The question of “fit” in distance education (#OMDE)

Most higher education institutions have elaborate admission requirements aimed to ensure, inter alia, that only the most worthy students get the opportunity to enrol. Distance education (DE) has, since its early days, boasted that it provides educational opportunities for those excluded from education based on geographical location, employment, cost, etc. “Opening” education is therefore part of the DNA of distance education and open distance learning (ODL) in particular.

Studying through DE or ODL requires much more than just meeting the academic admission requirements of a particular institution. Students are often (mostly?) under-prepared for the challenges that await them. The under-preparedness of students has its origins in a variety of factors such as poor secondary schooling, rote learning, a mismatch between the curricula on secondary school level and first-year higher education, an inability to work independently and… wrong expectations. We underestimate the existential crises students experience when their study packages arrive and they are suddenly confronted with registering on the institutional learning management system (LMS), get access to the prescribed materials and, almost immediately, start preparing for the first assignment.

By the time students (and the institution) realise that there is a mismatch, or an inappropriate “fit” between students (whether ’caused’ by their profile, life circumstances or expectations) and the unique offerings and characteristics of the institution; it is often too late to change or cancel their enrolment without some financial loss to students and institutions alike (Subotzky & Prinsloo, 2011). So, how sure are we which students will “fit”? What can we do to ensure an optimal “fit” between the aspirations, resources and potential of students and the offerings and characteristics of a DE or ODL institution? How do we ensure that our efforts to increase “fit”, don’t exclude students?

At the Western Governors University (a DE institution), enrolment is not automatic. Students are screened using the following criteria:

  • The results of a personal interview(s) with a WGU Enrolment Counsellor
  • Students prior college experience and work experience
  • The results from the WGU Collegiate Readiness Assessment (emphasis added)
  • The time commitment students can make to their studies


The rationale for these criteria is found in the following statement: “At WGU we want you to graduate, not just enrol. Consequently, not every applicant is admitted because not every individual is a good “fit” for WGU’s programs and competency-based, online academic model.”

Since the very early models on student success and throughput, the question of “fit” was always on the table (e.g. Spady, 1970; Tinto, 1975). Tinto’s (1975, 1988) work in particular was based on the works by Van Gennep on the nature of ‘rites of passage’ and the philosopher Durkheim’s theory on suicide (Tinto, 1988, pp. 442-447). Durkheim’s theory stated, amongst other things, that one of the reasons (if not the main reason) why people commit suicide is because they felt they did not belong, or they did not fit (anymore). Since then the success with which students were integrated or fitted into higher education was seen as a major variable in determining their chances on success. The more integrated students became into the epistemologies and ways of being of an institution, the bigger the possibility of success. Less integration was equated with lower scores, and eventually, drop out.

While there have been criticisms against the unilateral expectation of students to fit into higher education (see e.g. Cabrera, Nora & Castaneda, 1993), with no apparent requirement for higher education to also, from their side, fit into the lives of students – most research indicate that the question of “fit” is an important element in the student journey.

If we accept the importance of “fit” for now, the question that fascinates and disturbs me is the following: How will students know whether they fit or don’t fit?  When will students discover that a particular course or institution is “not for them”?  How much time and resources will be wasted before they realise they don’t fit? While the danger of “not fitting” exists for students enrolling in all forms of higher education; it is a particular danger in mass distance education or e-learning. There is ample evidence that distance education and e-learning may not be for everyone. Most students (and actually all of us, faculty included) furthermore overestimate the time we have available, the resources we have access to, and of course, our ability to control (or think we control) our circumstances… Many students also overestimate their ability to adjust to the different epistemologies and standards of higher education. Though this applies to most students, it is those students with a lack of social and cultural capital that are most probably more affected than others.

Many (most?) distance education institutions think that students carry the main responsibility to ensure “fitting in”. This is most probably why we talk so much about “under-prepared students” and never of an “under-prepared” institution…

Higher education institutions have a moral obligation to ensure that students and staff comprehend the unique challenges in studying through distance education and e-learning. We cannot assume that they (staff and students) know… The earlier staff and students know how they fit in, the better. The cost (direct and indirect) of enrolling through distance education and/or e-learning and only then discover that “it” is not what you thought “it” was, is immense. The cost of employing staff who do not “fit” is even bigger – because they may cause irreparable damage to students’ self-belief and potential, ruining lives, including their own.

There are many possibilities that we can entertain without rolling out resource-intensive readiness assessments before students register. Some possibilities to address the notion of “fit” include

  • Orientation programmes. Should “orientation programmes” (preferably online and assessed) not be made compulsory for all students planning to enrol in distance education and e-learning? I am not talking here about a “wishy-washy-what-is-this-about” voluntary course for students. The course should be designed to provide students a taste of studying through distance education and/or e-learning before their registration is accepted.  I furthermore don’t see any reason why prospective staff should not also be required to do this even before the selection committees sit to review their applications.

You may ask – “But what about the cost of such orientation?” Or, “where do we find the time for determining whether staff and students “fit”? My counter questions are: “Can we afford NOT to allow an opportunity for staff and students to determine their ‘fit’? How much time and resources can we actually save by creating a safe but critical space for staff and students to determine their ‘fit’?

  • Making the first four weeks of all courses open and free. This idea arose in a personal conversation with a colleague at Unisa (let’s call him John) who suggested that we open up the materials of the first 4 weeks all courses for free, online. These are not watered down versions of the “real thing” but nothing more and nothing less than the first four weeks of the course. Students will then be able to assess whether there is a “fit” – not only with regard to what they thought this course was about, but also with regard to the prescribed materials required, level of difficulty, nature and structure of the assignments, examination dates, etc.

At present we are addressing the non-fit of students through extra tutorial letters, extra tutorial sessions (often face-to-face or via videoconferencing), providing teaching assistants and e-tutors at huge cost – while the above may actually address the question of “fit” earlier, cheaper with less waste of resources for staff and students.

In conclusion:  Allowing students to determine whether they “fit” is in line with the drive to allow students to reach their potential and not exclude them, per se, because they don’t meet institutional admission criteria. We should stop seeing and treating students as passive recipients of services, while they are actually agents making rational and irrational choices. Let us help them to make a more rational and informed choice…

[Image retrieved from, 12 July 2012]


Cabrera, A.F., Nora, A., & Castaneda, M.B. (1993). College persistence: structural equations test of an integrated model of student retention. The Journal of Higher Education 64(2), 123-139.

Spady, W.G. (1970). Dropouts from higher education: An interdisciplinary review and synthesis. Interchange 1(1), 64-85.

Subotzky, G., & Prinsloo, P. (2011): Turning the tide: a socio-critical model and framework for improving student success in open distance learning at the University of South Africa. Distance Education, 32(2), 177-193.

Tinto, V.1975. Dropout from higher education: a theoretical synthesis of recent research. Review of Educational Research 45, 89-125.

Tinto, V. 1988. Stages of departure: Reflections on the longitudinal character of student leaving. The Journal of Higher Education 59(4), 438-455.


About opendistanceteachingandlearning

Research professor in Open Distance and E-Learning (ODeL) at the University of South Africa (Unisa). Interested in teaching and learning in networked and open distance and e-learning environments. I blog in my personal capacity and the views expressed in the blog does not reflect or represent the views of my employer, the University of South Africa (Unisa).
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