College of Education

ODeL as a career path is challenging, yet satisfying

Prof Geesje van den Berg (Curriculum and Instructional Studies, CEDU) says that we have to make sure that we adapt pedagogy accordingly, and, more importantly, that pedagogy drives teaching and learning, and not the technologies we use. "I believe that we live in an exciting time for distance education. Because the ODeL environment is fast-changing, it opens doors for great exploration and innovation in our pedagogical approaches."

Early on in her career at Unisa, she realised that distance education is vastly different from face-to-face teaching, says Geesje van den Berg, Professor of Curriculum and Instructional Studies in the College of Education (CEDU). Since then, she has immersed herself in the theory and practice of open, distance and e-learning (ODeL), with rewarding results.

How would you describe a career in ODeL? Is this a path academics take by default when they are part of a university such as Unisa, or is it more deliberate and specific than that?

In its widest sense, a career in ODeL entails teaching at an ODeL institution such as Unisa. Although initially this might sound quite simple and straightforward, ODeL is in fact a complex and very specialised field. Teaching at a distance without physical contact with students requires specific knowledge and skills. Knowledge of a discipline such as mathematics or economics - the main reason most academics were appointed in higher education - is not sufficient. Lecturers teaching at an ODeL institution need to know not only what to teach, but also how to teach. They have to structure their study materials and student learning differently from what they would in a face-to-face learning environment; they need to interact differently, and they need to be aware of their students’ level of autonomy.

How has your own ODeL career taken shape? Where and how did it start, and what key academic and research milestones have you passed along the way?

Prior to starting my career at Unisa in 2002 as a lecturer in language education, I was a teacher, and so I didn’t know anything about distance education. During those years, distance education was synonymous with correspondence courses, and vastly different from today’s web-based model.

I must say that initially, when I had to develop course materials, the assistance of instructional designers helped me to understand how different distance education was from face-to-face teaching. Also, as I think most of us do, I learnt from my mistakes and built on my successes as a lecturer. But being a lecturer in ODeL also needs passion. I think it must be because of this passion that I had some very special opportunities:

  • In 2008, when Unisa started with online marking (using the JRouter), I was part of the pilot project. Right from the beginning we experimented with marking tools and I feel privileged that I could see the JRouter develop and grow into what it is today.
  • Around 2010, I was part of the initial design team for Unisa’s signature courses - the first fully online courses at Unisa (one per college at the time). This was done with an expert team and in collaboration with the State University of New York.
  • In 2011, Unisa signed a memorandum of agreement with the University of Maryland University College (UMUC) in the USA. As part of the agreement, I was one of six Unisa lecturers who enrolled for a six-week continuous professional development course in online teaching and learning. This was quite a demanding course, compulsory for all academic staff starting to teach at UMUC. I enjoyed the course tremendously and I regard this as the turning point in my career - I became totally hooked on ODeL as a mode of teaching and learning.
  • Since 2012, based on two partnerships, I have been the contact person and project leader for a project during which Unisa academic and professional staff enrol for an Advanced Certificate in Online Teaching and Learning (first from the University of Maryland University College in the USA and currently from the Carl von Ossietzky University in Oldenburg).

This is a four-module certificate course on master’s level, and the knowledge and skills Unisa staff gain from completing this certificate are aligned with Unisa’s goal of becoming the leading ODeL teaching and learning environment for excellence in Africa. The courses are perfect examples of modelling quality, flexibility and technology-enhanced teaching and learning and student support. This will enable Unisa to produce sought-after graduates who have the attributes and competencies to contribute ethically and creatively to their local, continental and global contexts.

Feedback has been exceptionally positive, and 54 colleagues have completed the certificate so far. To me, this shows the willingness of staff to empower themselves in the theory and practice of ODeL.

  • As a recipient of Unisa’s ODL Research Support Programme grant (2016–2018), I had the opportunity to be part of a research team focusing on aspects of the above partnership. Several articles and completed master’s and doctoral degrees came from it.

What is your research focus at the moment?

My current research interest and publications are in the field of ODeL, with specific reference to student interactions. Based on Michael Moore’s theory of interaction, this acknowledges the fact that students have very specific needs and demonstrate particular behavioural patterns in their interactions with their lecturers, their peers, their study materials and the system (or technology) in distance education.

What are the advantages and opportunities - personal, professional and institutional - of a career in ODeL?

There are many advantages and opportunities. Firstly, I see ODeL as a niche area that has not been well researched and therefore has many unique opportunities - not only for me, but for interested colleagues in general. Unisa has gone through the five generations of distance education, which tells us about the evolving use of technologies: from a correspondence model to a model which is based on the interactive capabilities of the internet. This means that the institution has a wealth of collective knowledge and experience, and colleagues should make use of this.

Unisa, as a mega university with a history of more than 145 years, should take the lead in the field of ODeL as a field of study, not only locally, but also globally. For Unisa to stay relevant and competitive, it has to keep on offering high-quality distance education, with a focus on student support.

What are the challenges or drawbacks facing ODeL?

One of ODeL’s biggest challenges is the fact that residential universities are starting to offer online courses, sometimes claiming that this mode will replace ODeL. Some follow blended approaches, which make learning more flexible and might threaten the offering of fully distance education programmes.

Other possible challenges are related to technology. While ODeL becomes increasingly dependent on information and communication technologies (ICTs) to support its teaching and learning, we have to ensure that we continue to use low-cost, user-friendly and easily accessible technologies so that all students benefit optimally from an ODeL mode of teaching and learning.

Lastly, I have seen that we sometimes get carried away by modern technologies. We have to make sure that we adapt pedagogy accordingly, and, more importantly, that pedagogy drives teaching and learning, and not the technologies we use. I believe that we live in an exciting time for distance education. Because the ODeL environment is fast-changing, it opens doors for great exploration and innovation in our pedagogical approaches.

Is ODeL really part of the solution to the huge problems facing higher education today? Have you experienced this in theory and practice, and if so how?

We all know that distance education has had a number of hurdles to overcome over a number of years. However, in my opinion, there are a range of reasons why ODeL contributes to the solution to problems in higher education in general, and specifically in South Africa:

  • In most cases ODeL makes it possible to offer education more cheaply than residential universities are able to.
  • There are just not enough places available at residential universities.
  • Many students live in rural areas and are, for various reasons such as responsibilities at home and insufficient financial resources, unable to move to places where residential universities are situated.
  • ODeL institutions such as Unisa offer accredited, high-level qualifications.

* Interview by Clairwyn van der Merwe, Contract writer, Directorate of Research Support

Publish date: 2020/06/29