In a cross sectional study of 400 distance learners from University of Cape Coast, University of Education, and the foreign programmes run by University of Ghana the distance learners expressed their observations about the programme and how it impacts on women. The instrument for data collection was structured to find out the socio-economic characteristics of the learners, reasons for pursing further studies, what informed their decision to choose to study at a distance, their perceptions about the programmes, challenges that women face on the programme and recommendations for making the programmes women friendly. The uniqueness of this study is that though the focus was on women, responses were gathered from both male and female students. The reason was that since development workers and gender advocates are using the gender mainstreaming strategy and paying attention to the male and female relationships and its implication for women’s empowerment, it was useful to obtain the views of males as well.
From the results of the study, it was found that typical of DE programmes, 63% representing 252 were females while 37% representing 148 were males. Majority of the learners were found to be middle aged adults. Only 1% of the respondents had their age up to 20 years. The remaining 99% were above 20 years. The results revealed that DE creates opportunity for teachers to upgrade themselves. Majority of the respondents (87%) were found to be teachers with the remaining 13% being social and health workers, and self employed. Most of the respondents (70%) were found to be married and the 30% were single, separated divorced or widowed. This profile of the respondents is remarkable of distance learners. These are adults who have occupational, family and societal responsibilities and therefore need flexible learning arrangements to enhance their career. Hence they found the DE format to be suitable.
The mode of delivery of the DE programme was predominantly print, supplemented with regular face-to-face interactions, telephone contacts, emails and one-on-one contact with tutors as and when needed.
There were no indications of intensive use of ICT systems to enhance interaction among students and tutors. Interactive e-learning platforms, tele-conferencing, and other packages for e-learning were not used. There were no course websites that had courses to be uploaded and downloaded online. Students mainly relied on the printed materials and the scheduled face-to-face tutorials. Final examinations were written at accredited examination centres which were usually located in the host DE institution.
In outlining reasons for pursuing the programme, respondents stated that they were studying to upgrade their knowledge and skills (49.2%), to enhance their career (30.2%) and to create new career opportunities (20.6%). Being adults with career, family and societal responsibilities, respondents had several reasons for choosing to study at a distance. Peculiar of DE programmes, most of the respondents (30.8%) stated that they were doing the courses at a distance in order to study and at the same time be on their jobs, 26% said to be able to undertake family responsibilities whilst studying, 21% was due to accommodation problems on campus and 22% were pursuing the courses at a distance because they found it cost effective.
Recognising these as the push factors for students who pursue DE programmes, providers of such programmes need to set it up in such a way that the expectations of students will be met. Much as the regular face-to-face meetings could be good support systems for students, it could be a border to those who may find it difficult to obtain permission at their workplaces or leave their homes to participate. Making long trips to host institutions could be challenging to such students as well.
Students may find it more convenient to have computer-mediated interaction and write examinations online than finding time off their work or leaving their family responsibilities to make long trips to undertake such academic exercises. Howell, Williams et al (2003) have noted that more and more learners are requiring flexibility in program structure to accommodate their other responsibilities, such as full-time jobs or family needs. With these constraints, students shop for courses that best accommodate their schedules and learning styles, and then transfer their credit to such universities to earn their degrees.
Part of the study was to find out students’ (both males and females) perception of how DE courses impact on women. In responding to the issue of how DE is beneficial to women, respondents indicated that it gives opportunity for the women to improve their academic standards while at work (56%), empowers them for their societal roles (15%), and provides them the opportunity to undertake their societal and family responsibilities while studying (29%).
Thinking about how DE impacts on women, it was necessary to find out the convenience of the regular face-to-face meetings for women in terms of timing, duration of meetings, travel time and distance to meetings. The study revealed that though 69% found the regular face-to-face meetings to be convenient for women, 31% did not find it to be convenient. This was followed up with a question on problems that women face in participating in the DE programmes.
The results showed that women face the following problems:
Ø Inability to manage limited time
Ø Difficulty in meeting deadlines for submission of assignments
Ø Low participation in class discussions due to male domination in discussions
Ø Difficulty in combining house management with the studies
Ø Nursing mothers having problems of managing their babies
Ø Pregnancy related problems
Ø Suspicion of husbands
Ø Insecurity in making frequent travels to learning centres for face-to-face
Ø Pressure from career obligations
Just as expressed in literature, women who study at a distance are faced not only with career related challenges but that of reproduction and home management roles as well. Besides that, husbands who may not trust their wives pose a threat to the woman’s engagement in meetings with their study partners and colleagues. While men could travel with ease to learning centres and return home at any time of the day, women have the challenge of insecurity in night travels due to experiences of highway robbery which is at times associated with rape. These are issues that strictly affect women but not men.
The question then is how do DE institutions deliver programmes and provide student support services that will address these gender related challenges? Probably the provision of child care services or child minders at learning centres, reducing the travels to learning centres for face-to-face interactions and examinations by introducing e-learning systems and providing flexible assignment turn in time for women could be helpful. Facilitators of interactive sessions will also have to be made conscious of the need to encourage women to participate in the discussions.
Respondents also proposed ways of addressing the above problems which is useful to consider in the provision of DE in Ghana. The suggestions were as follows:
Ø Increase student support services
Ø Take the programme to the doorsteps of women through ICTs
Ø Encourage women to draw a study plan
Ø Provide full study leave with pay and other financial support
Ø Reduce house workloads
Ø Provide special support for pregnant women and nursing mothers
Ø Seek house helps to support in the house
Ø Negotiate time with spouse to support in home management
Ø Seek family or parental support in managing the home
Ø Take personal initiatives in managing the challenges and remain focused and determined.
The support of the extended family, spouses and house helps cannot be under estimated in supporting women to excel as they pursue further studies at a distance. Respondents highlighted this in their responses. There is also a financial dimension to supporting women who study at a distance which government and policy makers need to consider.