If you're this low, the only way is up

August 3, 2001

Surveys have placed South Africa last out of 40 for its maths and science provision, but through a distance-learning initiative Pretoria University is on a mission to turn the situation around. Karen MacGregor reports.

After school each day, final-year maths and science pupils at some 70 schools in rural South Africa gather for 90 minutes of extra lessons. The classes are unusual not because they are after hours, but because they are delivered by a local university that uses expert teachers and satellite television to provide top-quality education to the poorest of the poor in a country whose sub-standard school system has rendered it desperately short of skills.

This is one of scores of school projects run by the University of Pretoria and just one facet of an education innovation department whose telematic and web-based courses reach 35,000 pupils and students. Many South African universities run innovation projects, but Pretoria, according to dean of education Jonathan Jansen, is "in terms of sheer scale, way ahead of the pack".

Since the birth of democracy in 1994, South Africa's biggest residential university - with 28,000 full-time and 25,000 distance students - has used its resources to transform itself from a symbol of conservative Afrikanerdom into an energetic intellectual hub for the new South Africa. Its young leaders, including several top black and female scholars, are committed to development in line with national goals (and to questioning those goals), to strengthening research, attracting black students and, above all, to innovative thinking.

Established five years ago, Pretoria's department of education innovation has several major programmes, says its founder and head Hans Boon. The ever-expanding school telematic project is used by some 4,000 final-year pupils in six of nine provinces; distance-education courses reach 25,000 students, mostly teachers and nurses; and new web-based courses reach more than 7,000 mostly postgraduate students in South Africa and abroad.

The department supports progressive education projects across the university and a university-wide plan for innovative teaching and learning has been drawn up. Eight consultants work with faculties to develop educational activities, such as devising ways of assessment, designing curricula or involving students in the learning process.

Along with a multitude of other state and private-sector initiatives, Pretoria's innovative teaching programmes are helping to raise quality in a long-neglected school system, particularly in subjects such as maths, technology and the natural sciences, in which few black pupils qualify. International surveys have placed South African pupils last out of 40 advanced and middle-income countries in maths and science, and the Joint International Unesco-Unicef Monitoring Learning Achievement Project put local primary pupils behind many other African countries, including Uganda and Zambia.

The school programme targets poor, especially rural, schools that are short of teachers in maths and sciences. Since 1997, sponsors have helped equip 70 schools with televisions, satellites and antennae - and with security arrangements that prevent theft, which was initially a big problem. School heads and teachers are invited to discuss any problems they have and teachers are drafted in to help design and film the daily programmes. These are broadcast between 2pm and 3.30pm and are available to anyone with satellite television.

"The benefits to all are very visible," Boon says. "Pupils get better passes. A positive spin-off for the university is that potential students get acquainted with its name: it is good PR. But most importantly, we are helping to expand the pool of black school leavers who do well enough in final examinations to qualify for higher education."

The University of Pretoria's distance-education courses are run in traditional style, relying on study guides that are sent to students. They are supported by contact sessions held across South Africa and television broadcasts (some interactive) that students watch at home or at 15 centres around the country.

But there are threats to distance-education programmes run by residential universities. The government is unhappy with the number and size of distance centres that have sprung up in South Africa's increasingly competitive and financially squeezed tertiary sector, especially at Afrikaans-speaking institutions. Most cater for black, employed teachers or nurses who are upgrading their qualifications to get a pay rise. Enrolments on such courses grew by 492 per cent in the seven years to 1999 and there are no signs of them levelling off. All in all there are 600,000 students in South Africa, 250,000 of them on distance programmes - only 155,000 of the latter attend public-distance institutions.

Education minister Kader Asmal's National Plan for Higher Education , published in February, lifted a moratorium the government had placed on distance courses offered by residential universities - mainly to end the uncertainty besetting them. He worries that disproportionately large numbers of black students are accessing historically white institutions primarily through distance courses on satellite campuses, enabling universities to bolster their black student numbers in line with equity demands, while their campuses remain white-dominated. Distance courses and satellite campuses, with students who are "neither seen nor heard", must not "be allowed to parade as a commitment to equity of access", he says.

There are also concerns that distance courses at contact institutions could undermine the viability of dedicated distance institutions, which are to be merged into a single provider, and of weak local contact institutions. Asmal also questions the relevance, quality and creativity of many courses. He has asked the Higher Education Quality Committee to review the distance programmes of contact institutions as a priority. From 2002, the state will fund such courses only if they have been approved.

As a black academic who has worked at disadvantaged institutions, Jansen used to be critical of the distance activities of formerly white universities - but Pretoria has changed his view. "I've come to realise that thousands of students cannot or do not want to access Pretoria directly, but do want to participate in its programmes. They are happy with the mix of contact and distance learning and would not otherwise access high-quality higher education.

"I believe the role of universities in much of the world today is no longer to offer only single-mode tuition," Jansen says. He adds that institutions such as Pretoria need to be entrepreneurial and expansionist, saying "there are a range of ways in which we can have successful contacts with students".

"I question the motives of those with angst about what universities should and should not do. The feeling among some education planners is that entrepreneurial universities are the advantaged universities, and that, by being entrepreneurial, they benefit yet again to the detriment of others. We are conscious of the criticism but feel the university should use its technological muscle to deliver to more rather than fewer."

The newest thrust of education innovation at Pretoria is e-learning, which enables the university to think about much bigger markets through the internet, as well as to focus on providing flexible courses with content provided via the web and on enhancing contact time between lecturers and students.

The model that many of its e-courses use combines web-based learning with strong contact time. Jansen's doctorate in education policy, for example, is 30 per cent web-based and involves five weeks on campus and regular student-academic communication. He is not convinced web-only learning works. Pretoria has 70 e-learning programmes comprising 360 modules across all faculties. As it has done with its distance-learning provision, it is forever searching for new markets.

In this it mirrors a South Africa that is quite vigorously looking to be Africa's new "coloniser", with its companies stretching ever further into the continent and its universities following suit. Pretoria and other top universities have myriad post-1994 research activities across the continent and growing numbers of foreign African students. They are actively pursuing postgraduates from other African countries and partnerships with other African institutions.

"It is the logic of expansionism to seek new markets," Jansen says. Having turned its great intellectual engine around from protecting Afrikaners to driving a new nation, in many ways Pretoria is setting an educational agenda that for decades it helped to stall.

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