UK don goes the distance with study reform in Africa

January 26, 2001

Nearly 40 years ago, a British professor embarked on a career that has helped create distance-learning opportunities across Africa.

Tony Dodds, who worked in open and distance learning in countries such as Tanzania, Nigeria and Mauritius, now heads the Centre for External Studies at the University of Namibia.

"I feel passionately about the value of adult learning. I've spent my life working to take education to very large numbers of people who would not otherwise have had the opportunity, from political refugees to women in remote rural areas," he said. "In many African countries, open and distance learning is the only means to make a reality of the slogan 'education for all'."

For the past five years, Professor Dodds has helped build the centre from almost nothing to a multi-campus distance-learning unit with some 2,000 students, most of them on degree programmes.

This is nearly half of the 4,500 students enrolled at the university, which grew out of the country's only tertiary college after a long liberation war and independence from South Africa (then an illegal occupying power) in 1990. There is also a polytechnic and a vocational college.

Namibia - a vast and arid country with a population of just 1.7 million - was a German colony until the first world war. Today's Namibia is a far cry from the pre-independence Africa Professor Dodds experienced in the 1960s, though he loves it both then and now.

After a first degree at Oxford, Professor Dodds did a postgraduate diploma in education at the University of Manchester, and then joined the Institute of Advanced Education at the new University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, where he worked for seven years.

"That was when I became interested in distance education. I spent a lot of time in a small town in southern Tanzania that was a centre for political refugees."

Many of the refugees were future African leaders from liberation groups such as South Africa's African National Congress and the South West African People's Organisation, which now rules Namibia.

"I started the town's first public library, and refugees came to study there. Many of them had abandoned education to go into exile and were thirsty for learning. I became interested in providing educational services for refugees and others denied opportunities."

Professor Dodds was head-hunted in 1972 and moved to Cambridge's International Extension College, which was helping set up distance-learning providers such as the Botswana College of Open and Distance Learning.

He has worked for them ever since, being seconded to universities in various African countries, charged with promoting and helping to create open and distance-learning provision.

During the 1980s, the college experimented with distance learning for refugees.

One initiative was the Zambian-based Namibia Extension Project, catering for political refugees from Namibia and Angola - similar to the Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College in Tanzania, which was set up for South African and other refugees.

Many southern African exiles returned home after 1990, when first Namibia and then South Africa achieved democracy. Professor Dodds's focus shifted to a series of consultancies to do with developing open-learning provision.

"Five years ago I was offered the job here, and I decided I would like to come," he said. "We are making higher education more suitable and flexible to a wider range of students. It is now possible, for instance, for students without school-leaving qualifications to enrol if they are over 22 and have work experience."

In just a few years, the centre - which previously offered only pre-tertiary courses - has launched distance degrees in education, nursing and business, and enrolled thousands of students.

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