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Feature Article of Friday, 31 August 2012

Columnist: Sakyi, Kwesi Atta

8Ds for Distance Learners in Ghana and everywhere

By Kwesi Atta Sakyi 5th August 2012

Discipline, Determination, Detachment, Drive, Desire, Diligence, Depth, Dependability Distance learning or education is off-campus or non-residential and non-formal education that takes place between a student and a service provider or educational institution. These days, this mode of instruction is heavily dependent on the use of ICT facilities such as computers, cell phones and computer input and output devices. There are still the use of hardcopy instructional materials such as textbooks and study guides. These are used to supplement soft copies of materials which are found online and on CDs or DVDs. With regard to distance learning, there is need to have cheap and speedy internet connectivity to link the learner and his tutors in the virtual classroom.

This connectivity also helps the distance learner to interact online with other students, as well as receive support from tutors and lecturers or supervisors. Lecture notes can be downloaded and assignments can be sent by uploading them to designated sites. This is very flexible, convenient, time saving and cost effective. In some distance learning institutions, students are periodically required to present themselves physically at designated campuses and locations so as to meet with their lecturers for intensive sandwich programmes. This requires a lot of resilience as such lectures are crammed and jam-packed within a short timeframe. Mostly, adult and mature learners are able to cope since they are highly focused and they desire to have value for money.

This system requires a modular system whereby a course is desegregated into self-contained and standardised units which are assigned some credits for passing them. Distance learning is very convenient for both the learner and the learning institution because there are no rigid timetables to follow and learning institutions reduce on cost of infrastructure and full time staff. The institution outsources writing of course materials to consultants. The student learns at his own pace. However, he has to work hard to submit assignments to beat deadlines. Workers have to fit their busy work schedules into their study patterns, which often require a balancing act. This requires having a lot of self will power. Distance learning is also much more affordable and custom-made than residential programmes.

The process of globalisation is fast blurring the frontier between formal and informal learning, because these days one can access lecture notes of prestigious institutions online, even if one was not registered with them. These include Oxford, Harvard, Cambridge, MIT, University of London, UCT, Phoenix Open University, UNISA, UWC, UG, UCC, UDS, UEW, KNUST, among others. The greatest disadvantage for distance learners is that some live in non-conducive environments such as rural areas, where access to the internet may be challenging. Others may face distractions from friends and family members. Besides, it may be costly for distance learners without access to public libraries to access books and quality literature. Some may have to buy expensive books or spend much money acquiring laptops, computers and printers. Distance learners do not experience the collegiality and social intercourse found in a campus setting, thus missing out on developing their interpersonal and leadership skills. These notwithstanding, many people worldwide have made it to the top in life via distance learning. Having been a distance learner before, when I was pursuing my MPA degree with UNISA in South Africa, I know very well what it entails, since I did it for eight years. During that period, I learnt the lessons of time management, self discipline, self-detachment from wasteful activities such as being glued to the soap operas on TV, among others. The motto of UNISA inspired me a lot as it states that the road to the stars is steep, hence you have to work extremely hard to be a star.

Discipline: A distance learner should cultivate a sense of self discipline, because you are studying under self supervision, thus you need to be proactive and to have initiative. You need to be resolute in your quest for knowledge and to exercise self control, by reducing on non-value adding activities such as drinking binges, excessive socialising. The academic world is a lonely world and your need for affiliation has to be supplanted and sublimated by your need for achievement and for expertise power or referent power. In your quest for academic improvement, you have to set yourself achievable and reasonable goals and objectives which you must have the discipline to realise. You need to prioritise your activities and have a to-do-list on a daily basis. You will need to reduce on some strenuous physical activities which may wear you down and out. You will need to sacrifice a lot during the period of distance learning. This is part of the high price you have to pay for embarking on the academic journey.

Determination: Intrinsic or self motivation is the best form of motivation as it has internal locus of control and it is sustainable. Time is the most valuable human asset, hence the saying that time is money. You should set a timeframe for achieving your academic objectives, thereby forcing you to work with zeal and determination. This is because as you age, you slow down and there are many family and social demands which may distract or divert your attention, especially for those of us from the Third World countries with extended families. Failure to achieve your academic goals in time can be traumatic and costly in later life as the cost of living rises and competition heats up. Research has shown that those with higher qualifications usually earn more income.

Detachment: Being a distant learner requires you to sometimes switch off from happenings in your immediate environment so that you can concentrate on your studies. Some people believe in multi-tasking and they may listen to music on earphone pieces. I do not think this is healthy at all because you may not be able to engage the text you are reading in critical exegesis or disquisition. It is important to apply all your faculties to what you read and digest, so you can later engage in meaningful reflection and recall of information. As a would-be academic, you need to be balanced in your argumentations and presentations, maintaining objectivity.

Depth: A non-formal or informal external learner or distance learner has to show depth of analysis in his answers. His work has to show both breadth of coverage as well as depth of analysis. This will come from conducting comprehensive research through reading from several sources to gain different perspectives on an issue of discussion. He has to show greater scope of knowledge by giving practical examples or substantiating arguments with his own observations or insight, or seeking the views of experts through structured interviews, focal point discussions and surveys. A distance learner is supposed to exhibit maturity and hands-on knowledge in his answers, because being outside the confines of the restrictive walls of an academic campus, he has access to many sources of information, especially if he lives in a cosmopolis or metropolis. Such sources include archives, museums, public libraries, government bureaux, private sector publications, magazines and journals, newspapers, among others. He can conduct micro investigations through primary research, using research instruments such as action research, participant observation, interviews, questionnaires, surveys and focal group discussions.

Drive: Realising that you are not campus based, you get inspired to excel so a to be at par with the regular full time students. This realisation makes you fire all your cylinders for take-off. Your self -drive to achieve resounding success, is partially informed by the realisation that you are self supervised. So you must have a lot of self drive to have value for money from your educational investment, as human capital.

Desire: The hunger for knowledge or desire to learn is usually high among capable students who come from poor and economically challenged homesteads. This is why in some countries, education and health care delivery are seen as merit goods and are heavily subsidised. Take for example the Scandinavian countries, Canada and India where education in particular is cheap. Some of these countries are welfare states with policy of from cradle to grave coverage of citizens. In former socialist and communist countries, this free education was in vogue. Nonetheless, the process of globalisation has liberalised tertiary education so much so that quality education can be accessed anywhere in the world at minimum fee.

I remember in the 60s when I was at teacher training college, my seniors used to take correspondence courses with Rapids Results College (RRC) in London. In 1967, our allowances were cancelled by the NRC military regime in Ghana, so I could not avail myself of the RRC facility. However, upon completion of my course in 1970, I had secured my six O Levels with credits and embarked on a mathematics course with another London-based correspondent college called Wosley Hall. So you see, if you have the hunger or desire for knowledge, you will always find a way out despite obstacles. As a distant learner, you will need to follow your dream by having a huge desire to acquire knowledge by reading avidly and voraciously. You should acquire relevant knowledge in your chosen field or career. Constantly review what you learn and see how it applies to the real world by finding a one to one mapping relationship. Try hard to transform and translate theoretical knowledge into practical, problem-solving knowledge so that in future you can become a consultant or expert.

Diligence: To be diligent means to be extremely hard working, by submitting your assignments in the prescribed manner to meet non-negotiable deadlines for assessment. It means you have to avoid procrastination which is said to be the thief of time. Your answers should be thorough and exhaustive by citing all used sources appropriately in the preferred citation manner, such as Harvard, MLA, APA, among others. You should spell-check every word you use and you should pay attention to grammar, punctuation, pagination, paragraphing, structure of the essay, definitions, bibliography, in-text citation, appendices, diction, handwriting, font size, font type, sub-headings, introductions and conclusions, linking sentences, abstract, appropriate style of writing which should be formal, avoiding colloquialisms and contractions, logical writing, analysis, appropriate methods of data presentation, among others. You should take pains to plan your answers. Be simple, precise and clear. Avoid any shortcuts such as using abbreviations.

Study your body clock and know your peak learning time. When studying, avoid phone calls or put your phone on silent. In your essays, avoid unnecessary repetition. Provoke your sentences and do not leave them hanging without further explanation or elucidation. Ask questions in your essay and answer them. Always have a very good dictionary handy, and refer to it always when you are unsure of the use of a word. Read over your answer and try to edit your own work and make corrections. Be critical of your own work and assume the posture of the devil’s advocate. Your work should be neatly set out and ensure your handwriting is very neat. If your work is not word processed, ensure you use deep blue or black ink for your assignments or answers in exams. If you word-process your work, then use spell-check and the editor to improve your presentation. Provide contemporary examples and illustrations in your assignments or answers.

Dependability: Cut a picture of yourself in the minds of your supervisors that you are dependable and reliable, so that a rapport is built between you and them. As much as possible, do the work or assignment yourself, but you may consult widely. You should establish networks with like-minded people who can mentor and motivate you. In this way, you can share and exchange ideas.

In conclusion, I want to encourage all distance learners in Ghana and elsewhere to remain focused and steadfast, because the end result is self rewarding and much satisfying, as it gives a sense of fulfilment. No matter your age or circumstance, you can spare a thought and go as soon as possible to register for a distance programme in any university or college near you. In these post-modern times, we subscribe to what is called life-long learning.

Contact: kwesiattasakyi449@gmail.com

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