NATURE OF DISTANCE EDUCATION IN NAMIBIA

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CHAPTER 3: GLOBAL PERSPECTIVES ON STUDENT SUPPORT SERVICES IN OPEN AND DISTANCE LEARNING

INTRODUCTION

The Chapter discusses the factors to consider when designing the student support system for DE students, how to enhance SSS and outlined practices of student support system at two DE institutions, namely; University of South Africa (UNISA) and Open University of United Kingdom (OU).
Distance education (DE) has existed globally for a long time in different forms. Simpson (2002: 1) indicated that open and distance learning is more than 150 years old and dates back to the early days of one social revolution – the ‘Penny Post’ with Isaac Pitman’s correspondence courses in shorthand. This was followed by many revolutions later, particularly the information technology (IT) revolution, which has contributed an explosive growth and changes in open and distance learning globally. As distance education evolved over time, technology has played a critical role in its movement which has pushed distance education into a new realm of new possibilities. In other words, people are now able to do and study courses with institutions that are thousands of miles away, communicate to the course instructors any time and even do payments online by using technology.
Kelly and Mills (2007: 149) emphasise that the goal of open and distance learning is to widen participation and to overcome geographical, social and economic barriers. This begs the question: what should DE institutions do to overcome these barriers? The researcher believes that barriers can be addressed through the provision of effective and relevant academic and non-academic support services to distance students. The support services must be designed in the context of the students concerned in order to be responsive to their needs and challenges. That means the entire support system of academic and student services must go hand in hand with teaching and learning in order to achieve excellence in education. Student support is a critical component in ODL as it has been identified by many distance education proponents as particularly important for student success.
DE providers need to work harder than traditional on-campus SSS in order to create an environment that is supportive of students. To support this contention, Wheeler (2006: 175) contends that distance students tend to require more support than their classroom-based counterparts, and therefore, support needs in DE can be linked directly to an individual student’s motivation. Though there is a growing recognition of effective provision of SSS to distance education students, Simpson (2002: 1) further argues that support services have not yet received the attention they deserve. Furthermore, what is also increasingly clear is that, student support needs to be included in distance learning programmes at the initial planning phase and the support should be “fit for purpose” (Mills, 2003: 106). Moreover, Granger and Benke (1998: 128) make it clear that successful student support is a result of every aspect of the programme, from a prospective student’s first awareness of the programme to graduation day, and should work in an integrated fashion to maintain the students’ engagement and process. Similarly, Phillips (2003: 170) argued that support services need to be available at every stage of the student’s career at entry, during study, between courses and at the end of the study programme.
The goal of student support programme as argued earlier (see Chapter 2, Section 2.2), is to increase retention and success rates of DE students and help them progress from one level of higher education to the next. Distance education is fast developing, particularly because of the fast development of information and communication technologies. This rate of development has a direct influence on the preferred methods and techniques available in distance education. Most distance education students remain employed full-time for various reasons such as family, socioeconomic circumstances and physical distance from the institution of their choice. Moneta (1997: 7-8) notes that students seek remote access from home and work, and therefore, the need for effective student support is critical. Students have become increasingly resistant to cumbersome and costly visits to campus for seemingly trivial interaction with support personnel and clerical service providers. They would rather have the inconvenient trips to campus for bill paying, course registration, and even library services be reduced. It is, therefore, essential that DE students should receive all the necessary support during their studies.
Distance education in Namibia is fast becoming a choice even to the young high school leavers who want to pursue studies at the NUST.
NUST only has one full-time campus located in Windhoek. Due to the high cost of accommodation, transport and other expenses in Windhoek, after completing Grade 12, some applicants register for distance education at NUST-COLL regional centres. Since these students are not employed, they need to be engaged in meaningful dialogue which can only be facilitated through the available support services. Dhunpath and Dhunpath (2013: 106) rightly argue that one of the key contributors to poor retention and graduation rates is that the systems and resources supporting ODL teaching and learning are premised on the assumption that the distance education universities serve the needs of mature adult working students who have the capacity to take responsibility for their learning, are capable of learning alone or in their own time, can learn from a variety of learning materials and are active rather than passive learners. However, in practice, this is not always the case, and hence, DE institutions should design substantive support services that will increase success and retention rates. Additionally, Simpson (2002: 10) notes that as ODL grows, so competition mounts in terms of the demand for quality services. With many DE providers on the market, students have a choice and they will judge institutions by the quality of material they produce, and probably more by the standards of the student support they offer. It is, therefore, important that ODL institutions make adequate provision of SSS a priority in their planning and development of course materials. The researcher believes that the periodic evaluation of support services with the inclusion of students themselves may provide a support service model that is valued by all students.

FACTORS TO CONSIDER IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF ADEQUATE STUDENT SUPPORT SERVICES

As indicated in Chapter 1, Section 1.3.2.1, every country has a unique experience in terms of culture, societal principles, technology and the quality of basic education. In other words, factors to be considered for the development of adequate SSS vary from institution to institution. Equally important, the student support system to be put in place should integrate student needs, the requirements for the course content, institutional context and the type of technology to be used in order to provide an effective and efficient service to the students.
Nonyongo (2003: 123) argues that the quality and applicability of any learner support structure is designed based on the nature and philosophy of the total distance education system of the country and the institution concerned.
The landscape of higher education, especially the DE landscape has seen significant changes over the years. The emerging technologies have revolutionised the provision of education and learning. In the 21st century, we have moved from the industrial age through the information age and now to the knowledge age (Mahanta & Ahmed, 2012: 46). Their argument is that knowledge and its efficient management constitute the key to success and survival for organisations in today’s highly dynamic and competitive world of today. Similarly, Tait (2014: 13) maintains that the impact of ICT has profound implications for the integration of teaching and student support. It is imperative for DE institutions to invest more resources in the most relevant technology which will benefit their students rather than implementing the use of technology which will not be accessible to the students. It is important then that all students of the university of science and technology like NUST should be equipped with internet-enabled portable computers. Students would then be able to submit their assignments online, but the manual submission option should also be open to cater for students that cannot use the technology due to other factors like lack of network connectivity.
Möwes (2005: 51) spelled out two different approaches to student support: one relying exclusively on non-continuous communication, namely communication by media like the written, recorded or tele-transmitted word; the other continuous, including face-to-face contact as more or less self-evident elements of distance education. Distance education has evolved over the years, and the researcher believes that the combination of the above approaches with an integrated element of technology would present a more efficient approach. Additionally, the designed support system for any institution should be evaluated continuously to address emerging student needs. To address the myriad needs of DE students, DE institutions should adopt a holistic approach towards the design, development, implementation and assessment of ODL environments. Identifying the individual elements that constitute a holistic approach to distance education can be a challenging task, and it is the role of lecturers to identify these elements in order to effectively plan and design a quality student support system.
Discussed below are some of the factors to be considered in the development of SSS, namely; student characteristics, course or programme demands, technological infrastructure, and geographical environment.

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Student characteristics

In some cases, DE students register for an odd programme just to supplement their general education and gain some formal skills necessary for the job market. If proper guidance and information were provided during the orientation programme before registration, students could register for the programmes that they need and not because they are influenced by other students who register for such programmes. It is generally believed that students that are motivated to do a certain programme hardly quit, which in turn, reduces dropout rates. Sangeeta (2014: 194) submits that lack of motivation leads to high non-completion rates of students in distance education. That is, DE students generally feel lonely due to lack of communication and competition in education (ibid). It can also be argued that some students register for studies through distance education without proper understanding of how it works and necessary tools to be successful in the programme. To succeed in their studies, it is important to provide students with training on necessary tools used throughout the programme. Simpson (2002: 150, 153, 155) highlights that the central concept in the development of an effective SSS is meeting the needs and expectations of the students. It is important to know the background of the students for whom distance education programmes are designed, such as employment status, educational background, geographical situations, communication technology connectedness and others in order to design an inclusive and integrated student support system. Most distance students are full-time working adults, family heads and community service providers who, in most cases, are isolated from institutions and overburdened with different responsibilities and lack of mobility.
Furthermore, students can be illiterate in many ways. Some students may lack techno-literacy or their access to mass media and technology may be low or non-existent. Additionally, some students might only have a chance to study through the distance mode for different economic reasons such as non-affordability of campus hostel fees, and they might not be prepared for DE challenges.
The support system should, therefore, accommodate students of different characteristics to curb preventable dropout incidence, and increase success and completion rates.
Distance education provides study opportunities to most students from disadvantaged or poor background through mature age entry scheme or recognition of prior learning. Collins and Milliard (2013: 74) posit that inadequate understanding and failure to address differences between students from mature age entry point and those that meet normal entry requirements leads to low completion rates. They call for a redressed educational awareness of students that need support from the entry level.

Course or programme demands

Simpson (2002: 190) argues that courses that are mostly academic and knowledge based may have different support structure from those that have skill elements such as teacher training courses. Such skill-based courses are more likely to require substantial face-to-face support contact. These are issues related to teaching and assessments. Another critical aspect of facilitating distance education learning is the experience of tutors. Mbwesa (2014: 186) recommends that DE teachers need to be well trained to appreciate their roles in facilitating learning in DE courses. Tutors should be given additional training to help them manage DE programmes taking into account special needs and demands of the DE student and DE approaches.
Most institutions of higher learning have semester and year courses. The question of whether the courses are assessed by means of continuous assessment or examination, depends on issues related to teaching and assessment policy. Some questions that could be posed are what activities will be covered, who is going to teach/facilitate the activities, for instance, tutors or lecturers, and the necessity of face-to-face tutorials. The researcher, however, notes that the admission criteria should ensure that admitted students can cope with the course demands within the provided support system. The core argument here is that distance institutions should plan student support as an integral part of teaching and learning, rather than introduce damage control mechanisms when students are not coping with the course demands.
It is important to be mindful of the fact that some adult students that register for distance education, especially those that are admitted through mature age scheme do not have Grade 12 level education. Therefore, the challenge for the distance education institutions is to ensure that all students are prepared to cope and perform well in certain courses such as Basic Science, Computer-user skills and mathematics.

Technological infrastructure

Gulati (2008: 01) notes that modern communication technologies, such as the internet, can potentially offer possibilities that eliminate geographical access and cost barriers to learning. These barriers include poverty, limited educational infrastructure and cultural practices in some developing countries where access to higher education is limited for married women. While Gulati’s argument is true, it is necessary to consider issues of internet connectivity and access to different types of technologies, such as the internet connectivity, access to television and availability of electricity to operate electronic gadgets when planning for SSS. Wright, Dhanarajan and Reju (2009: 2) argue that some government and institutional personnel in developing countries often implement eLearning or online learning without first establishing if it will work for their students and their institutions. The argument is that online learning may not be realistic for students who read by candles and kerosene lamps or students who reside in areas without internet connectivity. However, Wright, et al. (2009: 3) acknowledge that there are many benefits for institutions offering DE to introduce technologies, such as greater access to information, enhanced communication emails/eLearning or Webex and face-to-face instructions through simulations. Planning for effective technological infrastructure will not always be perfect because of many unforeseen challenges and developments, but Bates (2000: 212) argues that the “imperfect nature of planning and management should not diminish the need for deliberate strategies to implement effective technology-based teaching.” It is, therefore, important that distance institutions must put in place a clear, detailed plan for implementing technology by involving all the stakeholders.
Mahanta and Ahmed (2012: 46) are of the view that the introduction of eLearning in distance education has the potential to transform how and where adult and full-time employed students learn as long as the student has internet connection.
However, they also acknowledge that there are major technological limitations such as necessary hardware for eLearning – desktop or notebook computers and relevant resources (Mahanta & Ahmed, 2012: 49). Additionally, factors such as internet coverage, limited bandwidth, electricity and distances to the study centres can affect the successful implementation of eLearning platforms. Therefore, it is critical that ODL institutions should give students options to choose between doing a course via eLearning or using the traditional method of face-to-face classes and writing examinations.

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Geographical environment

The framework for the development of a planning tool for SSS, developed by Tait (2000), articulates geographical environment as one of the key elements that play a crucial role in deciding the type and volume of SSS needed. Factors like population density in rural and urban areas, the availability and cost of transportation as well as some cultural constraints can help in determining the type of support service needed, such as where to establish the regional centre or the usage of radio and television programmes. While the above factors remain significantly important in the planning process, Tait (2014: 07) outlines the ways in which text, print, transport, electricity, radio and digital technologies have provided solutions to many people globally. Additionally, technology has been closely associated with changing the human experience of learning and education systems for centuries.
As Mbwesa (2014: 177) argues, print media is still a key DE delivery mode especially in developing countries and marginalised communities in rural settings where ICT developments are still not fully implemented. In most cases, students are spread over wide geographical areas such that they experience a physical distance from the campus or regional centres.

HOW TO ENHANCE STUDENT SUPPORT SERVICES

Most student support activities require interaction between the individual student and the distance institution to yeald the desired goals. There are online universities globally that use information and communication technologies (ICT) succesfully to deliver SSS to distance education students. This serves as evidence that technology can change the way DE institutions deliver support services to their students. Gulati (2008: 1) acknowledges that using technologies in education is now a global phenomenon. In other words, technology can be used in distance education to distribute materials for learning equitably across students that are far from the university campus. It can enable lecturers to reach their students to discuss course objectives and content. Furthermore, Ivala (1999: 9) explains the benefit of integrating technology, like the internet into distance education. He argued that integrating internet-related technologies with other media such as print, video conferencing, radio and television would promotes dialogue between students and lecturers and this has a potential to increase success rates. Furthermore, the implementation of media and multimedia may lead to accommodation and promotion of different learning styles, which might be needed by all students to internalise course objectives. Technology can be the best tool to expose many students to different ways of learning such as visual, auditory and kinesthetic.
Integrating technology in distance education to widen its scope and strengthening the capacity of distance education providers to meet the needs of the masses is of paramount importance. Moore (2013: 123) supports the usage of ICT, which has transformed many areas of distance education such as library services. Through ICT, students can spend less money on buying books and travelling to campus library by accessing e-resources, such as books, journals, theses and even requesting some materials from the personal librarians. NUST-COLL offers eLearning as another mode of study in addition to full-time, part-time and conventional distance education (PoN-COLL, 2014: 11). Studying via eLearning allows students to study from home, learn through the internet, have interactive online tutorials and group activities and even submit their assignments from anywhere as long as they are connected to the internet.
DE institutions have incorporated integrated asynchronous and synchronous technologies in study programmes to enhance the academic support. Besides the cost of these technologies, Pullen and Snow (2007: 145) note that “simultaneous teaching of classroom and synchronous online students is a highly effective approach with low costs and low barriers to adoption”. They further argue, “it is most effective when integrated with asynchronous supporting materials” (ibid.). Both synchronous (simultaneous) and asynchronous (intermittent with time delay) promote interaction, which creates an opportunity for tutors/lecturers and students to share ideas. Moore and Kearley (2012: 40) highlight that “synchronous technologies afford immediate (speed) real time contact and interaction where participants at different sites see and hear the presenters.” This platform allows the presenter and students to have a conversation where they can ask questions and get immediate feedback. On the other hand, asynchronous technologies do not afford immediate feedback from either the lecturer or students. However, they have advantages that include allowing participants to provide their own content and choose who they want to interact with especially in social networking programmes (Moore & Kearsley, 2012: 111). Furthermore, participants (students) are afforded an opportunity to view contributions of others, and do some reflection before they provide a well-thought response.
Tait (2014: 5) used the case of Open University in the UK to clarify the impact of using digital technologies on student support by giving the historical perspective of learning using technologies over many centuries. From this analysis, he established that, “the dominant paradigm of geography – which has defined the structures for student support services in second generation distance education – has now been overtaken in digital distance and eLearning contexts by the more powerful affordances of learning design” (Tait, 2014: 5). On the issue of student dropout as the major challenge for distance education. Using technologies in this century such as eLearning provides the solution for the effective design of support service, therefore; his argument that educational mission, not the mode of delivery, provides a more powerful explanation for the dropoup (ibid.). Additionally, he proposed that effective student support should be integrated with teaching and assessment as opposed to the current practice of separately organising it structurally and professionally. This study sought to understand students’ views and experiences on the provision of SSS at the NUST-COLL regional centres on teaching (face-to-face tutorials) and assessments (marker-tutor feedback, assignments and tests) as some of the academic support services.
While technologies seem to offer opportunities for to facilitate distance education, Dastjierdi (2016: 4) points out the importance of choosing a suitable technology for students. Tertiary institutions offering distance education should evaluate and asses the usefulness each technology before it is adopted for distance learning and teaching (ibid.).

TABLE OF CONTENTS
DECLARATION
DEDICATION
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
ABSTRACT
ACRONYMS AND ABBREVIATIONS
LIST OF FIGURES
LIST OF TABLES
CHAPTER 1: INTRODUCTION AND BACKGROUND
1.1 INTRODUCTION
1.2 MOTIVATION FOR THE RESEARCH
1.3 AN OVERVIEW OF STUDENT SUPPORT SERVICES
1.4 STATEMENT OF THE PROBLEM
1.5 AIM AND OBJECTIVES OF THE RESEARCH
1.6 SIGNIFICANCE OF THE STUDY
1.7 RESEARCH DESIGN AND METHODOLOGY
1.8 DEFINITION OF KEY CONCEPTS
1.9 CHAPTER DIVISION
1.10 SUMMARY
CHAPTER 2: THE NEED FOR STUDENT SUPPORT SERVICES IN OPEN AND DISTANCE LEARNING
2.1 INTRODUCTION
2.3 NATURE OF DISTANCE EDUCATION IN NAMIBIA
2.4 THE NEED FOR STUDENT SUPPORT SERVICES
2.5 STUDENT SUPPORT SERVICES OFFERED BY NUST-COLL REGIONAL CENTRES
2.6 DROPOUT, RETENTION AND SUCCESS RATES AT NAMIBIA UNIVERSITY OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
2.7 SUMMARY
CHAPTER 3: GLOBAL PERSPECTIVES ON STUDENT SUPPORT SERVICES IN OPEN AND DISTANCE LEARNING
3.1 INTRODUCTION
3.2 FACTORS TO CONSIDER IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF ADEQUATE STUDENT SUPPORT SERVICES
3.3 HOW TO ENHANCE STUDENT SUPPORT SERVICES
3.4 PRACTICES OF STUDENT SUPPORT SYSTEM AT TWO DISTANCE EDUCATION INSTITUTIONS
3.5 SUMMARY
CHAPTER 4: RESEARCH DESIGN AND METHODOLOGY
4.1 INTRODUCTION
4.2 PHILOSOPHICAL ASSUMPTIONS AND RESEARCH PARADIGMS
4.3 RESEARCH DESIGN
4.4 RESEARCH METHODS
4.5 DATA ANALYSIS
4.6 VALIDITY AND RELIABILITY
4.7 CONSIDERATIONS REGARDING THE STUDY
4.8 CHAPTER SUMMARY
CHAPTER 5: DATA PRESENTATION, ANALYSIS AND DISCUSSIONS
5.1 INTRODUCTION
5.2 RESPONSE RATES
5.3 ANALYSIS OF QUANTITATIVE DATA
5.4 QUALITATIVE DATA ANLYSIS
5.5 THE INTEGRATION OF QUANTITATIVE AND QUALITATIVE APPROACHES 165
5.6 CHAPTER SUMMARY
CHAPTER 6: SUMMARY, DISCUSSIONS, CONCLUSSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
6.1 INTRODUCTION
6.2 OVERVIEW OF LITERATURE REVIEWED
6.3 SUMMARY OF QUALITATIVE FINDINGS
6.4 SUMMARY OF QUANTITATIVE FINDINGS
6.5 CONCLUSIONS FROM EMPIRICAL FINDINGS
6.6 RECOMMENDATIONS
6.7 MODEL FOR IMPLEMENTATION OF SSS AT NUST-COLL REGIONAL CENTRES
6.8. CONTRIBUTION OF THE STUDY
6.9 SUGGESTIONS FOR FURTHER RESEARCH
REFERENCES
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