Towards developing a framework for support services for Universities in Uganda.

Juliana Bbuye, 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.

Untitled Document Introduction
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, purposively selected.

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;

  1. The Students in urban areas benefited from the use of internet as they downloaded key materials for their assignments
  2. Administrators disseminate information through SMS to students.
  3. counseling services to the students, upcountry tutorials, provided information booklets, the book bank for reference materials were key strengths of the support system
  4. to help with family or emotional problems and advice on getting financial help was in place
  5. Discovering the academic problems of students, tracking the learners progress and . giving that information to students was one of the routine works of administrators
  6. support through assignments,
  7. Study groups though self initiated by students but occasionally tutors participated
  8. 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
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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 learner.
  • 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, TV
  • 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 internet services

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 education programs.

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 systems.

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