HYBRID LEARNING ENVIRONMENTS AT A MEGA-DISTANCE EDUCATION UNIVERSITY (UNISA): VISIONS MET WITH FALTERING STEPS
UNISA AS DISTANCE EDUCATION PROVIDER IN SOUTH AFRICA
The development of the South African university system can be traced from the founding of the South African College in 1834. In 1874 the Board of Public Examiners was incorporated in a new university, named the University of the Cape of Good Hope, founded in 1873, later Unisa. This university was modeled on the University of London as an examining body. Teaching was the responsibility of the existing colleges. The University as been involved in controversy about the universities operating footprint, first beyond the borders of the Cape Colony, later into Africa, now as part of an amalgamated national Higher Education conglomerate. There were always discussions and differences with respect to language and culture, first Dutch, now the plurality of languages in a post-apartheid dispensation. There were wars such as the South African (Anglo-Boer) War in 1899, which made it difficult for the institution to function. a precedent was set that has remained ever since that the University remain impartial in the disputes and provide access. The University's most illustrious alumnus, former President Mandela, earned his law degree from the University of South Africa while a political prisoner. During the South African War, examinations were conducted in concentration camps during the war.
Since 1946 Unisa started teaching external students by correspondence methods. From modest beginnings in its new international field of distance education, UNISA has grown to an institution having an annual enrolment of close to 120,000 degree students, an additional 35 000 short course and music students and 30 000 'access' students (those doing bridging courses). The University today has close ties with more than 60 colleges, many of these are beyond the borders of South Africa. Since 2001 several teacher training colleges is being incorporated into the University of South Africa. This takes the total number of students involved in the University to approximately 200 000.
Paradoxically, the isolation during Apartheid era provided Unisa with a degree of protection from international competition but simultaneously prevented the University from adjusting to global trends and developments in distance education. Subsequent to the democratization of the country and the re-incorporation of South Africa into the world community, isolation is making way for an active international role within developments of the 'knowledge society'. This in turn relates to an increase in international competition amongst education providers and as an institution Unisa also has to provide online access and learning to students that require or want it.
Being the largest distance education provider in Africa, Unisa faces specific challenges. Distance education is the only option for obtaining higher education for a large number of Africans. The reasons for this include the problem of gaining access to residential universities, the costs involved in doing so and the barriers to earning an income simultaneously to studying in a residential environment. In meeting these challenges, Unisa has tried to remove obstacles in the way of students. Access is as open as is permissible in terms of the country's legislation. Access courses are in place in each faculty to help students with inadequate school background to enter degree programs. Fees are kept as low as possible so as not to discourage potential students financially and the approach to tuition makes it possible for students to meet their family and other responsibilities whilst studying for a Unisa degree.
Unisa has traditionally provided services more like those of residential institutions than to many distance education institutions. These include undergraduate and postgraduate programs up to doctoral level in a wide range of disciplines, research and community service. Furthermore, Unisa's students are not restricted to the traditional clients of distance education institutions. The students range from school leavers to adult learners and include rich and poor, employed and unemployed, the well-prepared and those with poor school backgrounds, those with access to the latest technology and those who do not have this, persons from underdeveloped rural areas and those from sophisticated urban environments, citizens of South Africa and those from abroad.
Currently South Africa has 19 universities, 14 technikons, 2 distance universities and 1 distance technikon. The total population is in the region of 39,000,000. Two of the nine provinces do not have any higher education institutions. About 5% of the total enrolments in higher education uses distance education as a means of learning.
The disparities in the backgrounds of Unisa students make it imperative to deploy a wider range of strategies and media than would often be necessary in more traditional distance education institutions. On the one hand, print-based learning materials are indispensable for those who cannot afford the latest technologies; ironically on the other, it may ultimately prove to be easier to use technologically advanced wireless protocols for delivering courses in rural areas rather than relying on slow and inefficient postal services. In particular, this could be the case with respect to student support where adequate human and other resources are not available in rural areas but are all centralized in the major cities.
Figure 1: Composition of the Unisa student body (2000)
Over the last few years various course teams and the university investigated the possibility to increase speedy access through online courses in a developing country with a global market. The enormity of the task prompted Unisa to address a number of issues.
The systems and nature of the learning inherent in distance education institutions requires critical questions, well planned strategic planning, analyses of the learning design, hybrid solutions and various learning environments.
At Unisa we currently implement and foster innovative hybrid solutions to meet the needs of and support various stakeholders.
THE UNISA REALITY
The Unisa learners are adults, noticeably between the ages of 25 to 35. There is a slow growth in the early adult years which indicate the preference for distance learning one can argue that this may be because of political, social or financial reasons.
Unisa has a proud tradition upholding correspondence learning. Study guides guide learners through their studies. Other resources include textbooks, articles, prescribed reading, compiled resources in a reader, sound tapes, video tapes, CD-ROMs, and now online learning.
Since the new developments of electronic communication in South Africa, about 41,700 students use the Student Online system. Students register and pay online, change examination centers, cancel courses, cancel examinations and addresses, post assignments (both online multiple-questions, up to 6,000, and essay type, up to 6,000) to Unisa and request results (134,000 in April 2002). They also send messages to the lecturer although this is under-utilized. They also use the discussion forums open to specific courses. The following general tendencies are noticeable at Unisa (updated statistics as on 02/05/2002)
From this table it is clear that there are great differences in the use of the internet at Unisa for access. This status-quo is constantly changing and internet usage is increasing rapidly.
PROVIDING AN ONLINE ENVIRONMENT
Unisa currently has structures in place to drive the institution towards implementation in the form of policy, such as the Tuition Policy and the Internet Usage Policy. Internet communication technologies towards the following: course marketing, course support and service, course enhancement, course delivery. These services are grouped into three different levels:
Adjunct mode (support and service)
This category is about providing fast access to correspondence materials and resources online. Better communication will also enhance support and service. Access is voluntary or optional, as online participation is a minor component of study.
Typical characteristics of such a secondary instructional environment is that the student use is optional, a limited range of correspondence materials and resources are made available online as part of better support and service, the learning experience as such involves limited use of interactivity and communication tools.
Typical tools and features: Discussion forums, Basic content provision, Supplemental course content, Course related URLs (resources), Online learning management tools.
Mixed mode (enhancement)
In this type of learning environment students have to access the additional online materials and resources, and gain the online experience as part of learning. Access is commended for support and service, but required for parts of the learning experience.
Typical characteristics of such a secondary instructional environment: Student use is expected and required, a wide range of online materials and resources may be available, the online materials and activities form an integral part of the course (Internet-based projects), there is selective use of interactivity and communication tools.
Typical tools and features: Discussion forums, Online guest speakers/forum hosts, Basic content provision, Supplementary content, Course related URLs (resources), Online learning management tools (online assignment submission).
Online mode (full delivery)
The learning experience is delivered and facilitated completely online all content, resources and communication are provided in the online environment. Access is essential and required, as online participation makes a major contribution to study. Students to have to have immediate and reliable access to the Internet.
Typical characteristics of such a primary instructional environment: Student use is compulsory, an extensive range of online materials and resources are available, all of the materials and resources required are only available online, the course makes extensive use of interactivity and communication tools, scheduled collaboration activities, teachers facilitate learning for small groups of students (825).
Typical tools and features: Discussion forums, Online guest speakers/forum hosts, Basic content provision, Supplementary content, Course related URLs (resources, Online learning management tools (online assignment submission).
online courses are currently presented. These include Human Capacity
UNISA PROJECTS TO PREPARE FOR ONLINE LEARNING
Within the Unisa structure, policy directs implementation. At Unisa many innovators spearhead this hugely important development.
Individual website development
Faculty has reacted to needs from their learners and from their subject field. Innovative members have spent many hours designing websites for their courses. These websites are labour intensive, have a range of support mechanisms for the learners, provide learners with specialized and unique subject specific information. These new ventures enable the lecturers to experience the online learning environment first hand. Lecturers are confronted with realities and difficulties of online moderating which often leads to burn-out in the very capable and committed lecturers. These developments are erratic and quality variations are understandable. An innovator is often isolated or swamped with requests for technical support and motivation from colleagues, which is to their disadvantage as professional educators as it leaves them little time to concentrate on their own teaching and professional development.
Automated conversion of printed documents to electronic study materials for online delivery
One of the more pronounced projects is the conversion of all study material (noticeably the printed version) to PDF format documents. This process at an industrialized distance education institution such as Unisa requires that, in an institute change well oiled systems geared for print, the processes to prepare the documents for online delivery be automated. An example would be for the Production Department to automate the printing process. The documents are computerized for printing in print program, called 3B2. After the completion of this preparation stage, the computer system automatically converts the Postscript-file to PDF-format using Acrobat. Another process if where the relevant academic Department converts the document into PDF-format to then advise Production on the printing and uploading to the Student System.
Developing a flexible EML-based digitized electronic learning system
The collaborative research project to use the newly developed notation standard (EML) and the improvement of the associated digitized electronic (distance) education system called Edubox. "Because of the unique position of Unisa in higher education on the African continent and the importance of the Dutch open university in innovation in (higher) education in general for the European Union, this collaboration has enormous potential for addressing many of Africa's urgent educational and developmental needs. Important in this regard is the inherent flexibility of the above mentioned system that will enable Unisa to adapt its materials and mode of delivery cost effectively in order to meet the varied needs of learners in Africa." (http://www.unisa.ac.za/dept/ounl/). The pilot project focused on the design and development of distance education materials to facilitate the learner driven learning process and the delivery of distance learning based on a balance between optimal delivery and cost-effectiveness in line with the economies-of-scale benefit for distance education.
As part of this research two other projects are registered which investigate the options of UML as a standard modelling tool for academic learning objects at Unisa. The second project is to develop a web application to allow departments with little or no web presence to have a standard way to input text fields and to generate pages on the web. This program will be available via SOL (Students OnLine) with basic information from the tutorial letter. This information is stored in a central database where existing student system information is combined with new data additions. The concept to be tested is one point of entry in order to use this option for both printing and web presentation. A set of stylesheets should display this information in normal HTML pages for the student.
As an institution that is constantly seeking to address the needs of our learners, there will be more innovations. How can we address some of these changes?
ADDRESSING THE PRESSURES OF CHANGE AT UNISA
The systems in the Departments have been under pressure to change, however, the resistance to adapt is still great. There is an added workload, a new unknown system and new programs that need acquired in a short time. This identified resistance is understandable. It is also in line with the aspects that affect change as identified by Wilson (2002, based on Beers model for change, as adapted by Dlamini for South Africa).
Figure 2: Various action research projects aligned to a common goal affecting the language, activities and social relationships in a team. Later change in the discourse, practices and orgnizational structures follow.
The institutional discourse is under pressure to change therefore, specific actions are required from the departments. However, in such a large institution to change 1500 Faculty members is not an easy task, so the automated processes are an important part of the change process.
It is clear from the diagram depicting the change forces that have an impact on operational units in an institution, that the technology push and the economic forces have a huge role to play in the automation.
Figure 3: Model for organizing a viable program in an industrialised institution such a Unisa
The difficult aspects in this process are again evident in the social and political forces, which supports our argument that Faculty finds it difficult to change their systems, dialogue and actions. In an organization where people also focus on political and social change in regard other institutional developments in a changing South African Education field, the change required to address online learning is sometimes too difficult to address for Faculty. It may be that the effort be weighed and found wanting in some courses in the future.
SUPPORT IN OUR EFFORTS TO WALK THIS PATH
We know of a number of established platforms to drive change in the discourse, structures and actions in an organization. Three of these are staff development, establishing best practice in the field, and research into the field.
Staff development is one successful mechanism to drive change in an organization whos focus is learning. It is a platform as well as a driver that allow a great number of people to find information, support and motivation to enable then to address the changes required. Development of staff is not isolated to workshops, but at Unisa takes place in all the teams that focus on course design. Distance professionals need to address issues in such teams in a collaborative effort. Wilson, Spencer and Batley (2002) describe one such an international multi-cultural pilot project. They base their argument concerning the success of the collaboration on the advantage of addressing the three aspects/domains of social and educational life which are interdependent and which, together, contribute to reform (Kemmis & McTaggart, 1988: 34, 41).
Figure 4: The interdependencies of the three aspects of social and educational life (adapted from Kemmis & McTaggart, 1988: 42)
Globally accepted best practice in pedagogy is the next mechanism to bring about change. The knowledge society is fast evolving and new pedagogy for learning development is essential to enable educators to address currents, movements, and burning issues. The learning developers over the last 20 years went through definite periods of infusing the institution with best practices that had a lasting impression on the quality of our distance learning materials.
Research into practice and theory is and has been a major strategy to foster change. As a driver of change research contributes to the creation of new knowledge. In the unchartered seas of online learning pedagogy, research into new practices, applicability of existing theories, the development of new theories and praxis.
action research projects to assist in the collaborative drive
towards seeking answers while also taking into account access,
redress, equity and quality. One successful strategies which would
enable an organization to change
is to use action learning projects, with the aim to formalize such projects as research projects (Zuber-Skerrit, 2001: 17).
Figure 5: The action research project as a cycle
These aspects, in is togetherness and within focused projects, has the potential to increase the chances on success for Unisa. A willingness for collaboration and an energetic drive to succeed together is the other requirements that we, as an organization, need to instill into a new culture.
As a mega-distance education university Unisa is complex in its structures The Unisa learning environment is mainly print, and a hybrid learning environment seems to be the only viable option when one takes the environment and students into consideration.
Unisa addresses this challenge for access and redress with a number of innovative projects, both within the institution and within collaborative international projects.
Change is evident in all spheres of the world and the pace with which the huge distance education organization in Africa has to address change places enormous stresses on a system that is successful because of its stability and bureaucracy. Great automated processes pave the way for the systems to change. The technology assists the change efforts. The time is right and the political focus is on technology. However, the people in the system are difficult to change. This takes time time which is not always available.
Evan experienced and motivated educators need support in their efforts to walk even though we sometimes feel that our shuffling is not enough. Staff development, research and best practices are platforms providing us with an environment in which we can change to address the complexities of our world and the challenges facing us as an institution. As an institution that is constantly seeking to address the needs of our learners, there will be more innovations, perhaps faltering steps, sometimes leaps into the unknown, sometimes a calculated march.
Beer, M, Eisenstat, R A & Spector, B. (1990) Why change programs dont produce change, in Howard, R (ed) The learning imperative: managing people for continuous innovation. Edited by and reviewed by Haas, R. USA: Harvard Business Review.
Dlamini, N. (2001) Organising South African industry - university partnership programmes for viability. South African Journal of Higher Education, 15(3): 24-31.
Kemmis & McTaggart (1988) The action research planner. Third Edition. Deakin University, Victoria, Australia: Deakin University Press.
Unisa statistics. (2002) University of South Africa Statistics 2000. Available at http://www.unisa.ac.za/about/gen_stats.html
Zuber-Skerrit, O. (2001) Action Research as the basis for teaching, learning and professional development. Section 8: Action Learning Program Change Management Resources, Faculty of Education, Work & Training, by Consultants in The Tertiary Education Institute, The University of Queensland, 1991-1993. Workshop of the Bureau for Staff Development, Technikon Pretoria, August 2001.
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