The Fourth Pan-Commonwealth Forum on Open Learning (PCF4)
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Patrick Seleta Ngoma

Assessment of distance learning programs and factors that contribute to the dropout rate among distance students at the University of Zambia

Patrick Seleta Ngoma
Adult Education and Extension Studies, University of Zambia

Moses Changala
Directorate of Distance Education

The study sought to assess the distance learning programs and factors that contributed to the drop out rate among distance learning students at the University of Zambia. The sample consisted of 91 distance students (66males,25females) who attended Residential School in 2004. A simple random sampling method was used to identify the subjects.
A questionnaire was used to collect data. Some objectives of the study were to: establish the main factors that led to some distance students dropping out from studies; to establish whether quality of course materials affected learning, and determine ways of arresting the situation.Descriptive statistics were used to analyse findings.Results showed that 98% of the respondents were employed and on self-sponsorship. They also showed factors that contributed to the drop out like limited self-sponsorship, receiving misleading time-tables leading to missing examinations,and it took too long to finish studies.Respondents suggested solutions to the problems like use of Internet in teaching; and government should provide loans to students in order to access higher distance education.
It was hoped that the findings would benefit the University administration and other stakeholders in the improvement of distance education in Zambia.

One of the recommendations of the Lockwood Commission, whose report in 1963 led to the establishment of the University of Zambia, was that degree programmes should be available by distance study to suitably qualified candidates who might not be in a position to attend the University on full-time basis. The university set about implementing this recommendation at once and hence, from the outset, it has offered some degree, diploma and certificate programmes by distance teaching (Alexander 1975).

Distance education is one of the important academic activities of the University of Zambia (UNZA). The University has been offering distance-learning courses since 1967. The distance education programme has expanded tremendously over the years.

The organization, administration and coordination of distance learning courses is the responsibility of the Directorate of Distance Education (DDE), but all tuition is given by members of academic staff of the various schools of study. Members of staff of the schools offering courses by distance teaching prepare all study materials and assignments in accordance with approved course outlines.

Organisational structure
The incorporation of distance education into the academic activities of the University of Zambia, which was encouraged from the institution’s inception, provided a broad policy framework for the development of distance education. The issue of offering identical courses to full-time and distance students, which was highlighted in the report that led to the creation of the University of Zambia, received more attention in the institution’s subsequent policy document, the Strategic Plan: 1994 – 1998.
The organisational structure of distance education at the University of Zambia is reminiscent of the University of New England model in Australia. It is characterised by the integration of distance education activities into the regular academic functions of teaching departments in the university. It is a dual structure in which curriculum development, all teaching and assessment are the responsibility of full-time teaching staff in various departments that offer courses through distance teaching while a separate administrative unit, the Directorate of Distance Education, is responsible for the overall co-ordination and administration of all distance learning courses.
With regard to study programmes, the University of Zambia offers, through distance teaching, first and second year-level courses in social sciences and educational degree programmes.

Students registered for degree programmes transfer to full-time for their third and fourth -year-level courses, which are not available through the distance education mode. The Diploma in Adult Education is the only programme offered entirely through distance teaching.

Statement of the problem
The study sought to assess the distance learning programs and factors that contribute to the drop out rate among distance students at the University of Zambia.

Purpose of the study
The purpose of the study was to establish the in-depth of factors that make the distance students drop out from their studies at the University of Zambia.

Objectives of the study
The objectives of the study were to:

  • establish the main factors that led some distance students to drop out from studies.
  • determine whether sponsorship had an effect on the drop out rate of distance students.
  • establish whether communication between the DDE and students contributed to the drop out rate.
  • establish whether employment interrupted students from studying.
  • establish whether the compulsory annual Residential School could be considered as an obstacle towards progression for a distance learner.
  • establish whether the students would prefer to complete studies exclusively by distance learning.

Significance of the study
It was hoped that the study would come up with reasons that made the students drop out from their studies. Possibly the solutions for slowing the dropout rate would also be outlined as per submissions of the students. Moreover, it was hoped that the study would influence policy in government and other stakeholders pertaining to distance education.

Limitations of the study
The major constraint encountered was lack of funding. Researchers used their own funds in order to carry out this research work. The other constraint was that out of 91 questionnaires administered, only 57 were completed and returned to the researchers.


Education can be described as the widening of consciousness and the liberation from restrictions in the cognitive and emotional fields. This opening of the mind has consequences for the understanding of conditions in the external objective world, for the acquisition of knowledge and of subjective developments. The expansion of consciousness implies education towards individual autonomy.

As a key to knowledge and social reproduction in society, education has a major role to play in molding the human resources through the values, habits, attitudes and orientation to life. In it lies the kernel of the type of human resources to be produced and developed. It is, therefore, the ultimate role of schools and other institutions of learning as principle institutionalized forms of educational provision to prepare the individuals to positively live in society, to develop into new types of persons needed to meet the challenges of daily living in the wider society. Education, which could be attained through various modes, including the distance-learning mode, is a basic right for every individual. It is a means for enhancing the well-being and of life for the entire society.

Distance education can play and does play a very important role in the education and training of a country's human resources at various levels. It has proved quite effective in some countries that have tried it.

It has been realized by the corporations, institutions, colleges and universities that, when properly and timely used, distance education is one of the most effective, economical, and productive ways of delivering instruction. This fact caused them to employ distance education to deliver training and education to their personnel, clients and students in a cost-effective way at a high quality. That is one of the reasons that distance education has been receiving more attention recently especially during the late 1980 and 1990. The reason for such a trend is clear: the challenge of delivering more training to more people on more subjects with higher impact and effectiveness, and in a much more effective way can be met efficiently through distance education methods and techniques. Corporations and organizations that have successfully implemented distance-learning systems list a range of benefits for their corporations (Akyürekoglu 1995, p. 81).

Distance education generally refers to the forms of study that are not under the continuous and immediate supervisors or tutors present in the lecture rooms or on the same premises, but which, nonetheless, benefit from the planning, guidance and teaching of a supporting organisation. The organisation employs a variety of modes of study material delivery. For example, today audio, video, computer technology and others are common delivery modes. Distance education is the delivery of education or training through electronically mediated instruction including satellite, video, audio, audio graphic computer, multimedia technology and learning at a distance. It is a teaching and learning situation in which the instructor and the learner or learners are geographically separated and, therefore, rely on electronic devises and print materials for instructional delivery.

Keegan (1990, p.30) defines distance education as wall-less education, open learning, open teaching, non-traditional education, distance learning, distance teaching, correspondence education, independent study, home study, distance teaching at a distance, extension study, external study, external learning, flexible education, flexible learning, life long education, life long learning, contract learning, experiential learning, directed private study, drop-in learning, independent learning, individualized learning, resource-based learning, self-access learning, self-study, supported self-study or continuing education

Nowadays, developments in communication technology have given the world a chance to the distance education systems to establish better delivery. The age of information technology has, paradoxically, seen renewed emphasis on face-to-face and interpersonal contact as a component of good open and distance learning The new information and communications technology applications in education have given an immense boost to open and distance learning all over the world. (Jetkins 1997, p. 73).
The most notable characteristic of distance education is that communication between learners and teachers is through print, writing or by electronic media such as broadcasts, recordings narrowcasts by cable, satellite, ITFS, and fiber transmission, interactive telecommunication by computer, audio and video teleconferences or, as is increasingly common, combinations of these media. (Stahmer et al. 1990, p. 96).

On a global scale, educators are heralding the advent of computer-based technology as the great equalizer that will provide instant education in developing countries. As a scholar begin to see the impact that these new electronic media are having on the school, the family and the workplace, they are drawn to a more thorough examination of the economic, political, and social effects that technologies are having on ways of thinking on cultural values (McIsaac 1993, p. 219).


Research design
The researchers used quantitative and qualitative procedures. In order to bring out an accurate and adequate account of factors on the subject, survey questionnaires were used.

Target population
The population consisted of all distance students who attended the 2003/2004 Residential School.

The sample size was 91 students. They came from various provinces of Zambia. Majority, 17.58%(16), of the respondents came from Copperbelt province, 14%(13) central, 14.28%(13) Northwestern, 14.28%(13) Southern, 13.18%(12) Northern, 12.09%(10) Western, 10.98%(10) Eastern and the least 9.89%(09) Lusaka provinces.

72%(41) of the 57 respondents who fully completed questionnaires were males whilst 28% (16) were females. 17.54%(10) were in the age group of 26-30 years. 68.42%(39) of the respondents were in the age group of 31 – 45 years. 12.28%(7) were in the age group of 46-50 years. Only 1.75%(1) of the respondents were 25 years and below.

Method of data collection
A semi-structured questionnaire was used to collect data from the students. The questionnaire consisted of 45 questions. 21 questions were close ended and 24 questions were open ended.


Data analysis
Frequencies and percentages were used to analyze quantitative data, while content analysis was used for qualitative data.

Employment history of respondents
98% of the respondents were employed. 2% of them did not give any answer.

Sponsorship of students
98% of the respondents were on self-sponsorship. Only 2% were sponsored by their employers.
88% of the respondents had never stopped their studies at one time. However, 77% of the respondents knew some students who stopped their studies due to some reasons.
84% of the respondents indicated that sponsorship had an effect on the dropout rate on distance learning students. Hence, 91% of the respondents wished that government should also sponsor /support the distance students

60% of the respondents said that in some situations studies were interrupted by employment obligations. And 38% of them disagreed.

Course materials.
89% of the respondents stated that the course materials were not received on time. 2% said materials were received on time. 58% of the respondents stated that the quality of the course materials was good, 18%satiafactory, 21% unsatisfactory and 3% as very good.

75% of the respondents indicated that the course materials sent to them had the course content as per outlines of the course of study. 18% stated the course outlines were not covered in the batches sent to students
53% of the respondents did not agree that the distribution of the course materials contributed to the drop out rate of the students from studies. However, 44% agreed that the distribution of course materials contributed to the drop out rate.

Communication between DDE and students.

65% of the respondents stated that communication between DDE and students was fairly reliable. 28% stated that it not was reliable. 7% said it was very reliable.

Compulsory Residential School

93% of the respondents agreed that the compulsory annual Residential School was necessary.

95% of the respondents disagreed that the compulsory annual Residential School was an obstacle towards their progression.

Prefer to complete studies exclusively by distance learning.

58% of the respondents did not prefer to complete their studies exclusively by distance learning. 39% preferred to.

65% of the respondents disagreed with the assertion that completing studies by distance learning would reduce the student dropout rate. And 35% agreed.


Profile of participants
It was noticed that the majority of the students learning by distance were mainly in the ages between 31 and 45. 72% were males and 26% were females showing gender disparity.

98% of the respondents were in employment and self-sponsored. 88% stated that they never stopped studies at any time although they knew some of their colleagues who had discontinued their studies due to reasons such as:

  • lack of funds as they could not sponsor themselves;
  • being promoted at working place;
  • marital and family problems, especially for female students;
  • upward adjustment of fees every year;
  • failed examinations;
  • no permission given to attend the compulsory annual Residential School;
  • no information on Residential School period due to communication breakdown with DDE;
  • took too long to finish studies; and
  • receiving misleading examination timetable resulting in missing examinations.

They suggested that in order to minimise the dropout rate, the government should:

  • extend government bursaries scheme to distance students;
  • give loans to be recovered later; and
  • give tax incentives to the self sponsored students.

Course materials
89% indicated that they did not receive course materials in good time to enable them study effectively. 58% of them stated that the quality of course materials was good whilst 21% of them pointed out that the course materials were of unsatisfactory standard. 75% of them pointed out that the course materials sent to them had the course content as per prescribed outline of the courses of study.

44% agreed that the distribution of the course materials contributed to the dropout rate of students from studies. They put across the following as solutions:

  • lecturers should submit materials to DDE early;
  • course materials should be posted to provincial centers through Internet;
  • since registration was normally done in advance, DDE should ensure that by the time of Residential School, all course materials should be ready;
  • DDE should send all course materials to provincial centres where students would collect them;
  • DDE should have its own full time lecturers who would be preparing course materials in good time; and
  • DDE should stock recommended and prescribed books in provincial centres,
  • DDE should produce detailed and well explained course materials in line with the approved course outlines;
  • course materials should be periodically revised; and
  • photocopying materials from textbooks should be avoided.

Communication between DDE and students
65% of the respondents stated that the communication network between DDE and students was fairly reliable. They gave the following reasons:

  • phones in DDE were sometimes not working;
  • assignments went missing in DDE;
  • the Post Office was unreliable in delivering papers from DDE;
  • assignments were not returned on time to enable self-evaluation;
  • queries were not given the urgency they deserved;
  • DDE sent course materials as unregistered mail which rendered their delivery risky and inefficient; and
  • students, in some cases, received assignments after the due dates had passed.

Interruption of studies by employment
60% of the respondents believed that, in some situations, studies were interrupted by employment whilst 35% disagreed. Those who agreed suggested how this problem could be sorted out such as: Residential School should not be compulsory but optional, course materials and assignments should be sent to the students who had failed to attend Residential School, and employers should give study leave to their employees who were studying to enable them attend the compulsory annual Residential School.

Compulsory Residential School is necessary for distance students
93% of the respondents agreed that the compulsory annual Residential School was necessary because library facilities during Residential School assisted students to research for the assignments made them feel part and parcel of the university and enjoy the academic atmosphere on campus.

Preference to complete studies exclusively by distance learning
39% preferred to complete their studies by distance learning because:

  • they would have more time to attend to family commitments;
  • seeking sponsorship from government would not be necessary;
  • they would find it easy to source funds for their studies; and
  • since they would be working and studying at the same time, they would not miss promotion at their work places.

35% agreed with the assertion that completing studies by distance learning would reduce the student dropout rate and gave the following reasons:

  • students would not lack sponsorship since they would be sponsoring themselves;
  • there would be no pressure on students since they would take their own time to finish their studies;
  • the students whose jobs would not allow them to be away from the station longer would continue studying; and
  • students would not be seeking for long educational leave from their employers.

Respondents suggested other ways that would reduce the dropout rate amongst distance students such as:

  • government sponsorship should be extended to distance students;
  • studying materials should be sent to students early;
  • students should be allowed to change their study quotas freely;
  • course materials should be posted on Internet;
  • lecturers should set questions in relation to what they taught;
  • DDE should open up libraries in provincial centers to enable students access books and other study materials; and
  • examination centers should be further decentralized to districts in order to reduce transport costs.

From the study findings, it is clear that there were various factors that contributed to the dropout rate among distance learning students at the University of Zambia. We are of a belief that such problems should be sorted out in order to slow down the drop out rate.

We recommend that most of the suggestions like use of Internet in teaching put forward as possible solutions to the problem of the student drop-out rate at the University of Zambia should be adopted for possible improvement in the provision of distance education.

Akyurekoglu, H. (1995), The Role of Distance Education in Corporate Training, The Pennsylvania State University, Pennsylvania. MA Thesis unpublished.

Alexander, D.J. (1975), Origin and Development of University Extension in Zambia, 1966 – 1975: Occasional papers No. 3, UNZA, CCE unpublished.

Jetkins, J. (1997), Open and Distance Learning-The Cornerstone of Lifelong Learning for the Information Age, Presented paper at the World Conference on Education in India: Next Millennium, on 1 2-14 November, 1997, New Delhi, India.

Keegan, D. (1990), Foundations of Distance Education, (2nd ed.), Routledge, London

McIsaac, S. M. (1993), Economic Political and Social consideration in the Use of Global Computer-Based Distance Education”, In R. Muffoletto & N. N. Knupfer (eds.), Computers in Education: Social, Political and Historical Perspectives, Hampton, Press Inc., Cresskill, New Jersey

Stahmer, A., Naswil I. and Debbie B. (1990) Development in Telecommunication Technology For Distance Education with Reference to Developing Countries. In T. Shannon (ed.),Training Needs in Use of Media For Distance Education, Singapore, Asian Mass Communication Research and Information Center -AMIC.

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