Ever-increasing university enrollment rates means that physical structures such as lecture halls and student living quarters are being stretched to the breaking point. A remedy to the infrastructural limits of on-site education is Open Distance Learning (ODL), an accesible, convenient, and relatively widely-available alternative via technologies like SMS, internet and social media.
A number of institutions have adopted this new technology to teach their programmes. Nevertheless, finding an agricultural ODL program is not that easy.Coursera, Udacity, edX–none of them seem to have agricultural courses available. Maybe – just maybe – I haven’t looked hard enough. Today’s side event called ‘Teaching Agriculture using ODL” at the 6th FARA Africa Agriculture Science Week in Accra, Ghana, has changed all that.
The University of South Africa (UNISA) has integrated ODL in its educational system – including agriculture courses! With over 400, 000 students scattered all over the world, UNISA is an institution worth emulating in this regard. Students have access to lecture notes, study materials, assignments, and digital libraries, and they never even set foot on campus. There is even an SMS system in place that notifies a students of the receipt of their assignments and exams.
ODL is enhancing research, too, thanks to improved collaboration between universities and research institutions. Data-sharing among instructions has eased access to knowledge and paved the way for rapid advances to be made in agriculture.
The challenges: Is ODL really for everyone?
The relative ease of ODL does not mean that the system will work for everyone; there are a number of challenges that complicate its use. Many areas in Africa, including the cities, are plagued by an unstable electricity supply. Poor students may lack access to modern gadgets such as computers and cell phones. The self-motivation required for ODL may also make it inappropriate for some students; high dropout rates may occur due to their inability to maintain the discipline of self-study or the feeling of loneliness (Faruque, 1998)
There isn’t a clear-cut, ‘perfect’ model to adopt in implementing an ODL. Careful considerations need to be made with respect to advances/changes in technology, appropriateness of place and person, and subject matter. Nevertheless, the successful creation of more and better ODL programs could well bring agriculture the exposure it needs in African educational systems.
Blogpost by Dominic Kornu, a social media reporter for AASW6.