The aim of this study was to examine the role of distance education in providing access to quality postgraduate education in Ethiopia, using the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) as a case study. It draws on the development of distance education and it further explores the distance education programme delivery system in Ethiopia on the postgraduate level. In addition, the study explores the policy gap between conventional and distance education in relation to international postgraduate distance education. The study, specifically, focuses on the Master of Arts in Rural Development (MARD) programme offered by IGNOU in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in terms of the opportunities it provides for alternative access to postgraduate education. It also explores the quality and quality assurance strategies employed in distance education.
Two instruments were used to gather relevant data, namely: interviews and document analysis. The structured interviews were conducted with MARD graduates and current students at IGNOU in 2012. Other semi-structured and structured interviews were conducted with the dean and department head, programme coordinator, tutors, the institution‘s top-level managers, the course and materials dispatching officer and administrator as well as with policy-makers at the Ministry of Education (MoE).
Furthermore, interviews were conducted with higher education experts and other MoE senior officials in foreign relations and those involved in cross-border private higher institutions. Senior officials from the Higher Education Relevance and Quality Agency (HERQA) were also interviewed, such as the deputy director and senior officials who are responsible for quality audit and accreditation for both private and public higher education as well as the external quality auditors. A total sample size of thirty respondents participated in the study and the respondents were purposefully selected from diverse areas. The data gathered, using a qualitative method, was analysed. The selected relevant documents for the study were also thoroughly analysed and agreed with the interview findings. The study established that distance education has the potential to contribute significantly to the provision of higher education in Ethiopia. As the main findings of the study revealed, there is recognition of the MARD programme by the participants, especially the graduates in terms of the fulfilment of certain quality elements which is largely due to the promotion they received after the completion of the programme.
The MoE participants indicated an acceptance of IGNOU in terms of it increasing access to higher education, even though it seems to be unrealistic to state that the quality of postgraduate distance education at IGNOU at this level is of the highest standard. Nevertheless, the quality indicators or elements at IGNOU regarding student support services and the quality of course materials and assessment methods are clear evidence that indicate that IGNOU is addressing the issues of quality enhancement and improvement.
There are, however, a number of factors which can affect the realisation of the potential of distance education programmes in Ethiopia. These are considered in terms of the operations of international providers of postgraduate studies and their role in meeting the increasing demand for quality human resource development in the country. In view of the findings and provided that the necessary conditions are met, it is possible to provide postgraduate studies in distance education programmes in Ethiopia in an efficient and successful manner. This requires careful planning and the alignment of the policy framework with the conventional system of higher education. The study further reveals a range of strengths and weaknesses in the postgraduate level distance education programmes offered by international providers and by IGNOU, in particular.
The main areas of emphasis include the national education policy and its implications for distance education development and the entire institutional and pedagogic system of the cross-border institution; the focus of which includes course material development; the provision of various student support services; as well as the integration of ICT and assessment and evaluation methods. In the light of the above factors the study also identifies some strategies that can be used to develop and increase the effectiveness of these programmes. A significant strategy identified in this study recommends the need to decentralise services into different regional administrative centres. There is, therefore, a need to have comprehensively stocked libraries and quality student support services at the regional centres with adequate facilities for distance students including services, such as ICT, access to reference materials and counselling.
Frameworks for assuring quality in open and distance learning, identified by Latchem and Jung in Asian Open and Distance Learning universities (ODL) (2007) and Lockhart and Lacy (2002) and an Assessment model used in the United States‘ distance education context were adopted for the purpose of analysis in this study. Latchem and Jung (2007) examine the various quality assurance approaches employed in Asian Open and Distance Learning universities (ODL). They make suggestions on how to achieve a culture of quality in distance education which is relevant in the context of developing countries, such as Ethiopia. The following three quality indicators were used as tools of analysis: coherence, efficiency and the impact of distance education. These indicators are identified by Perraton (2000:199) and are drawn from the quality criteria specific to distance education. They were adopted as a framework that could be applied to quality distance education in responding to human resource development in Ethiopia.
The study reveals that access to postgraduate studies in the conventional face-to-face system in Ethiopia is still a problem for some students and workers. Therefore, it is recommended that international postgraduate distance education providers should collaborate with local private and public contact higher education institutions in order to provide alternative access to higher education via the distance education mode.