Students can feel very isolated when studying through a distance education programme. Shutterstock
International bodies, politicians, policy makers and researchers have always been interested in the way teachers are prepared for the classroom. This is because the quality of a country’s teachers is an indicator of its developmental level.
Distance education is often viewed as a way to speed up the process of producing well qualified, good teachers. This approach involves a model in which students are physically separated from the university or training college in question. Students usually communicate with the institution through emails, online learning support systems or occasional face-to-face tutorials.
Distance education tends to be flexible and more affordable than full time study. It’s useful for a range of people when it comes to teacher education. Those who are just beginning to study teaching; those who want to continue their professional development and those who must familiarise themselves with a changing curriculum can all benefit. This is important, since teachers need an ever-changing set of skills, knowledge and competencies.
But distance education for teacher training also has its problems. Student retention rates are low and dropouts are high. Some scholars have suggested that improved support could help. But what form should this support take? How much of it should come from institutions? And how much can students do themselves?
My newest research focused on trying to understand what disposition students need to support themselves through what can be a very isolated experience. Working with in-service teachers enrolled in a distance education programme at Zimbabwe’s Solusi University, I found there were five qualities that really mattered. These were: coping, pro-activeness, ingenuity, tenacity and problem solving.
In Africa, as in most developing contexts, students in distance education programmes are largely from rural or semi-rural settings. Using Botswana as an example, educationists Godson Gatsha and Rinelle Evans found that students tend to be isolated from the resources distance education institutions offer as support. Students simply don’t have the money to travel relatively long distances to access facilities.
This suggests that in-service teachers enrolled in distance education programmes require support beyond physical resources to complete their studies. This is where self-motivation – or what’s also known as self-efficacy – becomes important. Self-efficacy has been described as a person’s
judgements of their capabilities to organise and execute courses of action required to attain designated types of performances.
With this definition in mind, I wanted to explore how students’ own initiatives and strategies – driven by self-efficacy – could motivate their academic success. Their answers and feedback helped me to identify five qualities that bolstered these students’ self-efficacy: