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

1st October 2016 - 31st March 2019

Presently, the gross enrolment rate for higher education (HE) across Africa runs at only 8 per cent - the lowest in the world. Yet for policy makers throughout the continent, HE is regarded as a vital tool to bring about sustainable economic development. This is echoed by the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals, adopted in September 2015, which call for equitable access to high quality tertiary education in their toolkit for ending poverty by 2030. This push for an educated population abuts a reality where, in many African countries, HE demand far outstrips supply and is only addressed by the wealthy through migration. Distance education across national borders is filling that gap. Indeed, one third of student registrations in South Africa, a country where higher education is well established, are made up from this international distance education (IDE) cohort. Despite its importance to the African HE landscape, and its potential contribution to continent-wide development challenges, the workings of IDE remain under-researched. Thus, this project fills a significant and timely gap in knowledge which will generate learning of substantial relevance to social and economic development throughout Africa in the decade to come.

This project focuses on two areas vital to the future success of IDE in Africa: equality of access to education, and the quality of that education. Research on IDE in other settings demonstrates that this learning style can improve access for students facing demographic and social disadvantages (including gender, race, and disability, as well as learners studying later in life or learners with caring responsibilities). This project will investigate these issues in the African setting, asking "can IDE can generate equitable access to students from across the continent?" Educational quality is important too. Of the South African student cohort in the year 2000, only 30 per cent graduated within five years with attainment levels. Other research also shows that student retention is markedly lower in students from non-traditional backgrounds. The project will investigate the role of education quality plays here, asking "how can the quality of IDE be assessed, and what improvements can be made to create better student outcomes?" The project will examine IDE delivered by the University of South Africa (the sole provider of DE in South Africa until 2014) to students elsewhere in the continent. Research will collect demographic and socio-economic data, reasons for study, labour market intentions, migration plans and educational experience of student cohorts in three countries, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Nigeria using both qualitative and quantitative methods. This will be compared with South African students and with students studying face-to-face where this data exists. The project will also build on the OU's Learning Design Initiative (OULDI). Using techniques from this innovative programme, existing student performance and reasons for it will be analysed, changes will be made to learning design, and the effects of the design changes will be tested on the following year's cohort. This knowledge exchange will enable the existing and successful OULDI strategy to be employed in another context, and enhance the future development of the OULDI.