me to make a big decision for my life and to start a new journey. I knew I wanted, and was able, to realise more of my potential than I had been reaching up until that point. I wanted to gain more knowledge on the things I am passionate about and to invest in myself. I do understand the privilege I enjoyed in being able to study for an MA and to pursue my passion in this way because of the support I receive and the environment I am in. The same certainly cannot be said for everyone, particularly those who have the motivation to learn but who live in environments which limit their options.

Motivation certainly is a key component for language learners, and they are often encouraged to cultivate it. There was no one to tell me to study because I made the decision to study online, and I am motivated by the goal I want to achieve. I have always assumed that learners who are motivated and extroverted are better language learners. However, this is not always the case. People can be motivated and at the same time not be invested in learning (Seals, 2019). Simply dividing learners into “motivated” or “unmotivated,” or “introverted” or “extroverted,” is too simplistic, and finding motivation might not be as easy as we think. It seems to me that the support one can receive either from the people around them or the environment they are in contributes enormously for people to make important decisions regarding their future, such as learning a new language, returning to university, or planning for a new career, all of which will challenge and expanding their sense of identity.

The Support

Motivation is certainly a huge part of one’s learning. However, the learning environment also contributes to learners’ performance. The MA online classes in which I participate have been welcoming and very positive. The main platform for distance students to participate in classes is an online discussion board. I haven’t had a chance to actually see my classmates or the teachers. However, the students’ contributions on the discussion board and the teachers’ feedback to the students’ comments are very constructive, and there is so much I can learn from them. Having a place where I can share my thoughts with my classmates who have the same interests and motivation, regardless of their background such as age and race, is very stimulating.

The impression that teachers give students is also important. Even though I don’t see my lecturer in person, I can still imagine what kind of person they are by their comments throughout the course or feedback on assignments. Making an environment where students are comfortable asking questions and interacting with the teacher will lead to improved learner autonomy.

Each lecturer has a different style of teaching. However, what they have in common is that they are all supportive and always open for answering questions from on-campus learners as well as distance learners. I am always grateful for the work the lecturers put into making videos for distance students every week alongside managing classes on campus.

Finally, the support I receive from my family is undoubtedly a huge part of my learning. Studying at home as a distance student, especially when you are supposed to do your part as a family member, creates stress and frustration. I am truly grateful for the support I receive from my husband who believes in me and always supports me to pursue my passion. With his support, I can have time to be a student and learn what I want.


“Those who exercised their capacity for autonomy, making conscious decisions and choices about their learning, enhanced their motivation to achieve goals in keeping with their vision rather than feeling overwhelmed and frustrated” (Murphy, 2011, p. 123). This quotation expresses exactly how I feel with my distance learning. I used to think it was impossible for me to do full-time work, be a mother and study at the same time. I used to feel overwhelmed by the amount of work and academic language used in class which I was not exposed to before. However, what keeps me going is the goal I want to achieve. I constantly remind myself of the reason why I’m studying, and this helps me to maintain my focus. 

My journey has not yet finished, but it has shown me the possibilities of expanding my identities further into the future, each of which are unique and important. I don’t have to be defined by one aspect of my identity. All of them make me who I am.

I am a worker. I am a wife. I am a mother. I am Japanese. I am a student. I also consider myself as an autonomous learner.

I hope my story will encourage someone who is thinking about starting a new journey to pursue their new identity. You don’t have to choose one; you can successfully be all of them. Being autonomous is the key.

Notes on the contributor

Ena Hollinshead is an assistant manager at Kanda University of International Studies’ Self-Access Learning Center. She graduated from the Chinese department at Kanda University. Previously she worked at an international kindergarten in Japan. Ena also lived in New Zealand for a few years. She currently is a postgraduate student studying TESOL at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand.


Crabbe, D. (1993). Fostering autonomy from within the classroom: The teacher’s responsibility. System, 21(4), 443-452.

Holec, H. (1981). Autonomy and foreign language learning. Pergamon.

Murphy, L. (2011). ‘Why am I doing this?’ Maintaining motivation in distance language learning. In G. Murray, X. Gao, & T. Lamb (Eds.), Identity, motivation and autonomy in language learning (pp. 107-124). Multilingual Matters.

Nagatomo, D. (2016). Identity, gender and teaching English in Japan. Multilingual Matters.

Norton, B. (2013). Identity and language learning: Extending the conversation (2nd ed.). Multilingual Matters.

Seals, C. A. (2019). Choosing a mother tongue: Sociolinguistic identity politics in contemporary Ukrainian discourse. Multilingual Matters.

Ushioda, E. (2008). Motivation and good language learners. In C. Griffiths (Ed.), Lessons from good language learners (pp. 19-34). Cambridge University Press.

3 thoughts on “Who am I?: Identity Transformation Through Distance Learning”

  1. Dear Ena,

    I really enjoyed reading your reflective paper! Your narrative about how you returned to university for graduate study and the challenges you faced (and are facing) resonated with me in so many personal ways because I too was in a very similar situation many years ago. I was reminded of my own search for a graduate program. In 1987, with a newborn and a preschooler, going to face-to-face classes was out of the question. My distance program consisted of ordering books from the bookstore, completing assignments alone, and then going to the post office to snail mail heavy envelopes to my teachers and wait for them to be returned with their comments written on the papers. Even with such archaic methods, I enjoyed the classes very much and I got a lot out of them. I didn’t know the term at the time, but I had become an “autonomous learner”. My doctoral program, which I started several decades later, was at an Australian university and seems very much like the one you are doing in New Zealand. It’s a far less lonely study process with an online learning community

    I think you might enjoy reading Amanda Yoshida and Adrianne Verla Uchida’s duoethnography “Diving into Tertiary Education: A Duo-Personal Journal” (in Foreign Female English Teachers in Japanese Higher Education: Narratives From Our Quarter 2020) where they talk about their decisions for returning to graduate school how their needs directed and circumstances drove them toward two different types of graduate programs. While you are still struggling to balance your multiple identities, you can see that reaching the end and achieving a whole new identity (as a future MA holder!) is not so far off in the distant future.

    While it is challenging to go back to school once we are engaged in our “real lives” (i.e. marriage, family, employment), doing so is a choice. And this choice, as you say, is motivating in itself. The examples from Ushioda (2008) that you give seem to have been guiding your own studies—first through language learning and now through graduate study.

    I do hope that you write another reflective paper when you reach the end of your studies. Well done!

  2. Dear Ena,

    I was delving myself into your narrative as I am also currently doing a distant doctorate while changing my daughter’s diaper, making a mental things-to-buy list and teaching university students.
    Do you have any strategies to shift your identity when you need to work on your coursework? Do you see any difference among the selves you have within yourself?

    As you mentioned, the construct of motivation is not necessarily binary; it is far more complicated especially when you hold multiple identities. Researchers such as Bonny Norton, Anita Pavlenko or Ron Darvin suggest the concept of imagined communities to unfold the complexity of our motives or desires for language learning. (I highly suggest their work if you are interested in L2 learner identity construction) Even in advising in language learning (ALL), imagination becomes a crucial aspect to generate a learner’s transformational moment. I am sure you are familiar with Kato and Mynard’s (2016) advising strategies including Vision board or A letter to future self.

    I am really curious what your imagined community looks like. Who are you surrounded by? What do you imagine as a member of the community?
    When I struggle with motivating myself to work on my course assignment, I try to think about the imagined community I have in mind.

    This is not an academic publication but I recommend the book called “The Super mum myth” by Anya Hayes. The book offers practical activities for mothers to cope with work/parenting stress based on psychological (CBT) approach.

    Great work and I look forward to your post-MA story as well as the next journey in English education!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *