Students may not always be physically present at a school, this neccessitates an alternative way of access to education.
Establishment of distance learning in Tanzania and other African countries continues to be a popular study option and remains the main alternative if you want to continue your education without having to undergo the conventional on-campus, classroom learning.
For instance, Tanzania, through Open University of Tanzania (OUT) has extended distance learning model, establishing a network of 30 region centers which have enabled people to access distance education.
For example, through OUT, some prisoners, refugees, expatriates, ministers and thousands others have accessed distance learning since its establishment in 1992.
OUT Vice Chancellor, Prof Elifas Bisanda said recently at a two day meeting that brought members of the African for Distance Education (ADE) to discuss several opportunities and challenges found in Open and Distance Learning (ODL).
Among other issues that were discussed were how to reach out to more disadvantaged people, including prisoners and refugees in accessing higher education.
Other issues discussed were universities providing distance learning becoming more aggressive in seeking legal rights of institutions to engage and enable regulators recognise the essential of distance learning because most regulators think distance learning isn’t beneficial.
According to him, his organisation has been making efforts to ensure that more prisoners and refugees are enrolled on the program offered at the facility. “But, the current, biggest challenge is how to ensure inmates access learning material through online access,” he said.
According to the VC, OUT currently prints reading materials and distributes them to prisons to enable enrolled inmates access the study material.
“We recently had two prisoners who graduated through our university, one prisoner based in the Lake Zone graduated with a Diploma. There are other prisoners in regions such as Tanga, Mwanza and Arusha who’ve also enrolled for diploma courses,” he said.
The aim of distance learning is to equip students from different walks of life with formal education, legal training and exposure to global best practices.
Mr Bisanda stressed that with advancement of technology, distance learning is a type of education that most people would require to enable them acquire an education even amidst unfavourable circumstances.
According to him, the learning institution wants to help disadvantaged people access higher education through OUT.
He noted that one of the hardest challenges facing students doing distance learning, mostly prisoners, is finding a way to provide lecture notes to them.
“On a regular basis it is difficult for them to access study material, therefore, we are forced to print copies and take the hard copies to them,” notes the VC.
As the term ‘distance learning’ suggests, people must use Information and Communication Technology (ICT) to access education, unfortunately, some people live under conditions that make this requirement hard to access.
Mr Abdallah Adam from National Open University of Nigeria (OUN) said that in his country they had an inmate education program meant to provide free education to eligible inmates for undergraduates and post-graduate studies.
According to him, so far, there were 439 prisoners enrolled on a distance learning program recognized by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Culture Organization (Unesco).
“Efforts should be made by all African countries to change their attitude towards prison inmates. If we leave them to only serve time we all will lose when they re-join society, but if we educate them we shall all benefit covertly or overtly from their knowledge and skills,” he said.
“It could make them independent because when they get out of jail most of them are not employed,” he added.
Former OUT vice chancellor Mr Tolly Mbwete said distance learning has not been useful and accessible only to intimates and refugees but, enabled thousands of Tanzanians and prominent ministers attain the education.
He stressed that for the years he served as a chancellor of OUT, a big number of politicians in the current and previous government have acquired education through distance learning.
According to him, distance learning helps students develop higher cognitive skills such that they become more reasoned, more articulate and are better able to negotiate better outcomes for themselves as higher education is thought to act as a form of dynamic security which manifests in a reduction in violence, anti-social behaviours and assault rates.
One of the biggest challenges facing people seeking higher education is the move towards more accessible learning through online technologies.
There are some universities that have developed systems that move away from hard copy materials, but does not rely on the internet. For example Australia’s University of Southern Queensland, they have a project which offers specially adapted courses and programmes preloaded onto servers or notebooks which students can access without having internet connection.
“The most popular of these technologies are the notebook computers which students can use to access the online material.
With rise of technology, universities are moving increasingly online, providing a better chance for students who cannot physically be at the university access education.
However, although many universities have moved away from the hard-copy model of distance learning, there are still some that have retained the system. In Tanzania, most universities require physical presence of the student so as to graduate.
For example, University of Dar es Salaam’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication requires students to attend at least 70 per cent of the lectures in order to be eligible for graduation.
Meshack Kennedy, a free-lance journalist is a beneficiary of distance learning. Having acquired a journalism degree online from University of Queensland in Australia, he started looking for work in that field. He now writes for different print and online mediums.
The aim of online or distance education is to reach disadvantaged, low and middle income earners.
Women are among the beneficiaries of the program due to their busy schedules both at work and at home.
Due to the rising number of people enrolling for distance learning, OUT decided to extend its education services to every individual with required qualifications.
“So far we provide different courses starting from certificate, diploma, degree, maters and doctors of philosophy,” said OUT Vice Chancellor.
Since the institution focuses on middle income earning individuals, students are allowed to pay school fees in instalments. Apart from that he said duration to complete a course is three years but, a student can extend the course for another three years depending on his/her financial situation and schedule.
Explaining on other universities, Mr Mohamed said OUT was not the only university that provides distance learning. “There are some universities that also provide distance and online education, among them includes University of Dar es Salam.”
People in the diaspora are also given an opportunity to enroll for online distance learning regardless of their location. They normally take their results to the examination council for equivalence, after the results are sent to us and we take the results to Tanzania Commission for Universities (TCU) and National Examination Council of Tanzania (NECTA).
OUT former graduate Mr Ramadhan Omary said that distance learning has enabled him to be independent and he gained confidence to pursue what he loved.
“The education offered at OUT gives students an opportunity to learn how to be self-sufficient and also pursue one’s dreams,” he noted.