Distance learning is receiving much attention in South Africa and trends indicate that the medium is growing rapidly both locally and globally. Attracting school leavers and, more dominantly, transitioning adults who are gaining knowledge and training in order to be more competitive in the workforce, distance and online education appear to be the future of studying.
According to a recent White Paper by the Minister of Higher Education and Training, Dr Blade Nzimande, distance learning is becoming an important medium for many South African learners and the sector is preparing for expansive growth over the next 15 years.
"At the Academy of York we have seen a 30% to 40% increase in students per year over the past three years and are currently experiencing up to 3,500 visitors to our site (www.aoy.co.za) per month," said the Academy of York's principal, Richard Leeming.
Figures from 2011 showed that there were nearly 400 000 learners enrolled in public distance education in South Africa. Taking into account that these numbers excluded those studying in private colleges, current estimates suggest figures that are closer to a million.
A large pool of prospective students
Global trends, as well as those in South Africa, show a large pool of prospective students who demand access to flexible learning opportunities. Studying via correspondence offers significantly discounted course fees, while allowing students to save time and learn at their own pace at home.
"People are realising that distance learning is a superior alternative to classroom-based education as it allows them to keep a balance between earning and learning," added Leeming. He said that the financial implications of studying full time are just not viable these days for many people, as they cannot take leave or, in the case of school leavers, need to be economically active earlier.
Recognising these needs, more and more classroom-based colleges in South Africa are starting to offer distance learning courses alongside their traditional studies. Leeming said that there is no ceiling to this growth as distance learning offers the best opportunities, particularly for working people to climb the corporate ladder or acquire new skills and change to a better, higher paying position. "Employers respect the fact that someone is studying and improving himself - it adds a lot of value and they are willing to pay a higher salary for this," he said.
Another benefit to distance education is that learners who might shy away from a three-year commitment to a diploma are more willing to sign up for short modules that allow them to build their skills without overextending themselves.
Leeming said that the Academy of York offers accredited short courses that allow students to do modules in a certain subject. "For example, there are so many aspects within human resources (HR) and often junior staff are managing just one of these. Once they have mastered that niche, they could gain further skills by studying further HR modules that expand their horizons at work. We believe this will be the norm going forward."
Globally, in more developed countries like the UK and the US, there is an increasing trend towards complete online learning solutions in which students download all their reading material and conduct their entire curriculum online. However, in South Africa, consumers are more restricted with their Internet bandwidth, which limits the uptake of pure online learning here.
"The feedback we are getting from our learners is that they like an online and interactive component, like we offer at the Academy of York with our virtual study groups and student support journey, but they definitely prefer to have their textbooks physically on hand to refer to. In many courses there are numerous textbooks or documents that learners need to cross-reference while making notes and it seems that having everything online complicates matters for students. I definitely think that the future in South Africa is online education, but not online exclusively," concluded Leeming.
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