Student support gaps in an open distance learning context
University of South Africa
Studying through distance education can be problematic for any student, but it can be worse for rural students for diverse reasons. To ensure that students studying through the open distance learning (ODL) system have an enduring learning experience, ODL builds student support as one of its components. The University of South Africa (Unisa) provides a number of student support services to its students but it appears most of the students are not able to access the services adequately. This article investigates the access challenges that students face in their ODL mode of study. A mixed-methods approach using a focus group and a set of questionnaires were applied to solicit the views and experiences of students on the challenges they face in accessing the support services the university offers. The results indicate that although most of the support services are in place, students in the rural areas are not able to access them adequately, thereby impacting adversely on their studies. This study recommends that Unisa increase its support services and train academic and support staff as well as students on using the support services available to them.
In addition, the growing need for skills upgrading and retraining have made it possible, as a result of technological advances, to offer quality tertiary education at a distance. ODL then presents a good opportunity for people, and most especially for mature age students. ODL is not only becoming popular in the developing countries but in the developed countries as well. Meanwhile, ODL has undergone a paradigm shift from its dependence on print media with minimal learner support to the application of educational technologies, delivering content and facilitating support for distance learners (Kamau, 2012:33). The University of South Africa (Unisa) is largest ODL provider on the African continent and one of the largest ODL providers in the world. Brindley (1995), South African Institute for Distance Education (SAIDE) (1995) and Lentell (2003) have emphasised that learner support is critical for the delivery of any quality ODL system (Unisa, 2008). Unisa's student support services include face-to-face tutorials, guidance and counselling, information and communication technology (ICT) and e-tutoring, just to name a few.
Woodley and Simpson (2014:459) referred to the high dropout and low graduation rates in distance education as "an elephant in the room in distance education". Simpson (2015) pointed out that when distance education is compared to full time studies, distance education institutions tend to have lower graduation rates in the United Kingdom. The low graduation and high dropout rates in distance and ODL apply to most distance education providing institutions. Unisa has a number of student support services in place to support its students but it appears that most of the students from the rural areas find it difficult to access the services adequately. There are also growing numbers of black students in South African universities who come from poor socio-economic backgrounds who are trying to access tertiary education to better their living conditions. Most of these students live in rural areas and the countryside, where access to student support services is difficult to attain. Statistics from the Council for Higher Education (CHE) (2016) indicate that the African student proportion of public higher education headcount enrolments rose from 64% in 2008 to 70% in 2013.
Learner support is a generic term which is applied to the range of services that are developed by institutions in order to assist their students to meet their learning objectives; to gain the knowledge, expertise and skills to be successful and complete their course or studies. There are different tools for student support that distance education institutions use, including face-to-face tutorials, workshops, guidance and counselling, telephones, information and communication technologies (ICT), and audio-visual technologies. Unisa uses most of these tools to support its students.
This paper argues that there is the need for Unisa to find out why students appear to be unwilling or unable to access the support services the institution offers as many of them, especially from the rural areas, do not use fully the support services on offer.
Freire's (1970) theory of dialogical process of conversation is premised on the assumption that for any communication to be effective, it should be in the form of a dialogue and be reciprocal (Mbatha & Naidoo, 2010). The focus of this theory is that individuals who have to develop themselves have to be active participants in their own development even if they have to be assisted by others.
Holmberg's (1983) theory of didactic conversation centres on the learner. The theory establishes a certain type of relationship between the educator and the learner which can enhance learner motivation and lead to success in the end. Holmberg (2003:73) later refined the term 'didactic' and simply referred to the concept of 'learning conversations' which allows for a more liberal use of the term than the more authoritarian term 'didactic'.
The theoretical framework underpinning this paper is Moore's theory of transactional distance which refers to the distance which exists in all educational relationships. This distance is determined by the amount of dialogue which occurs between the learner and the instructor, and the amount of structure which exists in the design of the course (Tait, 2003). Keegan (1993) and Garrison (1993) indicated that the separation between learners and their tutors and the ODL institution is geographical, while Moore (1994) viewed it as a psycho-social or transactional distance. Unisa (2007) described the physical distance as a barrier because it tends to create fear and anxiety among distance learners, by preventing them from benefiting from any form of dialogue during the learning process. Tait (2003) added that a greater transactional distance occurs when an educational program has more structure and less student-teacher dialogue. He concurred that although distance is necessarily geographically determined, what creates distance is the relationship between dialogue and structure. He suggested that one way by which a variety of transactions can occur is through the use of ICT systems, thereby improving dialogue to minimise transactional distance. Structure, according to Moore (1993), "expresses the rigidity or flexibility of the programme's educational objectives, teaching strategies and evaluation methods. It describes the extent to which an education programme can accommodate or be responsive to each learner's individual needs" (Moore, 1993:26).
I find Moore's theory of transaction distance relevant for this article because Unisa as an ODL institution appears to exhibit some elements of transactional distance on the basis of the challenges students face in accessing its support services. Appreciating the transactional distance in Unisa's learner support system and thus increasing its transactional presence to address the challenges students face in accessing the support service the institution offers, will go a long way to address the gaps in its student support initiatives.
The following specific procedures were adopted to answer the research questions:
A gap analysis or needs-gap analysis generally is a technique used mostly by businesses and organisations to compare actual performance with potential or desired performance. Fraser (2013: 70) noted that
... a need as a gap between a current situation and a future situation where a discrepancy exists between "what is" (which is the present state) and "what should be", the desired state... (Fraser, 2013: 70)It should be noted that needs-gap methodology, derived mostly from business, marketing and organisational perspectives, has a close relation with a typical learning environment methodology, which is derived from pedagogical and educational perspectives. It consists of (1) listing factors (such as attributes, competencies, performance levels) of the present situation ("what is"); (2) listing factors needed to achieve future objectives ("what should be"); and then (3) highlighting the gaps that exist and need to be filled. Jannetti (2012) added that a needs-gap analysis is a process of collecting a survey whereby both importance and satisfaction ratings are assessed, and that the process involves comparing how often each attribute is given high satisfaction rating vs. how often that attribute is given a high importance rating.
A needs-gap score according to Ozoglu (2009) is calculated for each support service by subtracting the accessibility rating for each case from the importance rating and calculating the mean of the differences. For the purposes of this article, a needs-gap mean of 1.00 or higher represents a large gap, a needs-gap mean of 0.50 to 0.99 indicates a moderate needs gap, and a needs-gap mean of 0.49 or less indicates a small needs gap. The needs gaps for the learner support services are analysed below.
|Mean||SD||Needs gap for means|
|General information about Unisa|
|Help with admission/application|
|Advice with course registration||Importance||1.09||.281||-1.30|
|Orientation to the course media/|
|Assessment of prior learning/|
|Information about University|
policies and procedures
|Mean||SD||Needs gap for means|
|One point of contact at Unisa|
for general assistance
|Information about academic|
|Communication with lecturers/|
|Communication with fellow|
|A contact person in your local area to|
assist you with your educational needs
|Help with self confidence||Importance||1.49||.535||-1.20|
|Communication on clear academic|
The most important issues under general assistance on studies as Table 2 depicts are a contact person in your local area to assist you with your educational needs with an importance (1.09) mean score and an accessibility 3.35 mean score and a needs gap of -2.26, followed by communication with lecturers/tutors with a mean score of 1.03 and an accessibility mean score of 2.24 and a needs gap of -1.21. The third most important issue is on one point contact at Unisa for general assistance with a mean score for importance at 1.05 and accessibility 3.02 resulting in a needs gap of -1.97.
|Mean||SD||Needs gap for means|
|Information about getting textbooks and study materials||Importance||1.18||.385||-0.90|
|General orientation to library and other learning resources||Importance||1.28||.471||-1.09|
The need gaps for general orientation to library and other learning resources according to the respondents is higher under materials -1.09 with mean scores of 1.28 (medium importance) and 2.37 (accessibility) respectively in Table 3. The item information about getting textbooks and study materials also shows satisfaction among students with mean scores of 1.18 (importance) and 2.08 (accessibility) respectively. The combined importance and accessibility scores for both items show dissatisfaction as well.
|Mean||SD||Needs gap for means|
|Information about how to address concerns||Importance||1.07||.253||-1.51|
|Communication about Unisa events||Importance||1.83||.400||-0.78|
Table 4 on addressing students' concerns indicates mean scores of 1.07 (very important) and 2.58 (not very accessible) and a needs gap of -1.51 which is a concern. The needs gap for communication about Unisa events has a medium needs gap of -0.78 but information about addressing students' concerns (-1.51) indicates high levels of dissatisfaction.
|Mean||SD||Needs gap for means|
|Information about billing and fee payments||Importance||1.85||.407||-0.42|
Services regarding financial assistance to students (Table 5) shows there is a need for financial information and financial assistance from Unisa by students as the importance mean score is 1.14 and accessibility is 3.85 (very inaccessible), thereby creating a needs gap of -2.71. The needs gap on information about billing and fee payment indicate a small needs gap of -0.42 which suggests that the university possibly is a bit more efficient on billing and enforcing the payment of fees.
As Table 6 depicts, the needs gaps for all the three items under tutorials are very high. The highest needs gap under tutorials is the ability to attend tutorials -1.87 with mean scores of 1.04 (very important) and 2.91 (accessibility) respectively, followed by access to tutorial centres with a needs gap of -1.58 and information about tutorials with a needs gap of -1.10. Face to face support which includes orientation, group tutorials, study skills training, weekend tutorials and individual help from tutors are crucial for any distance education system. This kind of interaction is vital as it has the highest perceived value among learners. It is therefore crucial for Unisa to take the issue around tutorials and tutors seriously.
|Mean||SD||Needs gap for means|
|Information about tutorials||Importance||1.07||.253||-1.10|
|Access to tutorial centers||Importance||1.04||.203||-1.58|
|Ability to attend tutorials||Importance||1.04||.203||-1.87|
|Mean||SD||Needs gap for means|
The needs gap on technical services as Table 7 above is very high with needs gaps of -1.49 and -1.49 for computer access and Internet access respectively. The responses on the mean scores for the two items under technical services indicate that students rank this service as very important. The mean scores for the two items under accessibility are all above 2.00. This information should be of great concern to Unisa as it is moving towards Internet-based delivery.
|Mean||SD||Needs gap for means|
|Awareness of myUnisa||Importance||1.04||.242||-1.32|
|Use of myUnisa for study purposes||Importance||1.03||.182||-1.92|
In Table 8, the use of myUnisa [http://www.unisa.ac.za/sites/myunisa/default/] by Unisa as a support tool for study and information by students indicates there is a high needs gap as the satisfaction about the service is not encouraging. The mean score for importance on the use of myUnisa for study purposes stands at 1.03 (very important) and not very accessible at 2.95, thereby creating a needs gap of -1.92. On the awareness of myUnisa as a support tool, the mean score for importance is 1.04 and accessibility 2.36 and a needs gap of -1.32. These high needs gaps warrant investigation as myUnisa is the main student portal for accessing most of the services between the University and students, and among the students themselves.
|Mean||SD||Needs gap for means|
|Relevance of assignments to your studies||Importance||1.03||.225||-0.84|
|Usefulness of assignment feedback||Importance||1.04||.305||-0.81|
|Turnaround time for assessed work||Importance||1.04||.305||-1.24|
|Attendance at discussion classes||Importance||1.12||.397||-1.70|
|Attendance at video conferencing||Importance||1.13||.534||-1.70|
Table 9 above on assignments clearly indicates high levels of dissatisfaction among the respondents on issues relating to assignments. The mean scores for all the items on importance range between 1.03 and 1.13 while the mean scores for the items for accessibility range between 1.85 and 2.83. The three items under assignments with the highest needs gap were attending discussion classes, attending video conferencing, and turnaround time for assessed work. It should be noted that since Unisa is an ODL institution where students are taught mainly through assignments, there is the need to explore the reasons for this situation.
|Mean||SD||Needs gap for means|
|Access to regional service centres||Importance||1.14||.524||-1.43|
|Facilities for individual learning at regional centres||Importance||1.13||.361||-1.61|
|Facilities for group discussions at regional centres||Importance||1.21||.522||-1.57|
|Ability to collect materials from regional centres||Importance||1.23||.547||-1.03|
|Availability of library facilities at regional centres||Importance||1.18||.385||-1.44|
|Availability of computer facilities at regional centres||Importance||1.15||.354||-1.59|
|Access to computer and Internet facilities at regional centres||Importance||1.08||.268||-1.59|
|Availability of tutors at regional and other centres||Importance||1.06||.238||-1.61|
In Table 10 for other services, the mean scores for all the items under importance range between 1.06 and 1.23, which implies that students place high value/importance on these services. The accessibility scores on the other hand range between 2.26 and 2.78. The items with the highest needs gap were the availability of tutors at regional and other centres (-1.61), facilities for individual learning at regional centres (-1.61) and access to computer and internet facilities at regional centres (-1.59). With Unisa's move towards e-learning and ICT-facilitated teaching and learning, it is worth assessing what can be done here.
From the focus group interview, the respondents confirmed the existence of some of the learner support services which they were able to describe in detail. For example, they indicated that there are regional hubs where they can go to access computer and ICT services, register for courses and modules, use library services and send assignments, just to name a few. When they were asked the question: Where do you access the support services? The response was "At the Unisa regional office in Mafikeng."
When asked about the support services they receive they said:
We go to the library to read and borrow books, use the computers at the centre, submit our assignments, do our registrations and other things.They were, however, very critical of the long distances they have to travel to the regional hubs to access some of the services as well as some of the facilities not being sufficient. They mentioned the ICT infrastructure which they need to use at the centres but end up not having access to them as they are occupied by those who arrive there first. On the question: How accessible are the computers at the centre? The response was:
They are few and all the time occupied by those who arrive at the centre first. Those of us who have to travel long distances to this place hardly have access to them. They are simply not enough.They also indicated that they occasionally use the myUnisa platform for their studies. On the question: To what extent do you use myUnisa for your studies? The response was:
We mainly use it to send our assignments but we do not know how to use the other functions on the platform. We do not understand the system well so we mostly use it for our assignment.They also expressed frustration at their inability to navigate and use the ICT services because of their poor technical background in using computers. When asked: Why do you not use the myUnisa platform adequately for your studies? The response was:
We do not know how to use the system. It is complex and we are not trained on its use. Our computer skills are very limited so it really poses problems for us.The other concerns the focus group expressed was on poor administrative and academic support they received from staff. They indicated that the administrative staff gave them conflicting messages when they needed assistance at the regional centre. When asked: What are your experiences regarding the administrative support that is offered to you at the centre? They were scathing. The response was "Some of the staff are rude and impatient with us and hardly answer their phones when we call." They indicated that for one reason or the other, they were not able to access most of the support services fully although they placed high value or importance on those services as far as their studies were concerned.
The discussions are summarised in four themes for the study after taking into account the literature survey and the empirical study. The four themes are transactional distance/presence, conflict/tension, experience of distance education and delivery modes at Unisa, and staff development.
Evidence from the study points to high levels of dissatisfaction among the respondents with the support services. It also indicates the importance the students attach to the support services as well as the low levels of their accessibility. Meanwhile, SAIDE (2009) pointed out that any proper learner support system should take into account the following three factors:
The tenuous situation as indicated above on students' perceptions about the delivery systems is quite in line with Chen's (2001) dimension of learner-interface transactional distance, and Tait's (2003) systemic support system in learner support. As Chen (2001) pointed out, the learner-interface transactional distance relates to the degree of user-friendliness/difficulty that learners perceive when they use the delivery systems. Some of the items which address the learner-interface, according to Chen (2001), include delivery systems such as searching resources on the Internet, uploading assignments, and using chat rooms, among others. This study clearly indicates that the learner-interface dimension is not working well. SAIDE (2008) pointed out that a number of institutions across the world are now using mobile technologies such as handheld PCs, PDAs, mobile phones and iPods as very convenient and suitable for the purpose of learner support in a developing country such as South Africa. It is imperative for distance education providers to adapt to changes to the needs of their students.
On Unisa's policy pronouncements and actual reality for learner support, as indicated above in the policies such as Tuition, Learner Support and Vision 2015, there are clear policy directions on the ODL policy of Unisa in which learner support is one of its central features. For example, Unisa's (2008:8) ODL Policy document stated in part that Unisa "must ensure adequate staffing levels to allow defensible staff-to-student ratios, and proper support to our students". It added that the establishment of leading-edge ICT architecture is vital for the institution to have a competitive edge and sustainability. Among its principles in the ODL policy document, Unisa (2008) stated that Unisa as a comprehensive ODL institution will:
In the Unisa context, students come from diverse backgrounds ranging from school leavers to mature adult learners. Their circumstances equally differ in their economic situations, social backgrounds as well as the areas of residence. This research has found both good and poor experiences by students accessing support services.
This study indicates that there is little dialogue or interaction in Moore's (1993) sense and Chen's (2001) learner-instructor dimension which leads to transactional distance and bad learning experiences in any learning situation, most especially in the ODL context.
Learner support in all its forms has been noted to be crucial for students' success in all learning situations, most especially in the ODL mode. Croft, et al. (2010) argued that the use of personal tutors, online/telephone assistance, work place mentors, peer learning, group induction sessions, study skills workshops and access to local libraries have been found to be helpful in dealing with student isolation and enabling success in learning. The services mentioned above all depend on the availability and quality of the staff. Chen's (2001) dimensions of transactional distance (learner-instructor; learner-content; and learner-interface) all depend on the availability and quality of the support that staff offer to students. This view is in line with Tait's (2003) model which identifies the three components of learner support systems as cognitive, administrative/systemic and affective support.
The need for staff development was emphasised by Roberts (2004) who states that institutions should ensure that:
Students clearly articulated the importance they attach to learner support in their studies. The high needs gaps for all the learner support service items surveyed indicate that there are serious problems for students in accessing the services. The challenges that students face in accessing the support services include economic constraints, social factors, physical barriers, transactional distance on the part of Unisa in the form of academic, affective and administrative problems. The results indicate that, although most of the support services are in place at the institution and at its regional offices, some of the students, most especially those in the rural areas, are not able to access the support services adequately, which impacts negatively on their studies and learning experiences.
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|Author: Akwasi Arko-Achemfuor is an Associate Professor at the Department of Adult Education and Youth Development at the University of South Africa. He has taught in many educational institutions in Ghana, Lesotho and South Africa. His research interests are in economic empowerment and poverty reduction, adult education and small enterprise development.|
Please cite as: Arko-Achemfuor, A. (2017). Student support gaps in an open distance learning context. Issues in Educational Research, 27(4), 658-676. http://www.iier.org.au/iier27/arko-achemfuor.html