The Role of Student Support in Open Distance Learning


A prudent point from which to begin, that contextualises and casts a boundary for the study, is to define distance learning (synonymous to open distance learning). Distance learning is at the opposite end of the spectrum when compared to full time universities. Open distance learning (ODL) can be classified as a dynamic of learning whereby students primarily engage with facilitators and fellow students online or through physical mail correspondents. Online platforms can take the shape of discussion forums, peer chats, online noticeboards, Skype practicum sessions, or simply perusing course material, set either by a course facilitator or student-led (Floyd & Powell, 2004).

Now that the context has been set, the focus now shifts toward student support services, and how it’s effectiveness could be improved for students given amongst other things, the current limitations of technology in rural areas (access to the internet, wireless connection, distance of library facilities from rural areas etc.), increase of strikes in the universities, poor service delivery of ODL staff etc.

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A definition is thus now required of student support services. Student support services are comprehensive measures employed and offered by a university in endeavouring to enrich and ingrain invaluable knowledge into students (Floyd & Powell, 2004). One can deduct that student support services are not merely related to specific field of study, but instead, encompass something wider, something more relevant to a student’s entire learning experience, and best advancing the chance that students are inspired and motivated to excel (Arko-Achemfuor, 2017).

Research Variables

For this study, gaps in open distance learning (ODL) fields resulting in low student retention, can be considered the independent variable, and the effectiveness of student support services, the dependent variable.

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Gaps in open distance learning institutions resulting in low student retention

Low retention is a big problem for distance education institutions (Arifin, 2018). Student persistence and motivation in the distance education contexts according to various prior studies, is lower than in conventional or face-to-face programmes (Diaz & Cartnal, 2006; Simpson, 2003). Carr (2000) showed that persistence in distance education programmes has been often 10 – 20 percentage points lower than in conventional programmes and less than 50% of distance education students finish their courses. Furthermore, Simpson (2003, 2013) also demonstrated that student persistence in open and distance learning courses is typically no higher than in conventional learning and is often worse.

Spencer, Lephalala & Pienaar (2005) proclaim that distance students consider face to face sessions with facilitators or tutors to be the most impactful student support service. Let us consider some reasoning to the above. Should a student be uncertain with regard to a certain research method, what remedy do they have? A student may be discouraged to send an email or post on a discussion forum, owing to a delay in response. However, a face to face session has the benefit of real-time feedback, and further assistance can be given with probing questions, and fills a student with confidence. Peters, Crawley & Brindley (2017) in agreeance notes that the unknown or uncertain can quickly deteriorate a student’s appetite to succeed, and that a distance university should proactively consider this variable by organising face to face sessions as per their particular students’ needs and demands, which differ from university to university.

Transactional presence deals with the way distance learners are afforded the support services they need, such as the tutoring and mediated programs that enable them to perform and realise their academic goals (Arko-Achemfuor, 2018).

Shin (2003) cited in Gatsha and Evans (2010:165) defined transactional presence as the degree to which learners sense the availability and connectedness with an ODL institution and its staff, learning centre coordinators, tutors, peer learners and significant others. In the ODL context, tutors, faculty, administrative and other resources are key to students’ success.

Types of support services

  • Course-related support services:

This service itself in all efforts and actions to assist a student in excelling within a particular module. For instance, timeous feedback, assignments, well presented and laid out course packs, discussion forums, and often the most valued, contact or face to face classes (Olivier, 2016). The latter is often most important because it presents students and facilitators to probe and identify where students may have weaknesses and correct these in real time.

  • Guidance and counselling support services:

Guidance support services involve “channelling” students toward best practices that will aid their overall tertiary journey. Therefore, it is not related to only academic coursework or material – instead, guidance is meted out in several ways as follows; stressing time management, teaching self-management, underscoring means to keep a healthy work-life balance, the importance of ethics, financial bursaries etc., (Twyford, 2007).

  • Emotional soft skills related:

Student support services purport to assist a student in achieving desirable results at university, and ingraining it in such a manner that they can be seamlessly transferred and applied in the working world (Floyd & Powell, 2004).

  • Other general support services offered:

Unisa’s student support services also include face-to-face tutorials, information and communication technology (ICT) and e-tutoring.

Boyle, Kwon, Ross and Simpson (2008) declare, based on the above, that students often do not perceive the various student support services to be ineffective per se, but simply rank their effectiveness based on the period of response. Again, this justifies students’ views on ranking any face to face session as high. Emails and discussion boards, albeit handy and useful for some, can be perceived to result in a lag in communication, especially where a student directs something to only a facilitator. Therefore, an important tool or aid for improving student support services would be to ensure that turnaround times or responses are given as swiftly as possible (Dzakiria, 2005).

Views and Insights from Previous Research

It became quite obvious when initially searching and subsequently reviewing available literature, that there is a definite correlation between the various gaps in ODL student support services and the success of students of such institutions. To support the aforementioned statement, it was interesting to see that the European Association of Distance Teaching Universities (EADTU) launched the EMPOWER project in 2015, which aims to empower students to become life-long, self-directed learners in open, online and blended-learning environments (Sánchez & Simpson 2018). This is definitely an attempt to bridge certainly some gaps in ODL intuitions.

Assessing service quality gaps in Open Distance Learning (ODL) universities is essential to promote quality and develop programmes to manage deficiencies (Makoe & Nsamba, 2019). Many distance education practitioners believe that adequate and good quality support services are a foundation for students’ academic success because they can bridge the physical, communication and psychological distance inherent in distance education. The separation of the teacher and the student, according to Moore (1993), is not only geographical but it is also pedagogical. This pedagogical separation, according to Moore “profoundly affects both teaching and learning” (p. 22) in that it creates a transaction gap between teaching and learning.

Mpofu (2016) explains that the definition of student support in distance learning differs greatly from one researcher to another. This suggests that there is no all-embracing definition of student support in distance learning. In the literature, what constitutes student support is fiercely debated (Gatsha and Evans 2010). Stewart et al. (2013) maintain that student support in DE comprises of three categories, namely a course and design element (course design and content delivery), instructional support services (student organisations, academic services centre and technical services) and university support services (orientations, success and retention programmes, general university support services, scholarships and awards, library resources, computing and technology).

Problem Statement

The above literature review sought to underpin to the most outstanding views on how and where to improve student support services within ODL institutions. The current body of knowledge relating to such, gives the impression that too many distance universities are showing an apathy toward designing the right support services, for their current students, and would-be students, a possible stagnation of sorts. Moreover, distance universities are not utilising the full range of support services. Hence, there is a gap in the current body of knowledge which focuses on only a few support services (thereby marginalising the learning requirements of a diverse and large pool of students). Therefore, the below research effort will be guided in accordance to the following question, how best can current facts, views/perceptions of current OLD students, of improving student support services within ODL institutions, be cultivated and subsequently implemented?

Specific research questions

  • What is your understanding of student support services?
  • Do you use student support services?
  • Which student support services do you use most, and why?
  • Do you avoid student support services, and why?
  • Which new student support services would you like to see added, and why?
  • What are the current limitations of student support services for students in rural areas?
  • How can student support services be improved for students in rural areas?

Research objectives

The primary aim of the proposed research intends to examine the views of registered ODL students in both rural and urban areas regarding student support, to improve student support services for all students.

The specific theoretical objectives are:

  • To determine the approach taken by students toward ODL from available literature.
  • To better understand student views on course-related support services that can positively contribute toward improving support services.
  • To understand student views on guidance related support services that can positively contribute toward improving support services.
  • To conceptualise student views on emotional related support services that can positively contribute toward improving support services.

The specific empirical objectives are:

  • To determine the extent to which the unearthed views collectively impact upon student support services.
  • To determine the additional unique views which collectively impact upon student support services, for an open distance student.

The motivation and significance of the research

Having been a student of ODL institutions since 2010, I have personally experienced both the positive and negative aspects of student support services. When reading through the available literature, I could relate to many of the gaps that were being discussed.

As an example, trying to contact the university or certain lecturers telephonically, is a daunting experience and leaves you feeling helpless, which often results in low morale and a definite decrease in motivation. It must be noted, that I have also experienced lecturers that were willing to go the extra mile to see students make a success of their studies.

I would hope to gain a clearer understanding that whether my experiences are only a perception or is there still, as indicated by previous literature, a true concern with student support services in OLD institutions.

Having said that, my research will ultimately aim to improve or at least influence the improvement of student support services for all ODL students, especially those in rural areas.


  1. Arifin, M.H. (2018). The role of student support services in enhancing student persistence in the open university context: Lesson from Indonesia Open University. Turkish Online Journal of Distance Education, 19(3), 156-168. Retrieved from
  2. Arko-Achemfuor, A. (2017). Student support gaps in an open distance learning context. Issues in Educational Research, 27(4), 658-676). Retrieved October 8, 2018, from,
  3. Boyle, F., Kwon, J., Ross, C. & Simpson, O. (2008).’Student-student mentoring for retention and engagement in distance education’, Open Learning, 25(2).
  4. Carr, S. (2000). As distance education comes of age, the challenge Is keeping the students. Chronicle of Higher Education, 46(23), A39.
  5. Diaz, D., & Cartnal, R. (2006). Term Length as an Indicator of Attrition in Online Learning. Innovate: Journal of Online Education, 2(5). Retrieved from
  6. Dzakiria, H. (2005). The role of learning support in open and distance learning: Learners’s experiences and perspectives. Turkish Online Journal of Distance Education, 6(2), 96–109.
  7. Floyd, D.L., & Casey-Powell, D. (2004). New roles for student support services in distance learning. New Directions for Community Colleges, 128(2), 55-64. Retrieved October 10, 2018, from
  8. Gatsha, G., and R. Evans. 2010. Learning Support: Perceptions and Experiences of Distance Learners in Botswana. Progressio 32(1):155–169.
  9. Makoe, M., & Nsamba, A. (2019). The gap between student perceptions and expectations of quality support services at the University of South Africa. American Journal of Distance Education, 33(2), 132-141. Retrieved from
  10. Mpofu, N. (2016). What can we still offer? Understanding student support in distance education teacher preparation programmes. Progressio, 38(1), 33-46. Retrieved from
  11. Moore, M. G. (1993). Theory of transactional distance. In D. Keegan (Ed.), Theoretical principles of distance education (Vol. 1, pp. 22–38). New York, NY: Routledge.
  12. Olivier, B.H. (2016). The impact of contact sessions and discussion forums on the academic performance of open distance learning students. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 17(6), 75–88.
  13. Peters, B., Crawley, A., & Brindly. J. E. (2017). Student support services for online learning re-imagined and re-invigorated: Then, now and what’s to come. 1-17. Doi: 10.1177/0047239515616956
  14. Sánchez-Elvira Paniagua, A., & Simpson, O. (2018). Developing student support for open and distance learning: The EMPOWER project. Journal of Interactive Media in Education, 1(9), 1-10. Retrieved from
  15. Spencer, B., Lephalala, M., & Pienaar, C. (2005). Improving academic proficiency in open distance learning through contact interventions. Language Matters, 36(2), 224–242. DOI: 10.1080/10228190508566246
  16. Stewart, B. L., C. E. Goodson, S. L. Miertschin, M. L. Norwood, and S. Ezell. 2013. Online Student Support Services: A Case Based on Quality Frameworks. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching 9(2):290–302.
  17. Twyford, K. (2007). Student retention in distance education using on-line communication. University of Technology Sydney Australia. Retrieved October 8, 2018, from, id=k9gaNAAACAAJ&redir_esc=y
Updated: Dec 17, 2021
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The Role of Student Support in Open Distance Learning. (2021, Dec 17). Retrieved from

The Role of Student Support in Open Distance Learning essay
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