Access to education, or lack thereof, is key to learning for both men and women. Improvement in design of instruction that is relevant to distance or face-to-face learning is always to be encouraged and welcomed. Whether gender-based redesign of distance learning is valid and necessary is a challenging and complex issue for research.
A Case for using Open and Distance Learning (ODL)
Universities & Polytechnics
Source: National Council for Tertiary Education, 2006
Several factors including mismatch between existing academic facilities and qualified applicants, limited opportunities for work, study and family management and limited avenues for professional progression for those who divert into vocational and technical education have contributed to limited engagement in further studies. Though some of these factors affect both males and females, these and other factors affect women differently and thereby further limit their access to tertiary education. Women perform triple roles – reproductive, productive and societal/communal responsibilities. They are perceived by society as managers of the home and child minders. Their biological make up make them responsible for carrying babies during pregnancy. Mothers who are not fortunate to have responsible husbands are left with the sole responsibility of ensuring the total upbringing of their children which gives them extra financial responsibilities. These socio-cultural and biological roles affect their ability to leave home management and child care responsibilities for school. Working mothers who dare to pursue academic laurels are faced with the challenging task of combining work, home/child care and studies. If the study is in the face-to-face mode, then they are not likely to have enough flexibility that could meet their life and learning styles. These factors point to the need for alternative modes of delivery of education that will meet the lifestyle of all prospective applicants most especially women.
Open and distance learning has proved as a sure way of widening access to education most especially for women. It is an educational philosophy that seeks to overcome/remove all the barriers to education. Open and distance learning could simply be explained as an educational programme that is both open and offered at a distance. The emphasis is on open and distance. It is open in the sense that there are no barriers to accessing the programmes. The distance also implies that the learner and the teacher could be at a different place and time and engage in an educational transaction using an appropriate media such as print or electronic. There could be a distance learning programme that is closed - that is restricted in terms of entry qualification, selection of courses and assessment procedures. On the flip side, there could also be an open system that is not offered at a distance but only in the face-to-face mode. Such a system could be open in terms of flexibility in entry qualification, selection of courses and combination and assessment procedures but closed or restricted in terms of mode of delivery. Combining the two concepts of open and distance learning widens the scope of both distance learning and open learning. UNESCO (2002) has explained that open and distance learning refers to approaches to learning that focus on freeing learners from constraints of time and place while offering flexible learning opportunities. For many students open and distance learning is a way of combining work and family responsibilities with educational opportunities. The open nature of distance learning might be formally institutionalized in such policies as open admissions, and freedom of selection of what, when and where to learn. The openness of distance learning is also seen in relatively flexible organizational structures, patterns of delivery and communication as well as the use of various technologies to support learning (Commonwealth of Learning, n.d.). In open and distance learning, the learner has control over pace, place, time and process. Hence it is often described as learner-centred.
Meanwhile there have been arguments over the extent of openness in educational programmes. Spencer (1984) has argued that:
since open and distance learning hints on flexibility in delivery and recognizes that students can be at a distance from the teacher and can, therefore, overcome spatial and time barriers and
if distance learning seeks to provide:
open and accessible adult education that is open to traditionally excluded individuals and groups,
access to educational resources for those disadvantaged as opposed to individualized education, and
encouraging critical reflection and practical democracy such as workers’ self-management,
then all the barriers of distance learning itself need to be overcome. Spencer thus argues that openness should be widened to provide accessible and democratic education – education that is accessible to all. This argument is valid. It is challenging to attain total openness in education, whether at a distance or on-campus. For instance the
Source: Students’ Statistics, UEW (2006)
Even with the limited flexibility most institutions provide with open and distance learning, statistics from various institutions indicate a high percentage of female enrolment in such programmes as compared to on-campus programmes. The University of Education, Winneba which began its ODL programme in 1998 has approximately 7000 students with 53% females and 46.5% males in its Level 300 for the 2006/7 school year. University of Cape Coast which began in 2001 has over 18,000 students of 49.7% females and 50.2 males in the Diploma in Education courses. University of South Africa (UNISA) has over 185,660 students registered in its formal programmes in 2007 out of which 56% are females and 44% being males.
This has been the trend from its 2004 to date records. University of Ghana has just joined the race with a first batch admission of 1128 students for the 2007/8 academic year. The statistics from the various distance education institutions give an indication of a possible attainment of gender parity in education at the tertiary level and, in the case of UNISA, an imbalance is emerging with a higher female percentage. This is the reason for the need to continuously bring to therefore the potential of ODL in promoting higher education especially among women for their empowerment. Detailed statistics from the following institutions could re-enforce the discussion:
Source: Centre for Continuing Education, UCC, 2006.
Source: UNISA, 2007
Source: UNISA, 2007
Meanwhile in the process of harnessing the potential of open and distance learning for women’s education, there is the caution to pay attention to course content as well. Phummer (2002) has observed that just as in on-campus programmes, women do not highly subscribe to science oriented courses. Compared to their male counterparts, women mostly subscribe to humanities rather than the sciences. Conscious effort should therefore be made to attract women to the science oriented courses in open and distance learning as well as on-campus.
This section provides a brief theoretical background to the paper. It is difficult to obtain theories on the interface between women and open and distance learning. In a paper on Research in Distance Education – Past, present and future by Rekkedal (1994), the author observes in the 70's it was quite common that reports from distance education research projects started with a regret for the lack of prior theory or empirical research data. Despite this observation one could admit that progress has been made in developing a body of theory of distance learning. Theories on distance education and the few that are available on women have therefore been reviewed to assess their implication for open and distance learning for women.
Wang (n.d) states that Desmond Keegan (1986) identifies three historical approaches to the development of a theory of distance education. He classified them into the following three categories:
theories of independence and autonomy (Wedemeyer and Moore)
theories of industrialization of teaching (Peters)
theories of interaction and communication (Holmberg)
Theories of independence and autonomy which date from the 1960s and 1970s is argued by Wedemeyer and Moore. It reflects the essential component of the independence of the learner. Otto Peters' work on a theory of industrialization in the 1960s reflects the attempt to view the field of distance education as an industrialized form of teaching and learning. The third approach integrates theories of interaction and communication formulated by Holmberg, Baath, Sewart, and Daniel & Marquis. It is this concept of industrialized, open, non-traditional learning which, Keegan says, will change the practice of education (McIsaac & Gunawardena, 1996). Perraton is another representative theorist in the field. Her contribution to distance education theory lies in her integration of the existing theoretical paradigms with philosophies of education. Her theory consists of 14 statements or hypotheses that concern education expansion, interaction and communication, and teaching methodology. The utilization of emerging technologies in distance education led to the American theory of equivalency, which seeks to make equivalent the learning experiences of all students no matter their sex and how they are linked to the resources or instruction they require. According to this theory, distance education providers have the responsibility to design instruction that provides learners with equal learning experiences and values (Simonson et al., 2000 in Wang, n.d.).
The wide range of theoretical notions which have provided a richer understanding of the learner at a distance have several implications for open and distance female learners. Research on gender issues in ODL has recently received some attention. Most of this research examines questions concerning student profiles, learning styles, needs, recruitment, and drop out among female students. Authors like Phummer, Rekkedal, and Kanwar and Evans, among others, have also been pursuing studies on women and distance learning. These studies help to assess the situation of women in ODL programs to find out the interface between the various theories and women who engage in ODL programs.
Kirkup and Phummer have questioned the universality of the notion of independent or autonomous learner. Based on the results of their comparative work on female and male learners in the British Open University and the German FernUniversitat, the authors suggest that the notion of the connected learner more accurately takes account of women's learning styles. As a result, they have explored the implications of the difference in men and women's learning needs and the kind of support systems that should be designed for male and female distance learners (Rekkedal, 1994).
Meanwhile, using a post-modern framework, a study by Wall (2004) sought to explore the notion of solitude among women distance education students and found that, in contrast to the feminist view that women have a high need for interactive method of learning as opposed to solitary knowledge-building, there are some women distance education learners who, in addition to learning in a collaborative environment, have the skills and confidence to learn in a solitary environment. Thus, learning in solitude is not as detrimental as some authors contend. The study has therefore challenged the general notion that women learn best in an interactive rather than solitary environment. The factors which seemed relative to these perspectives were time, choice, course load, individual preferences, and discomfort with technology.
This observation leads to the applicability of the concept of independence and learner control in ODL for women. Though the conclusion of the study by Wall (2004) does state categorically that all women have the ability to learn in solitude, and also quickly adds that they are able to learn in solitude in addition to engaging in collaborative environment, the study firms up the concepts of learner independence, learner autonomy, and learner control in distance learning for women. Independence and learner control is a theoretical construct that has received attention in the distance education literature. Studies which examine locus of control (Altmann & Arambasich, 1982; Rotter, 1989 in McIsaac & Gunawardena, 1996) conclude that students who perceive that their academic success is a result of their own personal accomplishments have an internal locus of control and are more likely to persist in their education. Students with an external locus of control feel that their success, or lack of it, is due largely to events such as luck or fate outside their control. Thus, those with external locus of control are more likely to become drop-outs.
This implies that much as the inner desire to achieve and therefore earn to succeed on educational programs could drive women to stay on distance learning programs, support systems cannot be taken for granted. Probably the inner drive will push students to get on board, while the support systems will sustain them on the programs. The inner drive and the support systems that adhere to the principles of guided didactic conversation could therefore be the sustaining elements of women in ODL programs.
The social context in which distance learning takes place is emerging as a significant area for research. Theorists are examining how the social environment affects motivation, attitudes, teaching, and learning. The experiences of women make them perceive the world differently from men. As a result of the influence of their roles in society, their encounter of the world cannot be the same as that of their menfolk. Rekkedal (1994) discusses that some feminist theorists advocate a distinctive sociology for women that draws on their everyday experience, enabling them to arrive at an understanding of a social world where power is held by men. Smith (1990:13) in Rekkedal is quoted to contend that "the worlds of men have had, and still have, an authority over the worlds that are traditionally women's and still are predominantly women's—the worlds of household, children, and neighbourhood." This observation represents a radical departure from the theories, methods, and subject matter of traditional, male-centered sociology. According to this argument, women in academic settings face a disjunction between their own life experience and established bodies of knowledge that reflect a male point of view. The thinking is that the existing theories and methods of ODL may be confusing for women who study at a distance and are physically removed from the university community. Perceived and conceived by men in the world of men, the packages of objective, factual material, activities, and exercises of modules that are sent to open and distance learners may have little direct bearing on the social worlds of women. As a result, gender advocates have pushed for and introduced alternative approaches to learning that fits into the social context of women and as a result encourage women to explore their own direct experience in order to understand their society better.
To create gender sensitivity in course development, course delivery, administration of ODL, and all other processes, Rekkedal has proposed that questions be asked differently and also that our perceptions be reviewed. For instance:
How do adults learn? should become How do women and men learn?
What sort of support do learners need? should become What sort of support do men and women need?
What sorts of conditions must we create for learners at a distance so that the open door stays widely open? should become What sorts of support do women and men need in order to succeed as distance learners?
Instead of worrying over what sorts of programs will meet the needs of our potential—and generic—learners, we should be asked whether our course materials enable women as well as men to make sense of their experiences, to find their voice and to take positive action in and on their worlds.
Rather than urging on our colleagues the latest technology for connecting learners with teachers and with each other, we are asked to consider whether these technologies are equally available to women and men, and whether women and men are likely to approach and experience these technologies in the same way (Rekkedal, 1994).
Media use for facilitating guided didactic conversation in ODL has gained currency in the analysis of the theories in distance learning. The development of new technologies has promoted an astounding growth in ODL, both in the number of students enrolling and in the number of universities adding education at a distance to their curriculum. Meanwhile, there are issues that need to be critically assessed to be able to make the best use of information and communication technologies in ODL for women. The first issue is that, while the application of modern technology may enhance ODL, literature in the field reveals a conceptually fragmented framework lacking in both theoretical foundation and programmatic research. The interface between the male and female learner, the instructor, and the technology needs to be explored to find out how the instructor, the learner, and the technology collaborate to generate knowledge.
Another issue is the ability to obtain social presence in the use of information and communication technologies in teaching learning engagements. Though there has been a widespread notion that technology is culturally neutral, and can be used easily in a variety of settings, it has been realized that media, materials, and services are often inappropriately transferred without paying attention to the social setting or to the local recipient culture. That is, technology-based learning activities are frequently used without attention to the impact on the local social environment. Computer-mediated communication attempts to reduce patterns of discrimination by providing equality of social interaction among participants who may be anonymous in terms of gender, race, and physical features. However, there is evidence that while some anticipated users may not have access at all, the social equality factor may not extend to participants who may not be competent in the language of the computer. A consideration of the traditional settings is therefore necessary. Social presence is a factor that is particularly significant to open and distance educators. Learners need to feel a high degree of presence in a mediated situation (Fontaine, 2002). In a study of learners in an interactive television class, it was found that cues given to students—such as encouraging gestures, smiles, and praise—were social factors that enhanced both students' satisfaction and their perceptions of learning (McIsaac & Gunawardena, 1996). Since an interactive environment meets the learning styles of women, the conscious effort to create social presence in technology-mediated learning could be a way of making information and communication technology women-friendly.
The theories have different implications for women and men who study at a distance. On the construct of the independence of the learner, it could be observed that in view of their differential roles, experiences, and perspectives, men and women engage differently in any teaching-learning endeavor. Probably as a result of the inability to find enough space to engage in intensive studies, which could result in limited confidence, women are not able to amass a high level of autonomy and independence in their studies. Though current studies have proved that women can learn in solitude, there is still the need for gender-specific support systems to create opportunity for interaction among women.
Guided didactic conversation, though it could be most suitable and very supportive in meeting women's learning styles, its excessive use probably could not be very helpful for women to build and claim their self-autonomy and independence in their learning engagements. Women require some space to make the effort to explore and be responsible for their own learning and intellectual development.
One instrument that has been widely used to bridge the time and space and to promote didactic conversation is information and communication technology. As much as it has been strongly argued that information and communication technologies have tremendous potential for overcoming most of the barriers women face in distance learning, women are not generally seen to be technology-friendly. Creating a high level of social presence in information and communication technologies will not only meet women's learning styles or merely enhance interactivity, but will facilitate didactic conversation as well.
The potential of open and distance learning in widening access to tertiary education for women is tremendous. In view of the need to use higher education to facilitate development and for that matter women’s empowerment several efforts (such as expanding educational infrastructure and affirmative action to reduce the qualifying aggregate by one for women) have been made to enable existing polytechnics and universities increase their intake. Though these efforts have contributed to modest increase in enrolment, the norm of attaining 50:50 male-female ratio is yet to be achieved. This is as a result of growing mismatch between the existing tertiary educational facilities and the large number of qualified applicants in addition to limited opportunities for recurrent education and lifelong learning.
Statistics from open and distance learning institutions confirm the potential of open and distance learning in achieving parity in education between males and females. Theories of distance education has also outlined the underlying principles for using open and distance learning for educating women. The onus is on policy makers, development partners/workers and educators to harness the full potential of open and distance learning for women in higher education.
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Dr. Olivia A. T. Frimpong Kwapong is a Lecturer at the
Olivia Adwoa Tiwaah Frimpong Kwapong
University of Ghana
Institute of Adult Education
LG 31, Legon – Accra, GHANA