Distance and open learning is the new term for what used to be called correspondence education. While in the past learning stuff used to reach students wherever they were by postal services, these days, state-of-the-art technology has in certain cases eclipsed the use of correspondence.
The principle behind open and distance learning is the same as that of correspondence school tuition. Students do not sit in a classroom, but learn from their homes. Distance learning is much older than some of us think. It was the method St Paul of Tarsus used to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ. What in the New Testament are called Epistles or Letters of Paul were, in fact, his discourses in the teachings of Christ in relation to the teachings of Moses. He wrote to the Galatians, Romans, Corinthians, Ephesians and other localities.
It was during the 19th century that correspondence schools first mushroomed. The best known and one of the oldest was the International Correspondence Schools. I don’t hear about this name these days.
There are people who think open and distance learning is inferior to formal school learning. These people are misguided by prejudice and their lack of knowledge about some of the great people who benefitted from this form of learning.
The African who in post colonial era first got the title of Prime Minister was Dr Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana. In his autobiography he tells us that he took a correspondence course for the London university Matriculation before he went to America. The great Nelson Mandela of South Africa tells us in his autobiography that he and his fellow prisoners at Robben Island were taking correspondence courses. He graduated in law.
President Robert Mugabe followed his bachelor’s degree in economics at Fort Hare with a London university by distance learning. The first Zambian to earn a degree as far as I can recall was Mr John Mwanakafwe who took a South African University BA by correspondence. He later became the principal of Kasama Secondary School. With the attainment of independence, he became first minister of education and then minister of finance.
The existence of open and distance learning facilities should be welcomed and encouraged for a variety of reasons. It gives second chance to those who have failed for a variety of reasons to continue learning within the formal system. These days you see secondary schools all over Malawi. In my days of youth there were only two secondary schools—Blantyre and Zomba Catholic—and they were for eight to 10 years just preparing students for Junior Certificate. Those Africans whose parents could afford used to go for the matriculation in South Africa or the Cambridge School Certificate in Uganda. Those who could not afford a higher education abroad resorted to correspondence courses.
Even though nowadays we have secondary schools all over the country and several universities, not everyone finds a place in these. Some of them charge fees that many students from poor background cannot afford. Studying by open and distance facilities is a good deal cheaper. Besides, you study at home while enjoying the company of your family. You study while earning a living.
Though in some urban centres there are evening or night secondary schools and vocational centres, they cannot be attended by those who work and live in remote parts of the country. Open and distance learning materials can reach them anywhere. Some people have acquired higher qualification while serving jail sentences.
Open and distance learning institutions prepare students for public examinations where the examining bodies exist. For example, Aggrey Memorial since 1977 has been preparing students for Malawi National Examinations Board (Maneb) examinations, London and Cambridge universities as well as GCE exams.
It has also been preparing students for vocational courses either leading to diplomas awarded by public examination bodies in the UK—including Royal Society of Arts, London Chamber of Commerce, and Association of Business Executives—or to diplomas awarded by the school itself.
Prejudice is strongest against certificates and diplomas from correspondence learning.