Distance learning: the five qualities student teachers need to succeed

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.

Five crucial qualities

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:

Coping: The student’s ability to adapt to the challenges inherent in any educational programme designed for self-study. A student who creates a balance between their working lives and the demands of studying, perhaps by developing a careful schedule and personalised timetable, is coping.

Pro-activeness: A student who displays initiative. She anticipates and prepares for the challenges that might result from the demands of studying. These students pay careful attention to both academic and administrative requirements.

Ingenious: These students adopt creative and original approaches to their their studies. They have well developed study systems and have learnt how to access support from structures beyond the university, for example by forming study groups with other colleagues or using community libraries.

Tenacity: These students are determined, persistent and self-motivated. They recognise their own weaknesses and identify individuals or hobbies that motivate them to complete their studies.

Problem solvers: These students recognise the challenges inherent in distance education and find their own solutions. They identify problems, then categorise them – which will have an immediate effect on the quality of their studies, and which are less threatening? For instance, students realised that having limited knowledge about the structure of an academic essay was immediately problematic. They dealt with this as a priority, sometimes alone and sometimes through collaboration.

Developing these qualities

The five qualities I’ve described and discussed helped the students involved in my research to cope with the demands of distance education. These findings suggest that distance education students should be encouraged to develop self-efficacy before embarking on what can be a lonely, isolated course of study. And, crucially, they show that students can be their own greatest supporters in academic growth especially when enrolled in distance education.