Online learning and research – sharing in South Africa

Grainne Conole surrounded by art collected and created by Paul Prinsloo of Unisa

A team from Beyond Distance is visiting Unisa in South Africa for a three-day series of workshops and seminars about research and online learning. It’s wonderful to be back here among friends in Pretoria less than a year after our last visit. The team of six of us from Leicester is split between the Pretoria and Florida campuses. A few links to the presentations that have been given so far follow:

An overview of technology-enhanced learning (Grainne Conole)

Research methodology in technology-enhanced learning (Grainne Conole)

Audio recordings: Research Methodology in TEL Part 1

and Research Methodology in TEL Part 2 (Grainne Conole)

Sharing: from research to practice (Grainne Conole)

Harnessing the power of new media for learning, teaching and research (Grainne Conole)

Audio recording: Harnessing the power of new media for learning, teaching and research part 1

Harnessing the power of new media for learning, teaching and research part 2

Going open: the implications for learning, teaching and research (Grainne Conole)

Optimising the research possibilities in online teaching and learning (Ming Nie and Gabi Witthaus)

Questions for future e-learning research: can we plug the gaps? (Ale Armellini)

New Technologies and 21st century learners and their impact on teaching and learning at Unisa (Palitha Edirisingha, Ming Nie)

Ethical considerations in learning and teaching (Palitha Edirisingha, Ming Nie)

OER-based design for learning and its impact on research (Ming Nie, Gabi Witthaus,Terese Bird)

What works and what doesn’t work in research dissemination (Terese Bird)

The twitter stream from the three-day event (using hashtag #unisa12), captured on Storify:

Learning about Unisa and South Africa

My colleagues and I are currently in Pretoria, South Africa, to attend Unisa’s Teaching and Learning Festival 2011. We have been asked to put on a week of workshops, due to start tomorrow (Monday) morning.

Me at Unisa

Standing outside the festival venue

Last Thursday and Friday we attended the festival symposium, which had excellent keynote papers from George Siemens, Gilly Salmon, Catherina Ngugi and Ormond Simpson. The Unisa delegates appeared to take a lot from these talks, judging from the questions raised and comments made in the concluding panel session.

Like so many HE institutions, Unisa, an open distance learning university, is facing a crossroads.  Burgeoning student numbers (374,000 for 2011) has meant current structures are no longer able to cope. It is hoped new technology and new approaches may provide the means by which the staff can continue to offer an education with a national and international reputation (Nelson Mandela is a Unisa graduate). BDRA may pay a small part in this change.

Perhaps the memory of the cynical and depressing summer riots in the UK has coloured my thinking, but I feel South Africa is going places. The people seem pragmatic about the significant current problems (primarily based around inequality and poverty) yet optimistic about the future.

And there’s no question about the talent available here. On Saturday, Gabi and I, with mercurial South African educational technologist Maggie Verster, delivered a workshop on using OERs and social media for teaching and learning at Kliptown Secondary School in Soweto.

Maggie in full flow

The participants, both teachers and schoolchildren, were engaged, articulate and, especially in the case of the latter, more than capable of harnessing the new opportunities for social interaction and learning (accessed mainly through cell phones) offered by technology.

The Representative Council of Learners and workshop participants. Future Unisa graduates?

We’ve got a very hard week ahead, but I know we’re all looking forward to it.

Follow us and everyone else at the festival on Twitter: #unisa2011.

Simon Kear

Keeper of the Media Zoo

Unisa visitors

We’re privileged to be hosting a visit by five South African colleagues this week.

Paul, Peter, Jason, Mpine and Leoni from Unisa are taking part in a series of activities in the Media Zoo, including a ‘compressed’ Carpe Diem and a variety of presentations and workshops led by Beyond Distance colleagues.

Our South African colleagues are planning major changes in their e-learning provision, including developing capacity and exploiting the affordances of new learning technologies. They might even create their own version of the Media Zoo! 

We hope that they take maximim benefit from their visit to Leicester, which has given us the opportunity to learn from the experience of Unisa, one of the largest providers of higher education in the world.

Alejandro Armellini

5 October 2010

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

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