An ELKS seminar: completion and retention issues in South African distance education

The ELKS Community, coordinated by the BDRA, ran a very successful seminar on the 24th of September from 10.15am – 11.45am British Summer Time. The event was broadcast from the BDRA’s Media Zoo at its new premises at 103 – 105 Princess Road East, Leicester. The speaker was Dr Paul Prinsloo, who is at the Directorate, Curriculum Development at the University of South Africa, one of the Mega Universities with 290,000 students studying at distance. Paul’s seminar was concerned with a social critical model of student retention in distance education in developing country context, a very relevant topic for distance educators all over the world.

I think you will find the seminar very interesting and relevant, so we have recorded the session together with live interactions from participants in the way of a chat box and live questions and answers.

Click on the link below to view and listen to the recording of the seminar. I suggest your skip the first 5 minutes so you want to avoid the bit where we struggled with the technology in the beginning!

A short introduction to Paul’s seminar follows for those who prefer to read before listening.

Title of the seminar: Understanding student through-put and retention in a higher education developing world context

A short introduction:

The University of South Africa (Unisa) has as its vision “Towards the African university in the service of humanity.” With its almost 300 000 students, Unisa is one of the mega-universities in the world and the largest in Africa. As the only dedicated comprehensive distance education provider in South Africa, Unisa faces unique opportunities and challenges with regard to contributing to realising the dreams and aspirations of a post-apartheid democracy in a developmental state, providing responsible open access to previously disadvantaged individuals and groups in redressing the injustices and inequities of the past and providing sustainable and appropriate student support optimising students’ chances of success.

Most of the current conceptual models on student throughput and retention are developed within the context of residential North Atlantic higher education settings. Although there are some research efforts and proposals specifically dedicated to understanding student retention and throughput in the context of distance education, there is very little research and conceptual exploration regarding the impact of the specific African context on understanding student throughput and retention in an open and distance learning environment.

This proposed social-critical model is the first such conceptual model in a distance education environment in a developing world context. We are of the opinion that the model and its implementation and refinement will considerably impact on enhancing the quality of teaching and learning at Unisa. As such the model is an important and innovative initiative to define, inform, encourage, increase and sustain retention, throughput and active student participation.

About Dr Paul Prinsloo:

Paul is an Education Consultant at the University of South Africa. His research interests include curriculum theory, student throughput, corporate citizenship, sustainability education, teaching about climate change and religious studies. Paul regularly reads papers at national and international conferences and has published in accredited and popular journals on a range of topics including the teaching of corporate citizenship, ethics in business education, curriculum design and factors impacting on the success of teaching and learning in distance education. Paul received an Open University International Fellowship in 2007, the Unisa Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Research in 2008, and a Unisa International Fellowship in 2009.

Happy listening and viewing. I would like to hear your feedback on the seminar (please email me at; we will take your suggestions to improve our future ELKS semainrs.

You can join ELKS Community (free!!) at

Thank you.

Palitha Edirisingha
27 Sept 2009


Creating to share; promises and pitfalls

Last week I participated in a seminar organized by JISC in Ormskirk. The focus of the seminar was creating and sharing digital content with emphasis on the promises and pitfalls of Open Educational Resources (OER). Representatives from the CETL on Reusable Learning Objects, SOLSTICE, ROCOCO, Q-ROLO, Open Spires and ReFORM spoke about their projects and took part in discussions about the future of OERs. I came away from the meeting with a feeling that whilst Open Educational Resources offer a lot of promise there is the need for a concerted effort to debate and find solutions to some of the drawbacks that threaten the potential benefits of these resources to the HE sector. Here are a few things mentioned regarding benefits and pitfalls:

• Economies of scale in terms of cost benefit analysis
• Improved access and better use of existing resources
• Innovation in the design of teaching and learning materials

• Copyright issues
• Institutional barriers in terms of existing curriculum processes
• Lack of local content repositories
• OER literacy i.e. the capacity of academic staff to create and share open learning resources

I was quite struck by the discussion on how to engage various stakeholders to maximize the benefits of OERs whilst addressing the pitfalls. What was missing in all the discussions was the role of learners in advancing the vision of the OER movement. The Edgeless University report has emphasized the need to engage students in the design of courses to better understand their needs and also determine when and how teaching and learning should happen in the future. Clearly, making OERs more sustainable will require not just institutional commitment to “openness” in teaching and learning, or overcoming copyright hurdles or changing staff attitudes towards “open learning design” but more importantly how we as OER practitioners draw lessons from student experiences in HE to improve the quality of our materials in order to motivate learners locally and international to use these materials.

Samuel Nikoi ( 24 July 2009)

Handheld devices for herdboys in Lesotho

In the Guardian (May 2) Ed Pilkington wrote about Ray Kurzweil, futurist and head of Google’s new Singularity University, which is housed at the headquarters of NASA in Silicon Valley and opening for students in July. To quote, this university will ‘bring together some of the biggest names in frontier disciplines such as bio- and nano-technology, neuroscience and artificial intelligence.’ The first cohort of 40 students will work together for nine weeks trying to come up with new ideas for tackling problems such as climate change, world poverty and hunger.

As Pilkington tells us, Kurzweil has an amazing record of inventions. In the 1970s he wrote programs to enable computers to read text and synthesise speech. By 1984 he had perfected electronic music synthesisers; by 1987 he had developed speech-to-text.

What particularly caught my eye was Kurzweil’s new idea of using the explosion of cellphones across Africa as an opportunity to write ‘software that would easily diagnose and provide remedial directions for leading local diseases’, as Pilkington wrote. Users of iPhones know how many applications (apps) they can already obtain: Kurzweil’s proposed app would give cellphone owners and their families a valuable source of advice regarding preventive medicine, presumably in their own language.

Mobile phones didn’t exist when I first wrote about information technology and education. Nor did the Internet. My own idea of what might happen in Africa was that the herdboys of Lesotho, looking after the cattle, would have a handheld device from which they could learn to read in their own language.

Herdboys in Lesotho still don’t have devices like that and perhaps they never will. But tens of millions of people in Africa do have mobile phones now, and before long they will be able to use them for far more than business deals and social chat. BDRA’s friend, Dick Ng’ambi at the University of Cape Town, is among the foremost African researchers in this field. See also, kindly provided by Gabi Witthaus, this interesting description:  


*Hawkridge, David (1983, reprinted 1985) New information technology in education. London and Baltimore: Croom Helm and Johns Hopkins University Press.

Globalisation and open educational resources

A few years ago (2003) I wrote a monograph for the Commonwealth of Learning on the impact of globalisation on education, including distance education.*

At that time the World Trade Organisation (WTO) was master-minding international negotiations aimed at opening up of trade in services. GATT (the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) has been complemented by the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). The US, Australia and the UK were the countries most likely to benefit from greater access to students living and studying in other countries – and probably still are.

The complex, contentious debate on the impact of GATS on education has yielded important policy questions for governments and institutions, especially those interested in online and distance learning. These include:

• Should private or publicly funded education and training from abroad be encouraged to supplement publicly funded on-campus provision?
• Should public funds be made available to pay for education and training provision by public or private foreign companies?
• How should private or publicly funded education and training from foreign providers be regulated, bearing in mind GATS?
• Will the poor be able to afford education and training offered by public or private providers from abroad under GATS? If not, who will assist them?
• What policies and incentives would turn poor students into a market for education and training?
• If education and training from abroad is offered mostly or entirely online, what help can students expect from their home government in gaining access?
• Will individual governments recognise, and will accreditation bodies accept, foreign education and training curricula without any adaptation to match national cultural values?
• How will individual governments prevent foreign education and training providers from offering below-standard courses leading to worthless certificates?

And perhaps pre-eminently important:

• How far can national policies, priorities and culture be protected in a more
open market (than at present) for services such as education?

GATS has not been in the news recently, but it is not likely to go away. What is known as the Doha round of GATT and GATS negotiations has been difficult and very drawn out, with no final outcomes as yet.

The worldwide financial crises have had a tremendous impact on many countries’ willingness to allow foreign services to enter their territories and, for some Western countries, on their ability to export these services. The global downturn is likely to affect governments’ capacity to sustain current levels of public education provision, however. In a few years’ time there may be unprecedented opportunities for private enterprise to offer out-sourced services. There may also be a de-liberalisation of attitudes regarding open educational resources (OERs): proprietors of intellectual property may be even keener than they are now to protect their rights rather than giving them away in order to benefit poor countries, let alone rich ones.

What do you think will happen on this front?


*Globalisation, education and distance education, accessible at:

Click to access 2003_MODL_Globalisation.pdf

A short book review: provisional version

I decided to write a provisional version of this book review for the blog, because I’m hoping to ask a colleague to read the book too and help me to write a better grounded review.
Wei, Runfang. China’s Radio and TV Universities and the British Open University: a comparative study. Nanjing, Yilin Press, 2008. 394pp.

Anyone who wants to read an English-language account of why and how China’s radio and television universities (RTVUs) came into being and prospered should turn to this book. Wei has been associated with the Jiangsu (Province) RTVU, one of the major partners in the system of RTVUs, more or less since it was first established in the late 1970s. She wrote this comparative study following research over several years, though with access to only a fairly small range of English-language documents about the Open University.

Wei explains how, after the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and the disastrous wrecking of China’s institutions of higher education, the RTVUs were created to educate very large numbers of students to college level in the shortest possible time. She describes the system, which initially used TV and radio broadcasts via national and provincial transmitters covering most main population centres, as well as rural areas in the eastern half of China. The programmes reached hundreds of thousands of students in classes set up at workplaces, community halls and other ‘borrowed’ premises, where relatively under-qualified teachers supervised the students’ progress.

My own acquaintance with the RTVUs began in 1982, but ended in 1990 when my work there was finished. I led an international panel established by the Ministry of Education in Beijing to monitor the impact of a $100 million World Bank loan, most of which was for the RTVUs. I therefore read Wei’s book with great interest, not least because she portrays events and policy changes in the system since I was last there.

Wei faced a gargantuan task, however, in grappling with two very large systems (the RTVUs and the OU), both included by John Daniel in his book on ‘megauniversities’. I cannot be certain that she grasped all the many aspects of the RTVUs as they evolved, but I do know that she under-estimated the pace of change at the OU which today is somewhat different from her description. I would prefer a Chinese scholar to give an opinion on what she has written about the RTVUs. Meantime, Wei’s book stands as the most accessible English-language account of them. She aimed it at students of distance education: they will gain from reading it.


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