In a study on DE and women, Plummer (2000) explains that DE refers to learning that takes place outside schools, colleges, and university campuses. Students at any level and of any age learn independently through print packages and textbooks, audiotapes or radio, television, satellite and videotape, and teleconference. By its distance nature, DE has been helpful in providing access to education to people who could otherwise not be able to access an educational programme. This could be rural folks, women, workers or people who are located far from the educational institutions.
The societal perception of women and their productive and reproductive roles affect their participation in formal education. Society perceives women as homemakers and child minders hence any activity that takes them away from such normal schedules are frowned upon. As a result women find it difficult to embark on further studies, especially at their adult stage when they have began building families. Numerous studies have proved this point (Evans 1995; Compora 2003; Plummer 2004; Przymus 2004).
As a mode of study, DE is particularly suited for women because of their role as housewives and mothers, which is thought to provide flexible time management possibilities while preventing classroom attendance. Women have constraints of time, space, resources and socio-economic disabilities. DE is seen as having a potentially important contribution to make in overcoming barriers to women's participation in the developed and developing world. DE can help them with its outreach to their homes. It enables them to learn at their own pace and take up vocations and skills for economic and individual development. It gives them a second chance to step into the main systems of education, including higher education, enabling them at the same time to earn and learn as well as to fulfill family responsibilities.
Writing from a Canadian perspective, Przymus (2004) remarks that women are enjoying DE amid their hectic lifestyles. DE allows them to learn at any time or any place, while juggling multiple roles given that women are more likely than men to interrupt their education and careers for parenthood and temporary confinement to the home. In a study undertaken in Athabasca University (AU) by Reuss (1994), the author observes that DE has attracted women students, who are sometimes referred to in the literature as coming to the institution for a second chance. Meanwhile to Ruess, many of these women learning via DE may more accurately be considered a first chance to pursue a university education. The study identifies that approximately 67% of AU’s students are women, the majority of whom may have had some post-secondary college education but may not have had the opportunity to complete their university studies.
Several other studies have given statistical evidence to confirm women’s high participation in DE programmes. Most of the women who access DE have been described to be in their adult stage, married, have dependants and are workers. In a study by Qureshi (2002) it was found that the DE format attracted more married participants than the on-campus format: 30.4% versus 12.6%, respectively. Some of the women wanted to take their courses at home because they could not find or afford adequate childcare. Two-thirds of the women were married or divorced and half had at least one dependent. The study concluded that single moms, older women with families and students with jobs are more likely to choose to further their education via DE. From the Newswatch (2002) a study in the U.S. Department of Education showed that 7.6% of students took DE courses in the 1999-2000 academic year. The study confirmed that of those taking DE courses, women outnumbered men by 8.5% to 6.5%, single parents to others by 9.8% to 7.4% and married to unmarried by 10.9% to 6.7%. The study also revealed that older women with families and jobs were more drawn to undergraduate DE programs during the 1999-2000 academic years than were members of other groups.
Plummer (2002) a Senior Researcher at the German Fern Universität, a Distance Teaching University who has experience of evaluating DE systems and has carried out cross-national comparative research on the situation of women and men in DE has examined the often neglected area of gender issues throughout the DE world. Her study identifies that a wide variety of evidence from different countries supports the conclusion that open and distance learning has the potential to provide equal opportunities in higher and continuing education. She emphasize that DE per se is women-friendly since it does not require attendance in class at set times. The author observes that geographical location and isolation have been identified as limiting the educational opportunities of women. In some parts of the world like Australia, the significance of distance for women has been described in the context of the implementation of an external course for isolated and rural women to draw them into the building and construction field and thus provide new employment opportunities in the extremely gender-segregated labour market. Similar to women in rural Ghana, it has been described by Heiler and Richards (1988: 192, quoted by Plummer, 2000) that for rural Australian women, distance and isolation usually go hand in hand, greatly affecting their chances to gain education, training and employment. Hence DE bridges the educational and training gap for them to gain employable skills.
There is no doubt that considering the socio-cultural characteristics of women, DE, by its unique nature of being distributed learning creates an opportunity for women to pursue higher education. Research has provided statistical data to prove this point. Meanwhile researchers like Przymus, (2004), Plummer (2002), Canevale (2002) and Evans (1995) have sounded the caution that one should not be misled by the estimated high participation of women in DE. In content the situation is different. Women are underrepresented in science, technology, technical and mathematics oriented courses. Compared to their male counterparts, this places them at a disadvantage. A way of going about this situation is ensuring gender awareness and promoting gender consciousness in all levels of DE programming. An assessment of learning styles of women in relation to DE will be useful in exploring ways of making DE more women friendly.