Support structures and strategies used by adults to cope with distance learning.
I explored the support structures and strategies used by adults to cope with distance learning (DL). The Zimbabwe Open University (ZOU) wished to become a world class university of excellence while students struggled to complete programmes. My argument is that education cannot produce the quality of graduate that society expects unless access is accompanied by adequate effective learner support. I studied adults’ experiences with the ZOU support structures and student’s strategies that they used to cope with: administration of the programme, availability of learning materials, library, information communication technology (ICT) needs, studying in isolation, tutorials, assessment and financing the programme. Adults’ strategies for integrating study with employment, family and social commitments, and their suggestions for improving learner support in DL were crucial aspects of my study. I used a mixed-method research design of the phenomenological interview and a questionnaire survey. The design helped in comprehensive coverage and cross-data validity checks. My sample comprised three sets of Bachelor of Education (B. Ed.) students that completed on time, those that delayed completion and others that were on the programme. My epistemological position is that data obtained from interviews reflects participants’ perspectives. I collected data from past and current students. I used phenomenological interviews to understand the subjective world of my participants and the questionnaire to determine relationships among themes and cross-check findings for the sake of generalization. My study revealed that students used ZOU administrative and academic structures to cope with DL. The structures they used include: the regional centre staff and facilities, orientation, modules, the library, ICT, contact tutorials, assignments, examinations and projects. However, some students faced challenges in: orientation, communication, use of modules, supervision of assignments and projects, missing results and funding which contributed to delayed completion of the programme. As adults, my participants also used: social contracts with family and employers, study groups, private extra tutorials, outsourcing ICT services, dedicated study and past examination papers, buying own books, borrowing money, self-help income generating projects and paying fees by instalment as well as good time management to cope with DL. I recommend research into and improvement of: communication between ZOU and students, student support services, preparation and supply of modules and ICT, staff development on supervision of assignments, projects and examinations, and also student funding to enhance the quality and rate of programme completion in DL. Keywords: support structures, strategies, adults, cope and distance learning.