A Case Study in Distance Education


Prof Francis William Petersen takes us through his university’s approach to distance learning.

By Prof Francis William Petersen at the University of the Free State, @UFSweb

Distance education at the University of the Free State (UFS) is based on a university strategy and is supported by relevant university structures. The South Campus (through the departments of Curriculum Design and Development and the IDEAS Lab) of the UFS coordinates the design and delivery of open distance learning programmes, guided by a UFS Open Distance Learning Policy.

Open distance learning programmes are characterised by flexible scheduling to enable students to watch lectures, communicate synchronously and asynchronously and access library resources.

Technologies used to deliver open distance learning programmes

Programmes are offered totally online, which means that students have access to these programmes nationally and internationally, while being supported online by trained facilitators, tutors and mentors through innovative technological tools. The delivery mode is technologically dependent, and students can work both off-line and online.

Information and Communication Technology plays a major role in the development and delivery of all distance education programmes and projects. A dedicated unit consisting of experts in distance and online learning, established at the UFS for this purpose, is essential for the successful development and delivery of open distance learning programmes. Either internet-based or internet-supported models can be used.

The relationship between the students, faculty and the open distance learning campus is directly maintained through the interrelatedness of an intricate structure of subject matter experts, online academic coordinators for modules, administrative coordinators, online mentors, external online assessors, moderators and project managers. Online students need intensive support, which is manifested in the form of online student advice, online tutorials, virtual classrooms, chat rooms, email, social networks, a call centre and mobile technology (such as smartphones). Open distance learning programmes also requires software appropriate for each particular programme, campus infrastructure to deliver and manage the programmes, Blackboard (as a Learning Management System) and Mediasite, as well as the relevant software per programme, a multi-media studio to provide for lecture capturing and facilitator training and off-campus library facilities.

Students do not have face-to-face contact with facilitators, but are supported online by trained facilitators through the UFS Learning Management System, emails, mobile technology, webinars, virtual classrooms, wikis and online coffee shops. By utilizing innovative technologies, the UFS can create virtual classes and virtual learning centres.

In times of uncertainty, such as the recent national lockdown during the global COVID-19 pandemic, mobile applications such as WhatsApp can be used to create virtual classes and virtual learning centres. Facilitators are able to share slides, short videos, text and audios and ensure vast engagement amongst the students and between students and the facilitators via this mobile application.

Who are the UFS open distance learning students?

Through open distance learning, the UFS broadens access to higher education by offering continuing and distance education to deserving students who are unable to study at the university through traditional, full-time, on-campus higher education programmes. As such, student profiles can vary from school-leaving youth to adult learners who are employed on a full-time or part-time basis.

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