GLOBAL TRENDS AND INFLUENCES IN HIGHER EDUCATION

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INTRODUCTION

One of the first aims of a research study should be to establish what has already been done in the field of study (Mouton 2001: 86).  In this study, the literature review has fulfilled that purpose.  Chapters two and three provided a literature review of, amongst others, education theory, global trends in higher education, higher education policy formulation and implementation globally and nationally, issues of governance, the role of ODL globally and nationally, and the impact on higher education policy on ODL provision in South Africa.This formed a theoretical framework for the empirical investigation.This chapter sets out the research design of the empirical investigation, detailing the type of design, the sampling method and procedure, data collection, data analysis, issues of reliability and validity and ethical considerations.  The rationale for using a combined or mixed method research design has been provided, and the two phases of the combined research design explained.

METHOD RESEARCH DESIGN

The traditional approach to social science research was primarily quantitative until approximately four decades ago when there began to be a gradual introduction and adoption of more qualitative and mixed method research designs.  Prior to that, research had generally been positivistic in nature, employing objective quantitative measurement to arrive at an objective, scientifically verifiable „truth‟.  Alvesson and Skölberg (2000:1) assert that from what appears or is presented as data, facts, or the unequivocal prints of reality [my emphasis] it is possible to acquire a reasonably adequate basis for empirically grounded conclusions and as a next step, for generalisations and theory- building.  However, quantitative research has been criticised for its seeming inability to address a variety of aspects of human lives, and questions have been raised as to whether the unequivocal prints of reality are in fact satisfactorily unequivocal or real.  Furthermore, as discussed  the positivist theory of knowledge is a social construct, and it is therefore ephemeral in nature, a transient reality and hardly a foolproof means of deriving an immutable reality or truth.  This criticism finds resonance in Wittgenstein‟s (1974:149) famous comment that “when all possible scientific questions have been addressed they have left untouched the main problems of life.”Given this view, another paradigmatic understanding is required that acknowledges the possibility of deep and often hidden meaning structures that may offer additional, more nuanced layers of meaning, which when appropriately explored, suggest a more comprehensive „truth.‟   Husserl (1970: 1936) refers to this as our “life-world,” which has both subjective and objective characteristics.  The subjective characteristics reflect our perceptions or views on the meaning of our world, while the objective characteristics reflect the meaning that we negotiate with others and which then becomes a shared reality.  This view speaks to a qualitative, interpretivist research methodology.  While positivists believe that human experience of the world reflects an independent reality which provides the foundation for human knowledge, interpretivists intentionally constitute knowledge through their experiences of their life-worlds.   It could be asserted then, that the qualitative researcher aims to isolate and define phenomena and/or categories during the process of research in order to comprehend and learn, whereas the quantitative researcher aims to determine the relationship between the phenomena and/or categories already identified and isolated prior to the research (Kvale 1996).  The key difference between quantitative research and qualitative research methods is their flexibility, with quantitative research being less flexible than qualitative research.Given the nature and the aims of the study, I believed that the most appropriate research design would be a combined , or mixed method, research design. The research design was selected on the basis of the research question and sub questions, and employed both a quantitative and qualitative phase.The quantitative component of the research, Phase 1, aimed to interrogate the research statement by using an instrument, namely, a Likert Scale that would allow the researcher to ask identical questions to a wide range of respondents, in the same order and in a close-ended and fixed manner. The survey aimed to quantify through the collection of numerical data, the variation, causal relationships, characteristics and perceptions of a specific population. The survey therefore provided a quantitative or numerical description of a sample of the population through a data collection process of asking people questions (Fowler 1998).  The main advantage of the quantitative design was that it allowed for meaningful comparison of responses across the participants and study site.Creswell (1994: 1) defines the qualitative paradigm as an enquiry process of understanding a social or human problem, based in building a complex, holistic picture, formed with words, reporting detailed views of informants, and conducted in a natural setting. Thus, the qualitative component of this design, Phase 2, allowed for a deep and rich exploration of higher education policy developments post 1994, more specifically policy relating to planning, funding and quality in higher education, and took the form of in-depth, face-to-face interviews with identified elite informants.The greater flexibility of qualitative research methods allows for greater spontaneity and adaptation between the interviewer and the participant. Interview questions are mainly open- ended leaving participants free to respond in their own words and to provide far more detail than is the case with quantitative research.  Kvale (1996:5) asserts that the qualitative research interview aims to obtain a description of the life world of the interviewee with respect to interpreting the meaning of the described phenomena. The immediacy of the interview session also allows the researcher to probe more deeply and tailor subsequent questions to elicit a more comprehensive response. This implies that the relationship between the interviewer and the interviewees is closer and less formal than the relationship with the survey participant in quantitative research.

Rationale for a combined design approach

This study comprised a survey (Phase 1) and in-depth interviews (Phase 2). Use was made of concurrent data gathering in terms of which the survey was conducted and the findings analysed.  Interviews were then conducted using the findings from the surveys to inform the interview questions.  The interviews were subsequently analysed and the findings contextualised within the current status of higher education.  The aim in adopting this methodology was threefold: to emphasise the convergence of results, or themes; to highlight contradictions and unearth fresh perspectives on the issues at hand; and to apply the findings to the research problem.

Background to the research site

 Unisa is South Africa‟s only dedicated open and distance learning comprehensive university. Unisa is also the largest higher education institution in South Africa and on the African Continent, and one of the 20 mega institutions in the world (cf. Par.1.1.3). In 2008 Unisa had a headcount enrolment of 261, 927 (DoE 2010), which represented approximately one-third of all higher education enrolments in South Africa.  Although this number is subject to minor fluctuations occasioned by the ongoing changes in enrolment trends (which to a large extent can be ascribed to policy changes around the NSC that have impacted fundamentally on admissions to higher education institutions)  it has hovered at one-third since the merger .This highlights Unisa‟s core role and responsibility in higher education in South Africa and equally, in the socio-economic growth and development of South Africa through the production of properly skilled and qualified graduates.  It also implies that the success or failure of Unisa in executing its mandate will have concomitant educational and socioeconomic repercussions.Unisa has five Colleges with 13 Schools, 60 Academic Departments, 36 Units, Bureaux, Institutes and Centres and 26 Service Departments.  In addition to the main campus in Pretoria, there are regional centres in the provinces of the Eastern Cape, Gauteng, KwaZuluNatal, Limpopo, Midlands, Mpumalanga and the Western Cape.  Unisa also has a regional presence in Akaki, Ethiopia (Unisa Online 2010).The Principal and Vice Chancellor of the University is accountable to the University Council and is assisted in the management of the University by the executive, extended and middle management comprising the Pro Vice Chancellor, the vice-principals, the Assistant Principal, deputy and executive Deans, deputy and executive directors, directors of schools and administrative departments, and CoDs.In designing the research study, Unisa‟s  Pretoria campus or the „Muckleneuk Campus‟ as it is known, was selected as the location for both the survey and the interviews.  My own location at the Muckleneuk Campus facilitated both the survey and the interview processes. The web based format of the survey allowed for the inclusion of the directors in the regions, thus facilitating broad institutional participation and representation.The choice of Unisa as the focus of this research can be ascribed to its core role in higher education delivery in South Africa, its status as the only dedicated open and distance learning institution in South Africa, and to the impact that current higher education policy (including the lack of an Open and Distance Learning Policy) is having on the institution and concomitantly effective, quality open and distance learning in South Africa.    

The role of the researcher 

The qualitative nature of the interview process establishes the researcher as the primary data collector and in so doing brings under scrutiny the subjectivities, biases and assumptions that could influence in a positive or negative manner, the interviewing process and concomitantly, the integrity of the process and the validity of the findings.  Such subjectivities, biases and assumptions should therefore be identified prior to the design and the conducting of the interviews with a view to removing any barriers that might impact negatively on the integrity of the research.Locke, Spirduso and Silverinan (1987) are of the opinion that the interviewer‟s perceptions could make a positive, rather than a detrimental contribution to the research.  In this view it can be stated that my personal experiences and understanding of the research topic have been informed, deepened and moulded by my employment at Unisa. Furthermore, as a Director in the Office of the Principal, my research responsibilities have, over the years, provided me with broad and in-depth exposure to a variety of higher education policy, trends and dynamics at global, continental and national levels. At an institutional level I was deeply involved in the merger process.  I am currently involved in a number of institutional strategy and planning activities, as well as other executive management activities, which expose me to a level of institutional knowledge and understanding that would be difficult to acquire elsewhere in the institution.   In addition I have worked with executive management for more than a decade, and in so doing gained a sound understanding of the role and functions of the various institutional portfolios and the responsibilities of their incumbents.  As a member of the institutional planning team, I am au fait with institutional strategy and planning and the operationalisation thereof, as well as the various initiatives at Unisa that are aimed at improving institutional effectiveness and efficiency. This intimate understanding assisted in the formulation of the survey and interview questions, the management of the interviews and the interaction with participants.Thirdly, I am a Unisa graduate at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels, and as such I have first-hand experience and knowledge of ODL from the student‟s perspective.  This means that I have brought to the study knowledge, sensitivity and an awareness of the many challenges faced by higher education, higher education institutions and students, especially ODL students in the current policy environment, both globally and nationally, particularly in regard to the impact of government steering on open and distance learning, and the implications of the lack of an ODL policy in South Africa.I am aware that while my location in the institution may have elicited a greater response to the survey questionnaires, as well as the favourable consideration of my requests for interviews, it may also have constrained respondents and participants from voicing their views and opinions openly and honestly.  Participants and respondents were therefore provided with the necessary ethical assurances and undertakings to mitigate such a possibility. These are discussed under 4.2.4 below.I am also aware that my acquired knowledge and experience brought to the study certain assumptions and biases. Although every effort was made to ensure objectivity, these biases may have shaped the way in which I viewed, understood and interpreted the data. However, I feel that my knowledge may also have provided a depth to the analyses which may otherwise have been absent. This study was therefore approached from the perspective that the current higher education policy environment and dynamics, as well as the lack of a distance education policy, are having a deleterious effect on the quality, efficiecy and effectiveness of open and distance learning delivery as typified by Unisa.

Ethical requirements

Ethical considerations are core to sound, professional research. There is amongst researchers, strong and general agreement on proper and/or improper ethical considerations in conducting research.  The Belmont Report (1979) identifies three core ethical principles, namely, Respect for the persons, Beneficence and Justice. Respect for the persons requires that autonomy and dignity of study participants should be respected at all times and that their vulnerability should not be exploited. By adhering to this principle study participants would not be used merely as an end to achieving the research objectives. Beneficence in turn implies that any risk to the participants associated with the research will be minimised and that benefits that may accrue to the study participants will be maximised. Finally, Justice implies a commitment to ensuring that the risks and benefits from the research are fairly distributed and that the benefits of the knowledge gained are shared with the participants. These core principles are echoed in Unisa‟s Policy on Research Ethics (2007: 9) as follows:
Unisa promotes the following four internationally established and accepted moral principles of ethics as bases for research:autonomy (research should respect the autonomy, rights and dignity of research participants)  beneficence (research should make a positive contribution towards the welfare of people)   nonmaleficence (research should not cause harm to the research participant(s) in particular or to people in general) justice (the benefits and risks of research should be fairly distributed among people).In ensuring the dignity and respect of the study participants, researchers use informed consent which arises from the subjects‟ “right to freedom and self-determination” (Cohen et al 2002: 51).  Any possible limitation upon such freedom must therefore be justified and consented to.   Furthermore, if a subject has the right of consent then clearly he or she must also have the right of refusal to participate or even to withdraw once the research has begun.  It is therefore the responsibility of the researcher to ensure that study participants are sufficiently informed of the facts pertaining to the study, which may or may not influence their decision to participate.

CHAPTER 1 BACKGROUND, PROBLEM STATEMENT AND AIMS
1.1 BACKGROUND
1.2 THE NEED FOR RESEARCH
1.3 PROBLEM STATEMENT
1.4 AIMS OF THE STUDY
1.5 METHODOLOGY
1.6 CHAPTER OUTLINE
1.7  CONCLUSION
CHAPTER 2 THE GLOBAL CONTEXT OF HIGHER EDUCATION AND THE  IMPLICATIONS FOR DISTANCE EDUCATION PROVISION
2.1 INTRODUCTION
2.2. THEORIES AND EDUCATION
2.3 HIGHER EDUCATION POLICY 
2.4 GLOBAL TRENDS AND INFLUENCES IN HIGHER EDUCATION
2.5 OPEN AND DISTANCE LEARNING
2.6 CONCLUSION
CHAPTER 3 HIGHER EDUCATION POLICY AND ITS IMPLEMENTATION IN SOUTH AFRICA AND IMPACT ON DISTANCE EDUCATION PROVISION
3.1 INTRODUCTION
3.2 THE EVOLUTION OF ODL ON THE AFRICAN CONTINENT
3.3 SOUTH AFRICAN HIGHER EDUCATION LEGISLATION
3.2 Governance
3.4 DISTANCE EDUCATION/ODL IN SOUTH AFRICA
3.5 THE IMPACT OF NATIONAL POLICY ON ODL
3.6 CONCLUSION
CHAPTER 4 RESEARCH DESIGN
4.1 INTRODUCTION
4.2 MIXED METHOD RESEARCH DESIGN 
4.3 PHASE 1: THE SURVEY
4.4 PHASE 2: INTERVIEWS
4.5 PRESENTATION OF THE FINDINGS
4.6 CONCLUSION
CHAPTER 5 PRESENTATION OF FINDINGS
5.1 INTRODUCTION
5.2 PHASE 1: THE SURVEY
5.3 DISCUSSION OF THE RESULTS
5.4 CONCLUDING REMARKS
5.5 THE BRIDGE TO PHASE 2: PREPARATION OF INTERVIEW
5.6 PHASE 2: INTERVIEWS
CHAPTER 6 SYNTHESIS OF THE FINDINGS, FINAL CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS 6.1 INTRODUCTION
6.2 SUMMARY OF THE LITERATURE REVIEW AND RESEARCH DESIGN
6.3 SUMMARY OF THE EMPIRICAL INVESTIGATION 6.4RECOMMENDATIONS
6.5 AREAS FOR FUTURE RESEARCH
6.6 IMITATIONS TO THE STUDY
CONCLUSION
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