Strategies for sustainable learner support services in developing nations

Babatunde Ipaye, Learner Support Services, National Open University of Nigeria

Developing nations are anxious to provide mass access to higher education for the citizenry. Open and Distance Learning seems to be the most reliable means which combine accessibility and affordability for the individual and cost efficiency for government and providers. However, issues like appropriate technology, acceptable academic culture and practices, enabling infrastrucutre, and various individual characteristics need to be attended to. Open and distance learning institutions could help provide mass access; it could help reduce the cost of university education, it could help meet the yearnings of the individual for university admission and could help rebuild confidence in those who struggled for places in conventional universities that all is not lost. But, all these do not guarantee success. ODL instituions need support services which help reduce to the barest minimum, issues of isolation, lack of motivation or inability to self motivate. There is thus need for a sustainable learner support services.
This paper discusses the various ways of making such services sustainable in developing nations. It discusses the cost effectiveness of support services, it compares the cost of high attrition rate with that of high completion rate, examines the concept of community ownership of study centres and how this can work in developing nations where the citizenry believes that government has to provide all things; and discusses the attitudinal disposition of consumers of services in study centres in relation to sustainability.

Strategies for sustainable learner support services in developing nations


Access to higher education is a real problem in developing nations. In Nigeria for instance, statistics indicate that less than 15% of qualified candidates could be admitted by the 75 existing conventional universities. Yet the country needs to provide university education for its citizens. One cardinal issue of greatest attraction to developing nations while considering access to university education, is Open and Distance Learning, Developing nations are anxious to provide mass access to higher education for the citizenry. Open and Distance Learning seems to be the most reliable means which combine accessibility and affordability for the individual and cost efficiency for government and providers. However, issues like appropriate technology, acceptable academic culture and practices, enabling infrastructure, and various other factors that lead to success need to be attended to. Open and distance learning institutions could help provide mass access; they could help reduce the cost of university education, help meet the yearnings of the individual for university admission and could help rebuild confidence in those who struggled for places in conventional universities that all is not lost. But, all these do not guarantee success. In expanding access to education, one of the most significant challenges has been finding appropriate delivery methods that will help assure and ensure both success and completion for majority of the learners.

Learner support services

In developing economies where the few available universities cannot take majority of those qualified for admission and where the issue of access has not only become a political but also a social problem, an increasing number of prospective students have come to see distance learning as a convenient option, or the only possibility for obtaining university education and qualification. Yet, even in developed economies where facilities are relatively more available and accessible, the attrition rate in ODL remains high.How the educational environment supports a student is a key to that student's academic success and personal development.

The purpose of Learner Support Services is to provide a warm, supportive atmosphere for learners which will help them develop self confidence and thus assist them to achieve personal success in their individual academic and life goals by making available a variety of resources, services, and referrals. Many students in distance learning programmes report feelings of isolation, boredom, lack of self-direction as well as self and time management difficulties and eventual decrease in motivation levels. Often, operators of ODL had concentrated on the geographic separation of teacher and learner as a key feature of distance education. They had paid greater attention to development of study materials and the strategies of communicating content to the learners. For these reasons, they had often focused on the technology for spanning that geographic distance or on the personnel to develop the courses or the instructional methods for designing technology-based programmes. Yet, there are various other "distances" facing learners. One of these consists of a range of sociopsychological factors that may impede learning or lead to dropping out of the ODL programme. Also, many learners have difficulties understanding the study materials or what the technology is leading to or asking them to do. (Ipaye, in press). Further, the learner may start feeling neglected and marginalized because s/he did not hear the voice or see the face of the teacher. Those other factors, that could affect ODL learners, apart from linguistic difficulties, include the `language' of the study material and its readability; culture, including the culture of reading and studying; motivation; inadequate skills or preparation; anxiety; time; and work or family constraints. Distance learners, therefore, need various support services that help them to reduce distance in whatever form, to keep on track and to be successful. Learner support services not only bridge socio-psychological distances, but they also foster personal development and the accomplishment of learning goals. (Ipaye, 2005, )

Learner Support Service in ODL therefore has the responsibility of providing support for all students in their attempts to pursue academic studies within the open and distance learning environment. In doing so the services must be robust enough to keep going and sustainable.

Cooperation and collaboration:

ODL Institutions in developing nations have to cooperate and collaborate on a variety of issues and areas to sustain the available services. Cooperation here refers to the willingness of institutions to assist each other in matters pertaining to learner support services while collaboration could lead to a coordinated, synchronous activity that is the result of a continued attempt to construct and maintain a shared conception of a problem,( Krishna Alluri & K.Balasubramanian, 2006), all focused on initiatives that will help the collaborating institutions achieve a higher completion rate, a smoother learning experience and a more germane and most appropriate learning environment for the students. Unlike in the West where some learners enrol in ODL programmes to audit such programmes and garner some experience,(without necessarily completing the programme), most learners in developing nations who enrol in ODL programmes do so to obtain a certificate. You cannot obtain a certificate if you do not complete the programme hence support services that will enhance the probability of completing the programme and obtaining a certificate should be worked out. Developing nations should learn lessons from developed nations where even in mega universities the attrition rate had been found to be rather high. High attrition rate is a waste of resources both for the nation and for the individual who has to pay his or her fees and other associated bills.

Study Centres:

A study Centre is a designated outpost for an ODL institution outside the headquarters, where students go to receive tutorials, meet support staff of the institution, get the study materials, take their examinations, meet other colleagues, carry out their practicals and other learning related activities for the promotion of their studentship. Study centres could operate in different forms. Some ODL institutions which operate residential schools use their study centres as venues for the residential schools during the specified periods of eight to twelve weeks. Some study centres serve only as centres for tutorials or for material distribution or for purveying information etc. In some situations, study centres become the replica of the main institution, serving as a mini-university in the locality and depicting the political presence of the government. In this case it also serves a political dimension, satisfying the requirements of politics in education.

How can study centres be sustained?

  • Become community oriented; Ordinarily, the study centre creates a spirit of a community of learners and therefore it serves that community, i.e. tutors, registered students, prospective students, counsellors, and other non-teaching staff. In this sense however, funding, facilities and equipment still have to come from the headquarters. Even then, a study centre can `die' if learners stop visiting, if they stop coming for tutorials, if tutors stop coming etc. especially if such development is traceable to some derelictions or deprivations from the headquarters. To sustain the centre therefore, funding must be regular, and adequate; facilities must be maintained, contact between the centre and the headquarters should both be cordial and healthy, the flow of study materials from the headquarters to the centre should be maintained and staff of the centre should be friendly, approachable, empathetic and familiar with learners' problems and possible solutions.

On the other hand, the centre should serve as a link between the society and the institution providing suitable relationships between town and gown thus helping to integrate both. This way the community will be happy to carry some aspects of the funding of the centre, and to provide some facilities, infrastructure and their maintenance.. The centre could provide internet services for the community through a cybercafé; could serve as meeting places for educational purposes and some non-academic meetings by the host community; could serve as venues for public lectures, seminars and workshops in which community at large has some stake. It should be borne in mind that the sustenance of a study centre does not only depend on monetary income but also on the goodwill of the host community, the affinity between the centre and the people it serves and the locational advantages it creates for the users vis-à-vis their needs. On the whole, the study centre, as much as possible should :

  • Be community oriented

  • be community owned;

  • provide academic and non-teaching services

  • promote socio-cultural affinities

  • avoid political and religious leanings

  • endear itself to the community through service efficiency and effectiveness by paying attention to

  • individual learner's needs;

  • group needs;

  • community needs;

  • academic excellence

  • Societal acceptance and credibility.

Tutoring /Instructional facilitation:

In ODL the need for tutors is overriding and any initiative to enhance learner success focuses on engaging tutors, who have direct experience with learners. With their direct student contact, tutors play a critical role in guiding both the social and intellectual or academic aspects of the ODL institution. Tutoring in ODL gives the learners a sense of belonging, i.e. belonging to the institution; and a feeling of being students. In most developing nations, the culture of face to face teaching is the main recognised mode of studentship and most people do not regard you as students if you do not have that face to face teaching/tutoring; neither do they recognise you as an institution if that phase is missing. The situation is simplified by a network of study centres, either owned or borrowed by the institution but the problem of quality, organisation, monitoring etc. are obvious.

The operation of tutorial services in ODL differs from institution to institution. In some institutions, tutorials are organised on basis of specified number of available students willing to or requesting for tutorials in a particular course or programme. Tutorial is optional. In some it is an `absolute' i.e. there is scheduled time for tutorial and it is mandatory. Usually, there are specified number of tutorials per course, (.e.g. 10 tutorials per course) and a well defined duration ( e.g. two hours) per tutorial period. This leads to a definable total hours of tutorials for a given course. This approach makes it easier for accreditation teams, evaluation committees, and monitoring bodies to conclude if sufficient contact and thus interaction is provided. It has been observed however that no matter the spread of the network of study centres, there will still be some students for whom the study centre will still be too distant and who cannot afford the cost of travelling to the centre on weekly basis for tutorials. This is sadly so in some developing nations where salaries, poor as they are, are also not regularly paid, or cost of transportation rather high.

How do we sustain tutorial services?

  • Provide the tutors

  • Pay tutors as and when due

  • Provide study materials and ensure they get to learners on time

  • Ensure tutors too have copies of the study materials well in advance of commencement of tutoring

  • Provide a well understood schedule and where possible, work out schedules of meeting jointly with learners

  • Consider the convenience of all concerned ( tutors, learners, counsellors, administrators)

  • Avoid too strict punitive measures for absentees but do not compromise standards (where tutorials are mandatory)

More importantly, tutoring should facilitate among learners some collaborations and collaborating mechanisms geared towards succeeding in their studies. As noted by Kaplan, (2002), collaboration could be a process of participating in knowledge communities. Such a process necessitates collaboration among individuals and groups in order to succeed in formal and informal learning environments the type we have in ODL. Distance learners differ in their levels of literacy and learning ability and styles, These would require facilitation of shared and horizontal learning which if consciously provided will help to sustain the tutoring services. Also, many ODL learners are low in their capacity to learn individually; tutors thus have to help such learners regroup and focus on group learning and associated needs. In developing nations, most learners do not have the opportunity and some do not have the ability to access information individually. This calls for networking, cooperation and collaboration between those that have access, ability and the know-how and those that lack them. Also, learners differ widely in their reading ability and study materials differ greatly in their readability. Tutors that help learners overcome problems in these areas will be enhancing their continued patronage of tutoring and thus the sustainability of tutoring and instructional facilitation.

Peer tutoring:

We can no longer ignore the fact that learners support other learners. This is one aspect of support services that needs attention and serious utilisation in developing nations where the teacher still sees him/herself as the veritable source of knowledge while playing down the person and place of the learner as an important source of knowledge and knowledge delivery. Students too can be a valuable source of information and feedback to help ODL programme designers, academic experts, and tutors to improve course and programme offerings and thus help stabilise the tutorial system. Peer tutoring gets sustainable the more by its “Creating and structuring opportunities for people to network, communicate, mentor, and learn from each other thus helping to capture, formalize, and diffuse tacit knowledge”. .(Alluri & Balasubramanian, 2006) Communities, (the type that develop from tutorials and study centres) become a boundary-less container for knowledge and relationships that can be used to increase individual effectiveness and enhance learners' chances of success and programme completion when learners teach and learn from each other (see Alluri & Balasubramanian, 2006)


Counselling is an important support service in ODL. It helps both the institution and the students. It is often forgotten that counselling is not only for the learners, it is also for the tutors, and other staff of the institution. Many tutors, even after orientation, still felt confussed and utterly unaware of what to do and particularly how to do it. A follow-up counselling after orientation for tutors could be very useful and effective in getting new tutors to grasp what they are expected to do and to settle down to work. Many tutors after orientation still prefer teaching as they were accustomed to in conventional universities. Interventions through counselling could be very helpful in getting them to self-appraise and identify crucial steps and procedures as well as personal qualities and attitudes required for effective tutoring. The crucial role of counselling in getting learners settle down, create a web of interaction and a network of participation thus beating isolation and boredom is well known. So is the place of counselling in getting learners to imbibe effective study habits, acquire efficient learning strategies and develop self monitoring techniques. What is not yet well known particularly to Western authors and researchers is that in developing nations especially in Africa, people do not easily and willingly go for counselling. In some African societies, seeking counselling, asking for help etc. is seen as a sign of weakness, particularly by the male. In the West, Counsellors wait for learners to come to them with their problems; in Africa, Counsellors must go to the learners to find out what their problems are. The group of people that currently patronise ODL in Africa are those who grew up under the culture that children are only seen not heard and thus failed to develop question-asking habits, attitude and behaviours. Counsellors of distance learners in Africa therefore have that additional task of taking counselling out to the counsellee, seeking counsellees to come for counselling and devising means of getting learners to see strength in seeking help when most needed rather than wait until asked to withdraw from a programme or when assignments had piled up to an unimaginable proportion.

How do we sustain counselling in ODL in developing nations?

  • Ensure Counsellors themselves are well trained to work with adults and distance learners. Most Counsellors in Africa are trained to work with adolescents and thus lack the skill of handling adult problems.

  • Most adults in ODL prefer minimal reading, copious didactic face to face teaching. They thus need counselling and guidance in self study and personal reading habits. The Counsellor must be able to do this for them to sustain their interest in counselling and in their studies.

  • Personal attention: most learners need personal attention, personal contacts and interaction which give them the feeling that the university is not too `distant' from them both physically and emotionally. The Counsellor fills this gap for the university and for the individual student by ensuring that the university gets to know about every individual registered student's progress, challenges and fears; and by assuring the individual learners get acquainted with university rules, regulations and any changes thereof; acquainting him or her with important dates and reminding him or her of deadlines for schedules ; serving as the mirror reflecting what the university knows, feels and thinks about the individual student to him or her. If this fails, counselling may not be sustainable because the individual student will see himself or herself more as just a member of a crowd.

  • Let counselling cover all students: some ODL providers provide small number of counsellors for large number of students. In developing nations, where ICT cannot yet be used to cover counselling services for most learners because of infrastructural problems and deficiencies, more counsellors have to be used. This could be capital intensive but the payoff will be in the dividends that accrue from the completion rate. The thesis here is that institutions that provide more counsellors who spend quality time with more students will eventually reap in a higher completion rate. Even in on-line counselling, spending quality time with individual students and giving him or her the `feel' of belonging and the aura of succeeding will lead to more learners completing the programme. If Counsellors interact with all students, ensuring that the last on the queue is reached, and counselling covers all students both those succeeding and those on the margin, and learners see the gains of counselling, then counselling is more likely to be sustained and more will patronise counselling services.


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Collaboration In Education and Development

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Distance Learning —Lessons and Issues

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