Towards developing a framework for support services for Universities in Uganda.
Department of Distance Education, Makerere University
This article examines research findings on developing a framework for student support services system for Universities offering distance education in Uganda. Whereas distance education students in Uganda are scattered, in various parts of the country, there is lack of adequate and systematic support for them. The questions of the study were; what support system would be appropriate for distance learners and at what cost? A qualitative survey was conducted using questionnaires, interviews, focus group discussions, participatory experience observation checklists and documentary checklists to find out how support systems as part of a larger distance education whole system, should be integrated within the teaching/ learning experience of distance education in Ugandan Universities. The findings showed that Support for the distance learner, was not sufficient in Universities, and although it involved, tutoring, and study centers activities, interactive teaching/learning was absent. It was observed that the activities already in existence if organized systematically, would improve the organization and implementation of support for the distance learner. A system was recommended that showed the systematic ways in which support for students would be organized, planned and implemented to suit students and tutors requirements and one that would fit within the existing socio-economic environment in Uganda.
Distance Education (D.E.) in Ugandan Universities has been expanding since the
1980s with an estimated enrollment of 15,000 students (Siminyu: 2003). Implementation
of sound learner support systems for the programs in place however is a great
challenge. Gunawardena (1996:271) say that effective learner support systems contribute
to the success and quality of distance programs, while ineffective support systems
lead to their failure.
Research findings on distance education practice, in Uganda (Aguti (1996) &
Bbuye (2000), show that learner support development is very slow and is incapacitated.
There is need to address the issue of distance learner support as soon as possible.
This paper discuss preliminary findings of the study that set out to establish
the status of learner support in Ugandan Universities, and to establish possible
strategies that could be adopted to develop relevant and efficient learner support
systems within Ugandan Universities.
Concepts of Distance Education and Learner support
The `underlying assumption of Distance education is the separation of a tutor
from the student for more than the usual time or for all the time (Keegan: 1986).
Since the students are separated in space and time, they need to have at least
an artificial communication medium that will deliver information, and also provide
a channel of interaction between them (Moore: 2000)
In conventional systems, the teacher talks to a group of learners all together
in one single place, but if the talking is not held in one place and not all
groups are together, it is distance education.(Rumble (1996). Simonson (1996)
say that, distance education implies formal institutionally-based educational
activities where the teacher and learner are normally separated from each other
in location but not normally separated in time and where two –way interactive
telecommunication systems are used for sharing video, data, and voice instruction.
Learner support on the other hand is a system designed to assist the learner
to use effectively and efficiently, the study materials offered to him/her for
study. This is usually done by providing on-campus tutorials, lectures, laboratory
work counseling sessions and other face to face interaction with tutors and
fellow-students, internet use through e mail, online discussions, downloading
of study materials and computer tele- conferencing.
Learner support systems are part of a larger distance education system, as observed
by Rumble (1996). Distance education he argues is perceived as a system and
he defines a system as something which has various parts. The parts if put together
would make a coherent whole. Support systems should be integrated within the
system of distance education so that distance education as part of a larger
a coherent whole system of distance education is catered for.
Tait’s (2003) says support for the distance learner involves; tutoring
of all modes, organisation of study centers, and interactive teaching through
TV or radio. The rationale for support is cognitive he says supporting and developing
learning and improving knowledge. It is also affective catering for emotions
that support learning. The systematic ways in which students and tutors manage
rules and system that support persistence, completion and quality in distance
education is another angle of support services.
Given the technical concept of Distance Education, Universities in Uganda, are
falling short of the totality of a coherent Distance Education support system.
Students enrollment are low, the support systems are not inbuilt and throughput
rates are still low (50%), though completion rates are as high as 80% overall.
The problem of the study
While learner support systems ultimately contribute to the process of offering
an effective distance education program and perpetually contribute to the quality
of a distance learning course, this was not the case in Ugandan Universities.
Attitudes, views perceptions and expectations of learner support systems as
far as administrators and students of distance education in Uganda are concerned
did not rhyme with the expected norm and concepts of learner support. The quality
and usability of learner support offered to students on distance education courses
in Uganda was still wanting, and lacked the use of ICT as a major source of
support, as was the case in developed distance learning programs. It was necessary
to develop strategies that would lead to the development of a model learner
support system that would fit with the socio economic context of the country
and uplift the quality of distance education in Universities of Uganda.
Methodology of the study
A descriptive research design was used and the study attempted to answer the
following questions; what are the strength and weaknesses of learner support
systems existing in sampled Universities offering distance education in Uganda?
To what extent are support systems within distance education programs in Universities
utilised? What are student learner needs that can be catered for in a learner
support systems/framework? And what strategies can be put in place for continuous
assessment of the quality of learner support in Universities of Uganda. It was
a qualitative study using Open structured interviews, Questionnaires Documentary
Reviews and Focus group discussion guides and observations as sources of data.
Makerere University, Kyambogo University as public University and Uganda Martry’s
University and Nkozi as a private University were the participating Universities,
Eighteen (18) administrators in the sampled universities were included since
they were very instrumental in implementing distance education policy and were
decision-makers, on finance, curriculum and evaluation, and handled human resources
and donor aid. The sample consisted of 12 tutors, 8 university tutors who were
developing study materials for their programs but not necessarily tutoring on
distance education programs, selected through stratified sampling from each
of the sampled universities, 17 distance education experts in the country, purposively
selected, and 500 students selected using stratified sampling. Instruments used
included Interviews focus group discussions, observations and questionnaires
Findings of the study
Learner support system was not inbuilt within the Distance Education systems.
This inadequacy of regulations adversely affected the provision of learner support
for the distance education students. Strengths of the learner support systems
were as shown below;
- The Students in urban areas benefited from the use of internet as they
downloaded key materials for their assignments
- Administrators disseminate information through SMS to students.
- counseling services to the students, upcountry tutorials, provided information
booklets, the book bank for reference materials were key strengths of the
- to help with family or emotional problems and advice on getting financial
help was in place
- Discovering the academic problems of students, tracking the learners progress
and . giving that information to students was one of the routine works of
- support through assignments,
- Study groups though self initiated by students but occasionally tutors participated
- Resident tutor, an organizer, a secretary/clerk and a security officer,
kept the centres running on a daily basis and guided the students during face
to face sessions, and through the telephone on key issues they needed to take
note and passed on urgent information to students whenever the need arose
- Study centers gave opportunity to students in various regions to use them
as a stop gap that prevented them from frequenting the headquarters if they
had minor administrative queries and to congregate as a group outside face
to face to discuss issues.
- In some of the Makerere University centres (Kabale Lira, Mbale Fortportal)
there were competent staff at degree level to run study centres and ICT courses.
- Kyambogo University and Uganda Martyrs University Nkozi had decentralized
distance education programs all over the country. Used the network of their
subordinate institutions which in the case of Kyambogo University are primary
teachers colleges, and for Uganda martyrs University Nkozi is the District
Catholic Secretariat, to support their students and reduce their isolation
Weaknesses of support Systems
The socio economic conditions of Uganda affect the development of learner support
in Universities.(Vision:2005) indicate that Uganda is not fully electrified,
the telephone lines which are landmine and could be cheaper are not well distributed
in the rural areas, the post office is also unreliable and in spite of the communication
policy the telecom industry in Uganda is still at its infancy and expensive
for the ordinary Ugandan. What has spread so rapidly are mobile phones which
cover over 7million people in over 365 towns but have not yet been tapped by
distance providers for use in the support systems of students? The provision
of adequate support through electronic means to the learner is difficult.
Learner support systems are still developing and lack a two-way communication
system and hardly use of ICT for support. Though there seem to be a concrete
system of part time tutors running centers, the tutors and other staff are not
well grounded in the practice of Distance Education and often refer to headquarters
for queries which sometimes could be settled easily.
Most support services are centralized and this created a tendency of program
administrators managing and serving mostly students in urban areas.
The live broadcasts and videoconferencing wherever they appear to be in use
is only where donor funds especially world bank are deployed, such as the Global
distance learning centre and the African Virtual University.
Despite the existence of study centers up country, the percentages of enrolled
students using them are too low.1% of the students of Makerere University based
in Fortportal used the centre, and only 20% of the students based in Mbale with
200 students enrolled on the course in the region used the centre. 98% of the
students enrolled on the course, based in Kampala, used the Kampala centre.
There was evident underutilization of the upcountry centres and overutilisation
of the Kampala centre, overburdening and restraining the services provided especially
the computer services. The underutilization of support was due to
- Inaccessibility of centers due to poor roads
- Lack of key facilities like accommodation, photocopying, library and internet
- Lack of competent human resource at centers, with skills of handling a distance
- titles of books placed at the centres being very few
Distance Learning support programs at the centres were wanting because;
- most study centers were supervised by absentee resident tutors and mostly
managed by personnel organizers and clerks who lack capacity and are not competent
in computer use nor grounded in distance education theory to assist students
indicating a Poor management system of existing learner systems
- Unfavorable opening hours for a distance learner who works full time and
find the office of the centre locked by 5.00pm. During the day also the centre
tutor may not be available and the centre is run by a typist or clerk who
could not fully attend to students’ problems.
The use of multimedia as a support system was not possible and those who could
not attend face to face sessions, had nothing to resort to and missed the voice
of the facilitator. Students could not search for more information especially
when internet was used because only a few of the students had skills in use
of computer. Many Students therefore could not hand in better researched assignments.
This was because of
- A very high cost of infrastructure
- Scarce technical Human Resource power to run the media programs on radio,
- serving scattered students was costly
- Limited government assistance in the provision of infrastructure and
- a High student ratio to manpower availability facilities especially as regards
Students seemed not so eager to use facilities at centres because of their
study habits as indicated below,
- Students had other commitments or responsibilities at place of work or home
with inflexible work timetables and no time to visit centers
- Poor communications since the majority of students were located in remote
areas and took much more time to reach centers
- The spouses were not always supportive; it was difficult for a married woman
to stay in the centre for a larger part of her evening or for the weekend
without the spouse raising a finger.”
The support needs of the learners were;
- communication about coursework, current books available in the book bank
and other libraries, in an integrated booklet or study guide and study skills
for each particular course which were not yet in place
- Key information, such as information on activities due, fellow students’
contacts, ICT usage, and assignment deadlines especially in Makerere University
where flow of information was a bit sluggish.
Overhauling of materials distribution process, since in
most cases students received course materials and manuals late and could
not collect enough information for the course assignments because of lack
of extra study materials from the internet or from the libraries.
sessions on study skills, flexible handing in assignments dates, tutoring
outside face to face sessions, and an improved communication systems
Distance education learner support systems are a key area in any given distance
learning program. The development of learner support is rendered difficult particularly
in dual mode universities of the developing world. But as Kamau (2000) says
the problems of dual mode universities in which category Ugandan Universities
fall, is that they cannot devote enough attention and commitment to distance
There is very limited use of multimedia in supporting distance learners in
Uganda. This is partly due to small enrollments. Studies by (Rumble: 1996) show
that prior to the introduction of computers, especially in mega Universities,
the unit cost per distance based student was 5% of the total cost of the full
time student, and according to him, computers costs increase with increased
enrollment. The lowest cost technologies for small numbers of students (fewer
than 250) are print. While radio requires about 1000, computer conferencing
is low though the cost is passed on unto the student, but “live interactive
broadcasts” and “video conferencing” are still very high-cost
techniques regardless of student numbers enrolled. What is alarming in Uganda
however is that even where print is used as a support mechanism, not all students
get the study materials on time because of financial and human resources inadequacy
and infrastructural problems that affect communication.
There should be a deliberate effort to centralize as well as decentralize support
services. Centralization is intended to facilitate goal-setting and the consequent
allocation of resources for the whole organization of support within the university,
encouraging clear direction, developing coherent goals and economies of scale
(Ross: 1999). Decentralization on the other hand adds the critical components
of staff personal responsibility and ownership if the services are nearer to
the students, quicker response to local demands of the students and a stronger
loyalty to the organization at the support centers. There is need however to
find an appropriate balance between the two.
Conclusions made were that though distance education is spreading fast in Uganda,
elaborate support services for students in the programs offered are not elaborate.
Most of the support given is “chance support”, and there is dire
need to organize support for the students in a systematic way. Private Universities
find it easier to organize support for students on distance education programs
and their support systems are far better than those of the public Universities,
because of less rigid regulations. No set rules and regulations governing the
provision of distance learner support service appear in Universities which are
yet to appreciate the conduct of distance education courses.
The environment should be scanned for support needs before starting a distance
education program and because it was not done in the case of Uganda; universities
are finding it difficult to develop efficient support systems. It is important
to find out what the university should put in place to complement the support
for distance learners. The Universities offering distance education should also
identify organizations they can partner with such as Public libraries, Community
halls to assist in the support of students
The recommendations are that in addition to a basic home study materials package,
the Universities offering distance education can offer support through telephone
tutors, teleconferencing, in class seminars and lectures, library services,
cassettes and videotapes, telephone and in-person counseling and advising, study
skills workshops and others. Incidentally ICT facilities are increasing fast
in Uganda but they are not being utilized for support at the support centers.
There should be a deliberate policy to not only to decentralize but to strengthen
upcountry centers in terms of staff and equipment.
Study centers should employ competent staff preferably degree holders or distance
learning professionals, Occasional seminars to teach staff about support systems,
how to market the programs, and do research should be conducted. Feed back should
be inbuilt within systems to cater for the evaluation and improvement of support
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