Alternate systems of education (distance and virtual) : South African trends.
It has been well documented (Education and Training White Paper I,II and III) that one of the key challenges facing South African post apartheid education is the need to transform the educational sector that was systematically destroyed by many years of apartheid education. Whilst dealing with the process of transformation, South African education is also expected to deal with many other pressures that beset, at present, educational landscapes world wide. These pressures relate directly to the increased demand for access to higher education with a corresponding reduction in government funding for tertiary education. The massification of higher education has placed great pressure on traditional face to face higher education institutions to provide access to larger numbers of students. Student profiles have also changed considerably in post apartheid South Africa. In the past apartheid policies restricted access to the majority of students consequently there are many adult students who are now beginning to enroll at tertiary institutions to upgrade their expertise and qualifications. South African tertiary institutions see it as their imperative to find innovative ways to make their places of learning more flexible and accommodate students wanting life long learning. Based on the above challenges facing the South African educational landscape, this study investigated the popularity of distance and virtual education as a viable alternate system of learning amongst higher education students in South Africa. The study found that distance education is a very popular choice amongst students who are above 35 years of age. Another finding, was that distance education is popular amongst students pursuing a qualification (diplomas, honours, masters and doctoral degrees) in a variety of professions such as, Computers, Nursing Science, Public Administration, Business Administration, Police Services, Teacher Education, Human Resource Management and Financial Management. While revealing that distance education is a popular choice amongst tertiary students, the study also found that distance education institutions (UNISA and SACOL) provide a very low level of learner support to students. The majority of the students indicate that they are very unhappy about the quality and type of study materials that they receive. They also point out that the format of the study materials is always in the form of correspondence based print materials. These materials are too theoretical, confusing and difficult to understand. In terms of staff support, students felt that staff were not sympathetic to their problems and were always unavailable for consultation. The study also found that the type of feedback students received from staff was not in depth and constructive. In this regard, however, both SACOL and UNISA staff indicate that they do not have adequate time to provide learner support as they have very large classes to contend with, in some instances over 400 students per class. The study reveals that students are unhappy with the fact that their institutions persist with print materials as their primary mode of education delivery. Students overwhelmingly show a preference for multi mediated technologies in their course delivery. On line (Internet) based teaching and learning is high on their priority. It was surprising to find that the majority of students were computer literate. Students indicate that they were self taught in computers as they gained access to it at their place of work. This highlights the point that the work place, is now demanding a new type of worker, namely the knowledge worker. It is for this reason that higher education institutions ought to begin to invest in technology enhanced teaching and learning. In the literature review (chapter two), the study provides a number of advantages of harnessing online education. Perhaps, the most significant advantage of employing computer technology in distance education is that of cost reduction with a commensurate increase in productivity. The literature review also highlights various other potential benefits (personalised education, time and place independence, increased access, etc) to be gained from using online distance education learning systems such as the Internet and Web based applications, etc. In conclusion, the study provides a number of recommendations on how distance education provision could be enhanced in South Africa. Specific recommendations are offered to distance education institutions on strategies that could be employed to increase the quality of learner support and the advantages of employing technology enhanced delivery modes. Recommendations are also offered to the Department of Education (DoE) in terms of revising its policy as outlined in the National Plan on Higher Education (NPHE) with specific reference to distance education provision in South Africa.