Education

Major boost for distance learning

Victoria John

Projected student numbers for the future demand a rethink of the traditional teaching model of universities, writes Victoria John.

Besides Unisa, other institutions will have to offer some form of distance education. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande has thrown his weight behind the “progressive development” of South African distance higher education as an “indispensable and integral component of our national higher education system”.

The new draft policy framework for the provision of distance education in South African universities, published in the Government Gazette for public comment at the end of last month, presents abundant evidence that his proposal will be supported and can be implemented effectively.

It describes the predicament that many prospective students who are not able to access higher education institutions full-time because of uncertain finances and work commitments find themselves in.

The green paper for post-school education and training, published in January, states that in the past decade distance education accounted for nearly 40% of all public university enrolments. It also stated that student enrolments need to increase from about 900000 to 1.5-million by 2030 to meet the growing demand for higher education. Current infrastructure cannot accommodate this need.

The policy framework states that distance education could provide higher education more cost-efficiently than on-campus education.

New opportunities
The rapid development of information and communication technology (ICT) has also opened up new opportunities for the expansion of learning.

Given these positive factors, the key question is whether public and private institutions other than Unisa can and should offer distance education. Yes, they can and, yes, they should, the new draft policy framework states.

“However, the challenge to turn access into success requires substantial upfront investment in curriculum design and materials development, including attention to issues of structure, pacing and meaningful formative assessment, as well as ­considerable investment in decentralised student support,” it notes.

In short, considerable investment is needed to ensure the provision of high-quality distance education to more students.

Nzimande has prioritised the following issues for the expansion of distance education:

  • Growth of distance education units at higher education institutions other than Unisa where it is justified and carefully planned. The role of Unisa as South Africa’s dedicated distance education provider needs to be more clearly defined. But Unisa cannot be expected to absorb all potential higher education students who cannot be accommodated elsewhere in the system. Neither can Unisa be expected to offer all courses and programmes that cannot be offered cost-effectively elsewhere;
  • A small suite of high-volume programmes, which can be delivered at a lower cost than traditional face-to-face alternatives, while recognising that there may be a need for small-scale niche programmes at a national level, but that these will have to be funded differently, because they will not benefit from economies of scale;
  • Programmes that will give candidates meaningful opportunities for employment after completion;
  • Collaborative development and the use of common open-education resources to service these programmes. These, including curriculum maps, course materials and textbooks, must be free and readily available to educators and students;
  • Support strategies, including multipurpose centres, that take into account the challenges many students experience in coping with distance education and address the unacceptably low number of students who complete their studies;
  • Financial rewards for traditional universities to develop online learning and teaching, and offer niche programmes to those who are unable to attend full-time programmes; and
  • A recognition of the growing potential of digital resources and online support in general, and therefore the need to lobby for more affordable and collaborative access at a national level.


The funding, quality and role of ICT in distance education were also singled out for attention in the draft policy.

It was suggested that the current model of distance education receiving a subsidy of 50% of that of ­contact institutions was outdated.

“Improving quality and achieving improved module/course and programme cohort throughputs requires significant investment in team-based programme design and learning resource development as well as investment in the creation and maintenance of supportive, interactive decentralised student support systems, which will increasingly be web-based.”

Policy framework
Investment in ICT infrastructure and maintenance will need to be factored into the subsidy funding for Unisa and other distance education providers, the policy framework says.
A “comprehensive and informed” approach is needed to integrate technology into education provision in a meaningful way.

The minister has committed himself to working towards ensuring that all students have access to affordable connectivity and appropriate equipment. This will involve collaboration with other ministries to lobby for increased bandwidth and reduced costs for educational purposes.

Supporting this, a drive will be made to develop multipurpose community centres that can be used as places of learning support for higher education students. In addition, existing schools, colleges and university campuses should continue to be used as centres for support.

Quality is paramount in the policy framework’s proposals.

It requires that there be minimum requirements for the provision of quality distance education, that programmes moving to a new mode of delivery need to be reaccredited and approved for funding purposes, students need to be “tracked” so at-risk learners can receive the support they need, and a set of guidelines be ­created for new providers of distance higher education.


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