Student perceptions of the use of contact time in distance education : the case of educational administration and management students at the Natal College of Education (NCE), 1996.
Distance education in South Africa is rapidly becoming a highly favoured mode of teaching and learning with its potential to reach great numbers of previously disadvantaged learners. The enthusiasm with which it is embraced is underscored by the proliferation of organizations offering distance education courses, particularly within the field of teacher education. The 1995 South African Institute of Distance Education (SAIDE) audit of teacher education has revealed serious shortcomings of the distance education sector, particularly with regard to the poor provision of learner support. Even in Colleges of Education which received relatively favourable evaluations, the provision of student support is not strongly grounded in theory, nor are there clear models of effective contact. The literature on distance education reflects divided opinions on student support, particularly where face-to-face contact is concerned. The literature also focuses largely on perspectives of teaching and learning that reflect the views of teachers and course designers. There appears to be very little emphasis on finding out what students' perceptions are or what they might mean for the development of effective student support systems. What students believe to be the reality of their learning experience is most certainly influenced by the perceptions they hold. This study attempts to analyze and interpret student perceptions about the contact component of a newly developed further diploma in educational administration and management at the Natal College of Education, Pietermaritzburg. Data from focus group discussions and a follow-up questionnaire showed that students' perceptions about the value they attach to contact time, and the functions they believe it should serve, differ from the original intentions of the course designers. Students show relatively weak independent learning skills and strong dependence on group activities, both of which have negative implications for the effective use of distance learning materials such as interactive study guides. There are indications that a superficial evaluation of contact time might suggest that students and lecturers have similar perceptions about the value and functions associated with it, however, the interpretation of data reveals more differences than are first apparent. This points to the danger of course designers making assumptions about student perceptions which have not been tested.