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Editor’s Note: In distance education, much control of the education process is transferred from teacher to the learner. The learner must exercise self-discipline to manage and schedule his/her own learning activities, to work alone, and to interact with their teachers and fellow students via email and the Internet. Sometimes it is possible for students to cluster and physically meet in groups. But for most students, distance, complicated schedules, and family and work responsibilities, make it necessary for them to work alone. These students are the focus of this paper. Critical support should be planned to support learning, enhance motivation and self-discipline, and realize their potential.

Isolation and Control in Distance Education:
The Case of the Ghanaian Student

Samuel Kofi Badu-Nyarko


The establishment of Distance Education at the tertiary level has been fully embraced by universities in Ghana. Its operations focus on the programmes of the University and support for the student learners. Distance learners are bound to face various challenges including methods of learning, adjustment and management of time. Although Distance Education has been found to be cost effective and attractive to many people of different backgrounds, many students are not able to cope with this new industrialized form of learning. The distance learners are regarded as independent, self-directed and self-motivated, yet they face the problem of isolation as they study under most trying circumstances alone and at their own pace. They are separated by distance and geographical location.

The lecture looked at the dynamics of isolation in distance education, the theory of transactional distance as postulated by Moore (1981) and how Ghanaian Universities are providing tutorial and other support services to bridge transactional distance and reduce the degree of isolation. Furthermore, emphasis was placed on the forms of control existing in the operations of the programme in Ghana. This study established that in Ghana, institutional and social controls dominate over learner control and that the Ghanaian student is not completely isolated.


The concept and practice of distance education in Ghana at the post-secondary level has been given greater attention lately.  Distance learning is growing rapidly in African universities and colleges. Governments are actively exploiting this new mode of transacting knowledge. The practice of open and distance education has brought in its wake great challenges to the fields of education, psychology, educational psychology and social psychology. These challenges are manifested in the notion that distance education is a multi-faceted discipline. As a discipline its clientele are numerous and curriculum quite distinct.

Distance education has been seen in many dimensions from structure, operational capacity and institutional linkages and collaboration.  According to Parraton 1994, distance education is an educational arrangement where teachers, and/or students, work apart from each other, from the regular place of learning, for part or all of the regular school week. 

Other writers like Holmberg (1986) and Badu-Nyarko (2000) likened it to the relationship between the learner and the instruction rather than the facilitator and learner.  For instance, Holmberg indicated that distance education is based on non-contiguous communication and wholly individual study. It can, on the other hand, be supplemented by face to face teaching, laboratory exercise in groups. Badu-Nyarko (2000) summed it up thus:

it is a teaching learning process in which the learner and the tutor are separated from each other but mediated by the learning material and other intermediaries like the media and technologically-based educational systems.

Distance education therefore in its purest sense relates to “what you learn, not where you learn it” (Innovision’s Canada: Distance Education Part 2, (” Such a statement has been given greater impetus by experts in the distance learning arena, in which areas of greatest concentration of effort revolve around the technical, pedagogical, economic and political aspects of the concept.  However, relatively little attention is being paid on the profound implications on the emotional, sociological and psychological well being of the key players –the humans involved – teachers, students, families and communities.

Hara and Kling (2006) states that “Recent cutting-edge technology, such as the World Wide Web and online conferencing systems, enable universities to implement distance education to reach a diverse population and to provide open learning environments 24 hours a day 7 days a week.”  This has brought about a new form of “a critical pressure point for challenging the dominant assignments and characteristics of existing traditionally organized universities in the 21st century (Hanna, 1998).

One thing must be clear to distance education administrators and operatives.  That their achievement and satisfaction of students in distance education congress is not significantly different than the achievement and satisfaction of students in traditional classrooms (Johnstone and Krante, 1996).  Distance education therefore offers opportunities for students who cannot travel to a campus for their classes (Aggor et al, 1992).

Other issues regard distance education as a system of educational action determined by rational means-ends thinking where teachers and students actions are predominantly determined by technical rules.  Many students fail because of their inability to cope with the reality of learning at a distance, while others drop out or pushed out by the institution.


Many feel that distance education results in diminished levels of interaction, which in turn leads to lower motivation levels and poor academic performance.  This could be reduced through high motivation levels of students when students are given the choice of how to complete their learning activities by adapting to particular teaching and learning styles.

However, Distance education continues to face challenges and criticisms from faculty and its publics.  These include lack of personal attention, boredom, outdated knowledge, lack of appropriate skills for work places and inappropriateness for a diverse population (Handy, 1998; Gardiner, 1997; Badu-Nyarko 2000).

Distance education dwells on projects and assignments as an element of end of term assessment.  Many people who are disadvantaged, such as women, can take advantage of distance education to cope with family pressures, leaving them for school, assistance from spouses, overcoming emotions and thinking about the family while away.  People can adjust their time, particularly workers, to learn in the evenings and week-ends.

Theoretical Framework

The transactional distance theory describes the pedagogical relationships existing in the environment “that have the special characteristics of separation of one from another and a consequent set of special teaching and learning behaviour” (Moore, 1991, p.2). It tries to define the nature and degree of separation of teacher and learner in the educational process

According to this theory, there are three key constitutuent elements of the transactional distance “dialogue, structure and learner autonomy”.  Dialogue refers to the extent to which teachers and learners interact with each other (Moore, 1993). Dialogue describes the extent to which, in any educational programme, learners and educators are able to respond to each other.  This is determined by the context or subject-matter which is studied, by the educational philosophy of the educator, by the personalities of educator and learner, and by the environmental factors, the most important of which is the medium of communication.

In his view, an educational programme in which communication between educator and the independent learner is by radio or television permits no dialogue.  But today’s communication system tends to dislodge this as interactive radio and television now exist. 

Structure is a measure of educational programme’s responsiveness to learners’ individual needs.  It expresses the extent to which educational objective, teaching strategies and evaluation methods are prepared for, or can be adopted to, the objectives, strategies, and evaluation methods of the learner.

In a programme in which there is little structure, and dialogue is easy, interaction between teacher and learner permits very personal and individual learning and teaching. In this context who would experience greater dialogue?

Learner autonomy is the extent to which learners make “decisions regarding their own learning and construct their own knowledge based on their own experience” (Moore and Keersley, 1996). As dialogue increase, transactional distance decreases.

Isolation in Distance Education

Writers like Wedemeyer (1971) and Moore (1983) have critically assessed adult distance learners on the basis of their independent study.  Wedemeyer for instance classified distance education in terms of the autonomy of the learner, distance between the teacher and the learner and the situational system.

Bates (1995) states:

There is an even greater myth that students in conventional institutions are engaged for the greater part of their time in meaningful, face-to-face interaction.  The fact is that for both conventional and distance education students, by far the largest part of their studying is done alone, interacting with textbooks and other learning materials.

Moore (1981) independent study distinguished conventional formal education and distance education in terms of variables ‘distance’ or ‘apartness’ and autonomy’.  He describes the conventional system by the expression ‘school environment’ which is characteristics by the classroom lecture or seminar and a setting in which the teaching and the learning activities are not only contemporaneous but coterminous as well.  While other educational transaction which allow distance and autonomy constitute independent study whether open university programmes, correspondence courses, external degree programs or teach yourself programs.

The self-directed study as advocated by Knowles (1980) Knox (1972) and the student autonomy or independent study (Wedemeyer, 1971); and Moore’s study shows that autonomous persons are particularly inclined to distinct methods of learning and teaching, although it has also been found that distance students do not reject guidance.

Moore’s theory of independent study recognizes both activity of on-campus learners as well as the distance between off-campus student and teachers.  He suggested a two scale typology in which the autonomy given to students by institutions would be rated as either extreme teacher-determined or learner-determined with regard to the selection of learning objectives, learning activities and/or evaluation methods, in addition to rating the interaction distance between students and teacher according to the presence of dialogue and/or structure (Moore, 1983). 

Holmberg, 1985’s two attitudinal indices “support of student independence” may be relevance here.  For example, under the attitude scale of “support of student independence” the main goal of teaching is seen to be giving students the capacity to solve problems.  In this direction, it has been argued that it is very difficult in distance education to leave both goal decisions and the judgment of goal attainment to the students themselves and on the other hand, there are those to whom support of students is a social duty. This is what Holmberg, 1986:101 described as “student friendliness”.  This involves comments on students performance in a friendly and supporting way (Lewis, 1982:136).

Again, Smith and Small (1982) have pointed out that independent study is not a sentence to solitary confinement.  They feel that too much concentration on the independence of the teacher leads to a delimitation of the learning process.  As a result, the use of compulsory residential school, peer support networks and local study centres are established to encourage students towards course success.

Moore (1986) states that dialogue in the learning process, is the concentration between the teacher and student connected with the student’s needs for learning.  This type of concentration determines and modifies the actual intellectual and emotional capabilities that individual learners need to possess to participate in the learning process.

Overcoming Isolation

In order to create highly interactive learning environments between and among students, two strategies must be employed:


In order to maximize communication in distance education, opportunities must be created for student groups to communicate among themselves, simple group assignments at the beginning of the course that build upon subsequent assignments and become more challenging towards the end of the course; and heavy instructor involvement in group activities early in the semester with less involvement as time goes on.

Distance education employs contemporary technological developments to deliver information to students using new modalities.  In the last decade, distance learning has expanded to include temporal and physical isolation.  Today’s distance learner may be an urban dweller with physical access to a polytechnic or university institution.  The changing social fabric, with its increasing demand on individuals at work and decreasing support for individuals from the extended family has made time a highly valued commodity in the society. (Ruksasuk, 1999).

Distance education can save money, lower accommodation costs, give flexibility and capitalize on the information age.  But the current emphasis on technology means that we should be thinking more about the impact on the people involved.  Distance education is more effective when student, teacher and administer are involved in the learning and in the collaborative process ( (InnoVisions Canada).

Interaction in Distance Education

Lewin and Waddoups, cited by Twigg, admitted that “interaction” or group communication is not a simple topic.  They discussed methods they had used to form groups (student-selected, topic selected, and instruction-selected groups).

Students-selected groups allow students who know one another or work in close proximity to work together on group activities.

However, students who are given the chance to self-select group members tend to pick friends or individuals they know which actually narrows their scope of learning, minimizing opportunities to share ideas with other kinds of students.

Some instructors allow students to choose a topic of interest and form groups based on the topic.  Depending on the course content, topic-selected groups can produce a mix of interest among the group members or narrow their scope of learning as in the self-selected group.  Instructors can also assign members to groups to ensure that each group has a particular mix of interests.  While this grouping method can provide a wide range of expertise among its members, it can also lead to tension or personality conflicts.

Such groups provide a good opportunity for students to work with different students to minimize negative group dynamics.  The different forms of social interaction can contribute significantly to a high quality learning experience.

Gilbert and Moore (1998) describe two contexts of interaction: the ‘social interaction’ between two or more people about the learning material; and the ‘instructional interaction’ between the individual and the learning material.

In effect, instructional activity possesses factors related to both teacher control of context delivery and leaner control of processes that relate to the presentation of and response to instructional context.

For social interaction, the inter-activity between students and teachers and between students and students can sometimes have little to do with instructional learning, but can still help to create a positive or negative learning atmosphere.  These interactions also provide feedback to and from students about progress toward instructional objectives.  Some types of social interaction can directly foster instructional interactions. For instance, small group discussions in a class might have high social inter-activity at the same time that students are actively engaged in comparing opinions about content and objectives of the key courses (Gilbert and Moore 1998).

Social interaction as noted by Zhang and Fulford (1994) tends to have elements of inter-activity, flexibility, and bi-directionality that are not as frequently found in purely instructional interaction.  The participants in a social interaction can start and stop, react and remain silent at will.  Social interaction among adult learners becomes vital when it is closely linked to learning objectives.

In distance learning environment, one complaint often voiced by learners is that they feel isolated and unconnected (Hill, 1996, p. 76).  One important component that may influence student success in completing a distance education course is the degree of interaction that is provided and available (Moore and Kearsley, 1996).

The instructor’s attitude towards the students affects the student’s academic progress and their level of motivation for continuing their studies (Knowles, 1980).  Instructors with warm, positive attitudes are particularly necessary for students who have often endured hostility and alienation in previous educational expenses.

Dialogue is not possible in distance education situation without two-way immediate interaction, (Dolling, 1982, Sewart, 1993); so any misunderstanding or misconceptions may arise that thwart the student’s continuation of the course (Knox, 1989). Therefore, education should begin with the beliefs of adults and relate knowledge to their particular perceptions.  However, this is difficult to establish in distance education when course designs and media are developed ahead of time.

Another important aspect of interaction is the knowledge of individual progress.  The students must know that they are achieving and moving towards individual goals and not wasting time in the learning situation (Knowles, 1980).  According to Knowles, (1980) keeping the individual moving towards the professed goals will also help to retain the adult in the learning situation.

Griffin further argued that accessibility to adult education means people will be enabled to take courses of their choice at regular intervals.  This implies that these courses will be available when and where the distance learning methods can be enshrined in a system of recurrent education.

Students Motivation

The distance educator’s mission, is to provide a learning environment that allows individual adults to interact with situations and events in order to acquire relevant knowledge and skills, gives adults an opportunity to practice new skills and behaviours and help adults to learn how to apply the behaviours in meaningful situations (Verduin and Clark, 1991).  The motivations of adult students are highly tied to the value they place on an educational experience.  Therefore effective characteristics and responses of students must be important to distance educators, just as they are to conventional adult educators (Keith, 1993).

Knox (1986) suggests that much of adults intentional learning activity is motivated by adults desire to move from their current proficiency level to a new proficiency level,  any discrepancies between an adults’ current level and desired proficiency level directly affect motivation and achievement in both learning activities and life roles.  Thus, the three domains of educational objectives actually define the behavoural package that each adult possess.  If distance education is to help adults gain new knowledge, then these must be given constant attention.

Verduin and Clark (1991) were of the opinion that educating adults at a distance seem to be a hectic task “but adults actually are continuous learners in an informal way as they adjust to the various role changes that confront them in life”.  Their assumption is that adults have the capacity to adapt to changes but can only do so when they have a strong commitment for success.

Adults are motivated to learn.  They take studies at a given point to learn more about a subject.  They are basically pragmatic learners who emphasize practical utility of the information learned, usually as it relates to their economic status and survival.

In distance education, learning is seen as an individual effort.  Most adults vary greatly in their learning styles (abilities and disabilities).  Adults’ different rates of learning suggest a self-pacing distance education.  Therefore, it seems difficult to limit them to any time frame in the learning situation (Knowles, 1980).

Current research in distance education shows that part-time students enroll in distance education when on-campus study conflicts with their work schedule or leisure time, minimal travel or financial problems (self-sponsored students).  In this instance, time constraints motivate adults to learn at home at their own convenience.  This evidence supports Gagne’s study (1985) that adults prefer to study at their own pace and home rather than in class with other students.  Distance education, therefore, offers students an opportunity to study and learn in a peer free environment.  In essence, distance education is the only means through which the adult could be offered freedom of pace, individual study, self-planned learning while the organization provides guidance planning and feedback essential for continued student motivation, participation and course completion (Sewart, 1982).

Who Controls learning in distance education

Distance education provides for structured learning materials and the use of intermediaries – tutors, counselors, animateurs to assist learners in their use of learning materials.  In distance education, three forms of control are identified – Learner control, Institutional control and Social control.

Learner control

Distance education allows students to control what they wish to learn, when they want and wherever they want.  It also enhances its appeal to fit with busy schedules of people.  A high level of learner control produces more positive attitudes towards learning.

Distance education therefore works in a more flexible and friendly environments leading to improved balance between students course work and their lives, and reduces stress and absenteeism.  The student while controlling the learning can adjust his/her time to study, limits isolation, and improve social development.  The pressure of submitting assignments on specific schedules is reduced if given the opportunity to establish a learning contract. (InnnoVisions Canada, 2007).

The effect of learner control depends both on the type of learners and or the type of control.  Learners with weaker metacognitive skills will presumably show less control than metacognitively advanced learners.

Many learners show greater psychological response towards learning.  Their persistence rests on how long they are willing to study.  Where students are obsessed with anxiety and boredom less efficient learning is experienced.

Institutional control

In Ghana, Institutional control is the order of the day.  The institution determines everything from orientation, tutorial time and days as well as dates for examination and graduation.

Tutor control is basically on productive learning time.  Students’ inability to respond to instructors may likely hurt their learning.  The ability to know the profile of students is essential as outliers need to be helped. If certain students do not benefit from or need motivational effect of learning control, we can make their learning more effective by having the tutor select materials for them

Do we treat students as individuals? For distance education each student is special.  They come from different homes, have different facilities, and attitudes towards learning.  This calls for efficient learner support systems and services.  Students who are not motivated will show attrition.

Studies have shown that tutor-controlled students perform better than learner controlled students at the distance.

Another area of control is student’s choice of assignments.  This not only increases student motivation but also increases students learning for activities the students choose to perform. Also older students are more sensitive to learner control and are highly motivated to learn as they are afraid of failure and rejection.

Social control

This is where the society plays a significant role in the life of the student.  These include the family, friends, spouse and children. 

Other forms of control include travelling time, cost of transportation and learning materials, use of internet facilities, absence of libraries, workload, accommodation cost etc. These limit the ability of students to actively participate.

The Ghanaian Experience

Studies in Ghana by Asamoah-Gyadu (2005), Manu (2005), Adra (2000), Nanor (2005) and Badu-Nyarko (2006) revealed that the Ghanaian student learning at a distance is not completely isolated.  This is because apart from the modules (learning materials) given to them, they occasionally interact with either peers or tutors during face-to-face tutorials organized fortnightly or on monthly basis.  The transactional distance is shorted as they engage in their learning.  These are revealed in the results below.

There exists poor communication link between students and the tutors and among learners. Many found the modules too technical requiring explanations. Once they are learning on their own they learnt them without any meaningful understanding of the text.

The major problems facing the students were isolation in the learning process, difficulty in managing their time to study, while encouragement is lacking especially among those in the remote and rural areas. In fact many of the students needed personal help to remain in the programme. It was also found that the students lack access to library facilities

Almost 60% of students in Nanor’s study in Accra hardly contact their tutors or colleagues throughout the semester. Thus a low level of interaction was recorded in the study. In fact Torto 2000 found out that 53.4 % of part-time students in Accra learn in isolation while Badu-Nyarko 2006 found 68% of distance education students of Cape Coast University studying on their own. Many students therefore find it difficult to seek clarifications on lessons provided in the modules. This makes them have difficulties in understanding certain concepts and issues in the courses they are pursuing at a distance.

Also, 55%  of students study 2 hours a day (Adra, 2000) and 47% between 2 and 3 hours a day (Nanor, 2005),

It was also found out that 82% of the students workload at school affects their learning (Nanor, 2005) while in Adra’s case 67% were affected.

Also, 86% complained about inadequate library facilities while 61% found the delivery of study materials inadequate

Findings from Badu-Nyarko (2006) from four regions on 240 University of Education, Winneba and University of Cape Coast Students showed that they rely mostly on Tutorials where (91%) find it adequate and most appropriate to learn. Counseling services were not adequate to (76%) of the students with 78% not happy about the number of assignments and time of marking. On return of assignments 96% were not enthused about the delivery. Inadequate library facilities accounted for 82%.

Three quarters of the students in Adra’s study were in the urban centres, have access to electricity, radio and television but not computers. They rely on private internet cafes.

Implications for the Ghanaian Student

  • Effective face-to-face tutorial system with competent tutors well motivated to deliver is needed.  This will entail explaining difficult concepts and issues interspersed with few quizzes.

  • Regular marked assignments, detailing students problems or shortfalls, areas of strength and how to answer both multiple choice and essay type questions are advocated.

  • A call for counseling students on career choices, subject selection, learning habits and styles while at the same time directing students to relevant information are necessary.

The study also provides evidence that the Ghanaian student need motivation to learn and excel.  This is manifested in the fact that preparations of brochures describing study techniques, the setting up of residential course centres, the dispatch of audio-visual aids and the provision of quiet study rooms in public buildings, can all keep the student overcome his difficulties and improve dialogue.

Interaction is quite difficult in this direction but can be improved by allowing group project work, establishment of study circles and greater communication among students.

The use of the internet as a means of disseminating extra information rather than receiving assignments is necessary.  Studies in Australian universities found out that interactive internet assignment-based over loaded tutors often working 24 hours on specific days.

In order to ensure effective distance education that will benefit the distance student, the institution concerned should establish flexible meeting schedules, examination schedules and organize regular seminars on the radio etc.

There is the need for extension of time in the programme as some distance learners are slow learners and may register late.  In essence while on-campus students may use 16 weeks, distance students can use between 20 and 22 weeks, inclusive of examination dates.  As a measure, distance education must have a clear and different policy from on-campus programmes.

Information flow is essential in Distance Education if isolation is to be broken or reduced and the transactional distance bridged. Communication, that is, two-way communication is needed to make students well informed about changes in programmes, policies and learning schedules.

The frequency of tutorials in the programmes have gradually limited the degree of isolation among students as they regularly meet to learn.  However, time table constraints limits them to interact with tutors and peers.


Distance educators must remember that almost any adult can learn any course if given enough time and attention (Knox, 1986, Knowles, 1980), and that despite the high attrition rate often recorded, there is a place for distance education that allows adult students to set their own pace in distance study, a major characteristic in distance learning.  In this situation, Knowles, (1980) depicted that it seems difficult to limit them to any time frame in the learning situation since some adults learn more slowly. 

Occasional face-to-face tutorials can also be used to increase learner-to-learner interaction.  Learners can work on assignments and team projects together by using group discussions and using e-mail for working on questions or assignment that are not of interest to the whole class.

Universities should explore resources for bringing people together, not as some critics of ‘distance education suggest, for reinforcing their isolation, but to overcome isolation and provide enough self-control in distance education.

Mackeracher and Tuijnman (1996) remarked:

Educators should attempt to maintain a learning environment, which is free from threat, and assist learners to identify unlabeled fears and anxieties. Correspondingly, educators can work to enhance self confidence in learners by diminishing the possibility to fail or make grave errors and by reducing time pressure. Self pacing may be desirable method especially in instructing older adults because it usually guarantees that the allocation of time for learning is adequate (p.447).

Most distance educators are obsessed with overcoming the potential forf students isolation and review interaction as a primary goal. Daniel and Marquis, 1979 states that interaction  connotes that activity within a distance learning system which brings the student into contact with other people and by independence meaning working alone. The main aim of getting the balance right between isolation and interaction is to have good student motivation and completion rates, reasonable costs and quality learning.


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About the Author

Samuel Kofi Badu-Nyarko (Ph.D) is from the Institute Of Continuing And Distance Education, University Of Ghana, Legon.


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