Facilitating equitable access and quality education for development: South African International Distance Education


Our project focuses on determining equitable access to, and improving the quality of, international distance education (IDE) in South Africa.


The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) introduced in September 2015 aim to ensure equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality education, including at the university level (Goal 4.3).

This is particularly crucial in Africa where enrolment in tertiary educations (8%) is the lowest of any continent (UNESCO 2012).

Distance education (DE) is proven to offer access to Higher Education to students facing demographic and socio-economic disadvantages (gender, race, disability, later learners, and learners with caring responsibilities).

South Africa, particularly, The University of South Africa (UNISA), is the primary provider of mass DE for international students in Africa. However, it is not fully known what drivers are influencing IDE’s supply and demand in Africa and how far IDE can meet the SDG aims of equitable access to education. This is what we aim to find out.

Additionally, the SDGs also promise quality education but this requires capacity building to assess what works and how to fine-tune teaching to meet student needs. To aid this process we will be adapting, to the African context, a learning design tool developed by the Open University (OU).

The role of IET

IET provided leadership in the quantitative evaluation of longitudinal development of international students at UNISA. Furthermore, IET supported the implementation of the qualitative research methods. A range of findings were reported in 10 publications, where IET contributed to 4:

  1. Mittelmeier, JennaRienties, Bart; Gunter, Ashley and Raghuram, Parvati (2020). Conceptualizing Internationalization at a Distance: A "Third Category" of University Internationalization. Journal of Studies in International Education (Early Access).
  2. Mittelmeier, Jenna; Rienties, Bart; Rogaten, Jekaterina; Gunter, Ashley and Raghuram, Parvati (2019). Internationalisation at a Distance and at Home: Academic and social adjustment in a South African distance learning context. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 72 pp. 1–12.
  3. Madge, Clare; Breines, Markus Roos; Dalu, Mwazvita Tapiwa Beatrice; Gunter, Ashley; Mittelmeier, Jenna; Prinsloo, Paul and Raghuram, Parvati (2019). WhatsApp use among African international distance education (IDE) students: transferring, translating and transforming educational experiences. Learning, Media and Technology, 44(3) pp. 267–282.
  4. Mittelmeier, Jenna; Long, Dianne; Cin, Firdevs Melis; Reedy, Katharine; Gunter, Ashley; Raghuram, Parvati and Rienties, Bart (2018). Learning design in diverse institutional and cultural contexts: suggestions from a participatory workshop with higher education professionals in Africa. Open Learning: The Journal of Open, Distance and e-learning, 33(3) pp. 250–266.


The first major achievement in terms of learning analytics and learning design is that we worked in a collaborative manner between OU and UNISA to gather longitudinal data from 60000 international students who study at UNISA for the last 10 years. Our quantitative multiple-method studies highlight complex pathways of both international and local students, which helped to raise increased awareness by UNISA staff at the final conference. The findings indicate that on average international students seem to do relatively well in comparison to local students, although the qualitative findings indicate substantial differences in lived experienced, and complexities that require substantial thought in how to provide an inclusive environment for all students, irrespective of geographical and cultural boundaries.

The second major achievement is the intense and continued collaboration between local teachers, the project team, and wider academic community in using learning design principles to map UNISA educational practices. As a concrete outcome, five UNISA modules were extensively mapped by the OULDI approach, which led to critical ODL discussions on how to further fine-tune and optimise the learning experiences of the diverse UNISA students in geography modules. Evaluations of the current implementations of these redesigned and modified modules indicate a substantial uptake of these new approaches.


  • PR

    Prof Parvati Raghuram

  • JR

    Dr Jekaterina Rogaten

  • JM

    Dr Jenna Mittelmeier


  • Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)


  • University of South Africa