The ecology of distance learning – an overview

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Open distance e-learning

In April 2012 Unisa published a report on a new organisational architecture for the university. It proposed a radical shift in the way Unisa interacts with students and suggested an overhaul of all Unisa’s major systems in order to deliver a true Open Distance and E-Learning model to students. The business model was approved by the Unisa Council. The document stated that all transactions will be captured and handled digitally and all “educational resources, required by students will be provided to students exclusively in digital form” (Unisa’s Organisational Architecture: Interim Report, 2012:4). According to the document Unisa will also move towards an open licencing regime and “a default licence for all products produced through its various activities and engagements, a Creative Commons Attribution (BY) licence” (Unisa’s Organisational Architecture: Interim Report, 2012:5).


“So did you read the chapter,” I asked Rina as she answered the phone? “Yes, I did,” she patiently replied. “What do you think? Is it balanced, did I step on too many toes?” I could sense that she was smiling at the other end of the line. “Yes, I think it’s balanced and no, I think you were just honest in your description of Unisa, but I feel that something is still missing.” “What,” I asked. “Well, you talked about Unisa and where it came from and where it is now, and you describe a lot of events, and I noticed you really tried hard not to blame anyone for the situation that Unisa is in.” “Yes, I tried hard,” I said, “because I truly believe that the issue is not one of guilt. As a systems thinker, I’ve learnt that blame is not very useful.”


As explained in the research process (see figure 1.1) in section 1.3, the aim of this chapter is to twofold. The first is to tell the story of humanness, its origins and evolution. The story will tell how we, as humans evolved and what made us a very unique species and what basic conditions in life we need to thrive, both in living and learning. The purpose of the chapter is to gain insight and understanding of why students struggle so much in a distance learning environment in general, but also to understand what conditions Unisa can create that would be more ideal for students to be successful in their studies and thrive in the distance learning environment. The second aim is to derive from this chapter basic fundamental ideas of what conditions would be ideal for both living, communicating and learning.

Introduction to our human evolution

The story of how we, Homo sapiens sapiens, became human and how our humanness evolved is filled with myth, stories and scientific explanations. These stories are as varied as humanity itself and through the ages the stories themselves evolved from the myths and storytelling traditions of our ancient past to our contemporary archaeological and scientific explanations. The stories are coloured by our beliefs, whether these are spiritual, religious or scientific. To understand human learning and creating contexts for optimal human learning and creativity, one should track the story of how human nature came to be and how humanness evolved. We should have a sense of what defines humanness and how it emerged in a different way from other species.


According to Headrick (2009:1-2) the oldest stone tools were found in Ethiopia and are an estimated 2.5 million years old. These tools were very basic and thought to be used mainly for breaking bone. Some stone flakes were used to cut hide and meat. There is however no clear indication as to exactly when humans started creating objects to improve their lives. There is evidence of stone tools found around 100 000 years ago, but by 65 000 years ago quite sophisticated tools were made not only of stone but also of bone and antler (Olson, 2002:86). These objects were mostly functional, such as spear points for hunting, but often also decorative and for the pure purpose of art or music (Headrick, 2009:506).


  • Table of contents
  • Acronyms:
  • Chapter 1: The ecology of distance learning – an overview
    • 1.1 Introduction to this story
    • 1.2 Aim of the study and formulation of the problem
    • 1.3 Overview of the study
      • 1.3.1 The research methodology
      • 1.3.2 The research process
    • 1.4 Definition of key terms
    • 1.5 Chapter summary
  • Chapter 2: Research Methodology
    • 2.1 Introduction
    • 2.2 The constructivist philosophical approach to science
    • 2.3 The research approach
    • 2.4 Research context: case study
    • 2.5 Research process and methods
    • 2.6 Analytical Autoethnography as a reflective philosophical tool
      • 2.6.1 What is autoethnography?
      • 2.6.2 Analytical autoethnography
    • 2.7 Literature review as a tool to crystallising fundamentals as the basis for
    • reflective philosophical study
    • 2.8 Data selection and analysis as an emergent research property
      • 2.8.1 Data selection strategies
      • 2.8.2 Data analysis strategies
    • 2.9 Authenticity and trustworthiness of the study
    • 2.10 Ethical issues
    • 2.11 Chapter summary
  • Chapter 3: Current context of student communication at Unisa: an
    • autoethnographic account
    • 3.1 Introduction
    • 3.2 Metalogue
    • 3.3 Unisa: the evolving university
      • 3.3.1 Introduction
      • 3.3.2 Examining body
      • 3.3.3 Correspondence university
      • 3.3.4 Towards open distance learning
      • 3.3.5 The merger and post-merger Unisa
      • 3.3.6 Open distance e-learning
    • 3.4 Metalogue
    • 3.5 Chapter summary
  • Chapter 4: The Human story: Exploring our epistemological past
    • 4.1 Introduction
    • 4.2 Metalogue
    • 4.3 Introduction to our human evolution
    • 4.4 The evolution of humanness and the organic way of living
      • 4.4.1 The biology and epistemology of humanness
      • 4.4.2 Language and Communication
      • 4.4.3 Technology
      • 4.4.4 Living as a way of learning
    • 4.5 Controlling our environment and the development of civilisations
      • 4.5.1 Taming the world and the development of early civilisations
      • 4.5.2 Communication and language
      • 4.5.3 Technology, specialisation and hierarchies
      • 4.5.4 Learning in a specialised environment
      • 4.5.5 The ebb and flow of civilisations
      • 4.6 The age of conquest and reason
      • 4.6.1 The birth of individualism and the quest to conquer the world
      • 4.6.2 Technological development and industrialisation
      • 4.6.3 Communication systems and the popularisation of the written word
      • 4.6.4 The “modern” education system, higher education and distance learning
    • 4.7 The cybernetic and planetary age
      • 4.7.1 The cybernetic revolution
      • 4.7.2 The technology explosion (from computers to chaos)
      • 4.7.3 Communication and the networked society
      • 4.7.4 The evolution of Open Distance Learning and pointers for learning in the network society
      • 4.7.5 Humanness reclaimed
    • 4.8 Summary of human co-evolution
    • 4.9 Distilling the fundamentals of the human story revealed
    • 4.10 Chapter summary
  • Chapter 5: Epistemological vision for the future: towards an ecological view of life
    • 5.1 Introduction
    • 5.2 Metalogue
    • 5.3 Why not reductionism?
    • 5.4 The nature of systems – cybernetics, general systems theory, complexity and chaos
      • 5.4.1 Basic cybernetics
      • 5.4.2 Second order cybernetics
      • 5.4.3 The science of change (complexity and chaos theory)
      • 5.4.4 Fundamental principles of cybernetics, second order cybernetics and complexity
    • 5.5 Epistemological issues
      • 5.5.1 Ecology of Mind / Ideas
      • 5.5.2 Humanness and the biology of love
      • 5.5.3 Complex thinking
      • 5.5.4 Towards the sacred space between us
      • 5.5.5 Fundamental principles of ecological and complex epistemology or thinking
  • 5.6 Data analysis and distilling of fundamentals
    • 5.6.1 Data analysis
    • 5.6.2 Grouping the fundamental principles into logical sections
  • 5.7 Chapter summary
  • Chapter 6: Mapping the Unisa context of student communication with fundamental
    • principles
    • 6.1 Introduction
    • 6.2 Preamble
    • 6.3 New epistemological vision: from reductionism to an ecology of ideas
      • 6.3.1 Introduction to a new epistemological vision
      • 6.3.2 Unisa in relation to the fundamental principles in terms epistemology
      • 6.3.3 Reflection on Unisa’s epistemological conflict
      • 6.3.4 Conclusion regarding Unisa’s epistemology
    • 6.4 Holistic and holographic perspective
      • 6.4.1 Introduction to the fundamental principle of holism and the holographic perspective
      • 6.4.2 Unisa in relation to the fundamental principles in terms holism and the
    • holographic principle
      • 6.4.3 Reflection on the holographic Unisa
      • 6.4.4 Conclusion regarding relation to the fundamental principles in terms holism and
    • the holographic principle
    • 6.5 Unisa a living organism
      • 6.5.1 Introduction to nature of living organisms
      • 6.5.2 Unisa as a living system
      • 6.5.3 Reflection on the living Unisa
      • 6.5.4 Conclusion regarding Unisa as a living system
    • 6.6 Co-evolution and change
      • 6.6.1 Introduction to co-evolution and change
      • 6.6.2 Co-evolution and change in the Unisa context
      • 6.6.3 Reflection on change and co-evolution
      • 6.6.4 Conclusion regarding co-evolution and change at Unisa
    • 6.7 Reclaiming humanness
      • 6.7.1 Introduction to humanness
      • 6.7.2 Humanness at Unisa
      • 6.7.3 Reflecting on humanness at Unisa
      • 6.7.4 Conclusion about humanness at Unisa
    • 6.8 Learning in a complex world
      • 6.8.1 Introduction to learning in a complex world
      • 6.8.2 Unisa and learning in the complex world
      • 6.8.3 Reflecting on learning in a complex world
      • 6.8.4 Conclusion regarding learning in a complex world
    • 6.9 Complex thinking and the ecology of action
      • 6.9.1 Introduction to complex thinking and the ecology of action
      • 6.9.2 Unisa and complex thinking and the ecology of action
      • 6.9.3 Reflecting on learning in a complex world
      • 6.9.4 Conclusion regarding complex thinking and the ecology of action
    • 6.10 Conclusions
      • 6.10.1 Two opposing world views
      • 6.10.2 Towards a new framework for student communication at Unisa
    • 6.11 Metalogue
    • 6.12 Chapter summary

The ecology of distance learning: Towards a framework for Table of contents student communication at the University of South Africa

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