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SAICA NEWS: Distance Learning Education

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Challenges faced by students following the distance learning route

There has been much press recently about the shortage of accountants and more specifically Chartered Accountants in South Africa [CAs(SA)]. This follows research conducted by SAICA in 2008. There are many challenges we face in developing young CAs(SA). One such challenge is in the Distance Learning (DL) mode of delivery.

This article aims to identify challenges faced by DL students so as to better understand overall why students from DL programmes achieve lower throughputs than their full-time counterparts. It also seeks to pave the way for identifying ways in which this can be improved.

“Distance Learning” (DL) studies are typically defined as where students receive their course material upfront with little or no contact time with lecturers. Students are required to be sufficiently disciplined to work through the course work and assignments in their own time and at their own pace. Such students may or may not be also holding down a full-time job at the same time. “Full-time” studies, on the other hand, are completed at a residential university where students go to lectures and tutorials daily, and receive their course work and assignments as they progress through the year.

Residential universities invariably show much better throughput rates, both at undergraduate and postgraduate levels as well as in the Part I of the Qualifying Examination (QE). But we must take the following factors into account:

• Residential universities can only accommodate a limited number of students (although capacity in this respect is growing).
• Many students have to choose to study via DL because they are financially constrained and are therefore required to start working in order to earn an income to support their families.
• Geographically, students in the more remote and rural areas of the country do not have access to a residential university in their areas. This means that they need to move to a town where a residential programme is available, and this, in turn, means incurring costs over and above tuition fees.

Despite the historically poor throughputs from DL providers, many of SAICA’s current members completed their studies through UNISA, the primary DL provider in South Africa. An analysis of past Part I exam results also show that approximately 38% of all candidates who pass Part I of the QE have completed their CTA via the DL route. Table 1 below is an analysis of the number of passes over the past three years from the most recent Part I exam results released 26 June 2009.

Key challenges facing DL students
• Knowing where to start: Just getting the study material can present a challenge. When the material arrives all at once at the beginning of the year, the sheer size of the package can be overwhelming and off-putting. It is a challenge to know where to begin!
• Having sufficient time to study: Students choosing the DL option face real challenges, with students that are working full-time while studying after hours facing the greatest challenges of all: (lack of) time. Working forty hours a week and even more if the student’s employer requires him/her to work overtime leaves only a limited number of hours remaining in the week for study. Completing a CTA programme on the other hand requires many hours of working consistently over the entire academic year.
• Working consistently: This is linked to the point above and making sufficient time to conduct one’s studies. Because learning is a process that takes place with ongoing action and repetition, those hours of work cannot be “caught up” in four weeks of full-time study during “study leave” just before the exams are written at the end of the year.
• Being able to read quickly and efficiently: Working from study material where the student is required to do a significant amount of reading is also a challenge. This is because many people today don’t read much at all. Watching TV or listening to people giving lectures is how students get most of their information. Often one reads a section and at the end one is not quite sure what one has been reading. DL study requires reading to understand and to remember.
• Being unable to get an instant explanation: Also, reading something is hardly ever as clear as having someone explain. In lectures, the lecturers are conscious of the students’ reactions and will often add an additional explanation or give more examples when they see the students are having difficulty following the lecture. When students hit a problem in their study materials, they may have to search for the answer by going back to previous material.. Options that are available to such students include access to material and support through the internet. Both providers of DL have such support facilities in place (for example, myUnisa and other email query resolution processes).
• Not attempting the questions thoroughly: There is often the temptation to read the solutions without attempting the questions first. Because the solutions make complete sense, one is lulled into thinking that you have understood the requirements of the question. Unfortunately, there are very few people who have that kind of photographic memory, and can understand and remember without actually working through the tasks. Working through dozens of tutorials on one’s own can also at times be difficult and very boring. It is, however, a very necessary part of the learning process.
• Lack of structure: Another major challenge is not seeing one’s lecturers daily, nor having the structure of the tutorial group and the university timetable from Monday to Friday to keep one working consistently. Even DL students that are not working full-time and have plenty of time find it hard to keep to a time-table and keep working without the structure of classes, and the company of fellow students. DL study can be very lonely and students often struggle to stay motivated and keep up with the continual hard work that is required.
• There is a further challenge for students at the CTA level that are repeating their studies via DL: having failed their studies on a full-time programme, such students often fall into the trap of not revising important basic concepts, having completed the material before and therefore thinking they know the work. It is as important to find the time to put in the hours to study the second time as it was the first time.

Despite the above challenges, there are many students that attempt this means of studying each year and ultimately succeed, even if it takes a little longer. Students that chose to study via DL therefore need to go into the CTA year with their eyes open in order to face the challenges of that year.
In addition, employers can assist by encouraging trainees that are still studying to work through their learning material in a consistent and diligent manner.

Despite the many criticisms about the poor throughputs achieved by students on DL programmes, the statistics provided at the beginning of this article are compelling enough to show that there is a need for such a programme in order to continue to grow the pipeline of prospective CAs(SA).

Update on UNISA registration process
A number of problems were experienced in getting NEW students (i.e. students that had not previously studied through UNISA) registered at UNISA in 2009. As a result of this, SAICA intervened in order to get an extension for BCompt Honours students that had not followed the correct application process by the required date. SAICA also requested UNISA to respond in writing as to what the process would be for new students wanting to register with UNISA in 2010. UNISA initially indicated that, “… In 2009, Unisa will open the applications for new students who will register in 2010. The applications opened on 1 July 2009 and closed on 30 September 2009”.

SAICA is pleased to report that following engagement with the relevant staff at UNISA, the following application and registration dates have been confirmed to us by Professor Neil Swemmer, Director: School of Accounting Sciences at UNISA:

“The Deputy Registrar, Prof. D. Singh, has informed me that the following arrangements pertaining to student registrations for BCompt (Hons)/CTA and the Postgraduate Diploma in Accounting Sciences in 2010 will apply:

• The cut-off date for new student applications will be 5 February 2010. Applicants should submit their documentation as early as possible, but the University will accept other applications up to the aforementioned date.
• The closing date for registrations for persons not waiting for supplementary examination results, etc. will be the closing date for first semester registrations. This date is usually around 22 January each year, but the exact date for 2010 can be obtained from the University web page.
• The final date for all other registrations, including persons who submitted entrance applications up to 5 February 2010, will be the closing date for postgraduate qualifications. This date is usually around about 5 March each year, but, once again, the exact date for 2010 can be obtained from the University web page.

The request was made that all existing and prospective students be encouraged to register as soon as possible instead of waiting to the last moment, this, obviously, to try to prevent bottlenecks.”

Practitioners that employ students that may be enrolling at UNISA in 2010 should therefore take the above dates into account, but should specifically note the following:
• Existing UNISA students only need to REGISTER by the required dates as published by UNISA (refer to UNISA website for information).
• New UNISA students (i.e. studying at UNISA for the first time in 2010) need to complete the following TWO different steps:
1. APPLY to the university by the required cut off date
(5 February 2010)*
2. REGISTER by the required date (refer to UNISA website for information)

* Please get students to register before this date as the academic year does start mid January, and it will be to the disadvantage of the student if he or she starts his or her studies two to four weeks after everyone else.

Any queries with regard to the above should be directed to UNISA.

Mandi Olivier CA(SA), is Project Director: Education, SAICA and
Fiona Bulman, M. Ed. Education Development and Distance Education Specialist, is Director: Phelamanga Projects.
SAICA NEWS

Distance Learning Education

Challenges faced by students following the distance learning route
There has been much press recently about the shortage of accountants and more specifically Chartered Accountants in South Africa [CAs(SA)]. This follows research conducted by SAICA in 2008. There are many challenges we face in developing young CAs(SA). One such challenge is in the Distance Learning (DL) mode of delivery.

This article aims to identify challenges faced by DL students so as to better understand overall why students from DL programmes achieve lower throughputs than their full-time counterparts. It also seeks to pave the way for identifying ways in which this can be improved.

“Distance Learning” (DL) studies are typically defined as where students receive their course material upfront with little or no contact time with lecturers. Students are required to be sufficiently disciplined to work through the course work and assignments in their own time and at their own pace. Such students may or may not be also holding down a full-time job at the same time. “Full-time” studies, on the other hand, are completed at a residential university where students go to lectures and tutorials daily, and receive their course work and assignments as they progress through the year.

Residential universities invariably show much better throughput rates, both at undergraduate and postgraduate levels as well as in the Part I of the Qualifying Examination (QE). But we must take the following factors into account:

• Residential universities can only accommodate a limited number of students (although capacity in this respect is growing).
• Many students have to choose to study via DL because they are financially constrained and are therefore required to start working in order to earn an income to support their families.
• Geographically, students in the more remote and rural areas of the country do not have access to a residential university in their areas. This means that they need to move to a town where a residential programme is available, and this, in turn, means incurring costs over and above tuition fees.

Despite the historically poor throughputs from DL providers, many of SAICA’s current members completed their studies through UNISA, the primary DL provider in South Africa. An analysis of past Part I exam results also show that approximately 38% of all candidates who pass Part I of the QE have completed their CTA via the DL route. Table 1 below is an analysis of the number of passes over the past three years from the most recent Part I exam results released 26 June 2009.

Key challenges facing DL students
• Knowing where to start: Just getting the study material can present a challenge. When the material arrives all at once at the beginning of the year, the sheer size of the package can be overwhelming and off-putting. It is a challenge to know where to begin!
• Having sufficient time to study: Students choosing the DL option face real challenges, with students that are working full-time while studying after hours facing the greatest challenges of all: (lack of) time. Working forty hours a week and even more if the student’s employer requires him/her to work overtime leaves only a limited number of hours remaining in the week for study. Completing a CTA programme on the other hand requires many hours of working consistently over the entire academic year.
• Working consistently: This is linked to the point above and making sufficient time to conduct one’s studies. Because learning is a process that takes place with ongoing action and repetition, those hours of work cannot be “caught up” in four weeks of full-time study during “study leave” just before the exams are written at the end of the year.
• Being able to read quickly and efficiently: Working from study material where the student is required to do a significant amount of reading is also a challenge. This is because many people today don’t read much at all. Watching TV or listening to people giving lectures is how students get most of their information. Often one reads a section and at the end one is not quite sure what one has been reading. DL study requires reading to understand and to remember.
• Being unable to get an instant explanation: Also, reading something is hardly ever as clear as having someone explain. In lectures, the lecturers are conscious of the students’ reactions and will often add an additional explanation or give more examples when they see the students are having difficulty following the lecture. When students hit a problem in their study materials, they may have to search for the answer by going back to previous material.. Options that are available to such students include access to material and support through the internet. Both providers of DL have such support facilities in place (for example, myUnisa and other email query resolution processes).
• Not attempting the questions thoroughly: There is often the temptation to read the solutions without attempting the questions first. Because the solutions make complete sense, one is lulled into thinking that you have understood the requirements of the question. Unfortunately, there are very few people who have that kind of photographic memory, and can understand and remember without actually working through the tasks. Working through dozens of tutorials on one’s own can also at times be difficult and very boring. It is, however, a very necessary part of the learning process.
• Lack of structure: Another major challenge is not seeing one’s lecturers daily, nor having the structure of the tutorial group and the university timetable from Monday to Friday to keep one working consistently. Even DL students that are not working full-time and have plenty of time find it hard to keep to a time-table and keep working without the structure of classes, and the company of fellow students. DL study can be very lonely and students often struggle to stay motivated and keep up with the continual hard work that is required.
• There is a further challenge for students at the CTA level that are repeating their studies via DL: having failed their studies on a full-time programme, such students often fall into the trap of not revising important basic concepts, having completed the material before and therefore thinking they know the work. It is as important to find the time to put in the hours to study the second time as it was the first time.

Despite the above challenges, there are many students that attempt this means of studying each year and ultimately succeed, even if it takes a little longer. Students that chose to study via DL therefore need to go into the CTA year with their eyes open in order to face the challenges of that year.
In addition, employers can assist by encouraging trainees that are still studying to work through their learning material in a consistent and diligent manner.

Despite the many criticisms about the poor throughputs achieved by students on DL programmes, the statistics provided at the beginning of this article are compelling enough to show that there is a need for such a programme in order to continue to grow the pipeline of prospective CAs(SA).

Update on UNISA registration process
A number of problems were experienced in getting NEW students (i.e. students that had not previously studied through UNISA) registered at UNISA in 2009. As a result of this, SAICA intervened in order to get an extension for BCompt Honours students that had not followed the correct application process by the required date. SAICA also requested UNISA to respond in writing as to what the process would be for new students wanting to register with UNISA in 2010. UNISA initially indicated that, “… In 2009, Unisa will open the applications for new students who will register in 2010. The applications opened on 1 July 2009 and closed on 30 September 2009”.

SAICA is pleased to report that following engagement with the relevant staff at UNISA, the following application and registration dates have been confirmed to us by Professor Neil Swemmer, Director: School of Accounting Sciences at UNISA:

“The Deputy Registrar, Prof. D. Singh, has informed me that the following arrangements pertaining to student registrations for BCompt (Hons)/CTA and the Postgraduate Diploma in Accounting Sciences in 2010 will apply:

• The cut-off date for new student applications will be 5 February 2010. Applicants should submit their documentation as early as possible, but the University will accept other applications up to the aforementioned date.
• The closing date for registrations for persons not waiting for supplementary examination results, etc. will be the closing date for first semester registrations. This date is usually around 22 January each year, but the exact date for 2010 can be obtained from the University web page.
• The final date for all other registrations, including persons who submitted entrance applications up to 5 February 2010, will be the closing date for postgraduate qualifications. This date is usually around about 5 March each year, but, once again, the exact date for 2010 can be obtained from the University web page.

The request was made that all existing and prospective students be encouraged to register as soon as possible instead of waiting to the last moment, this, obviously, to try to prevent bottlenecks.”

Practitioners that employ students that may be enrolling at UNISA in 2010 should therefore take the above dates into account, but should specifically note the following:
• Existing UNISA students only need to REGISTER by the required dates as published by UNISA (refer to UNISA website for information).
• New UNISA students (i.e. studying at UNISA for the first time in 2010) need to complete the following TWO different steps:
1. APPLY to the university by the required cut off date
(5 February 2010)*
2. REGISTER by the required date (refer to UNISA website for information)

* Please get students to register before this date as the academic year does start mid January, and it will be to the disadvantage of the student if he or she starts his or her studies two to four weeks after everyone else.

Any queries with regard to the above should be directed to UNISA.

Mandi Olivier CA(SA), is Project Director: Education, SAICA and
Fiona Bulman, M. Ed. Education Development and Distance Education Specialist, is Director: Phelamanga Projects.