Session 2

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Understanding Distance Learners


Home | Preface and Introduction | Distance Education and Instructional Design | Understanding Distance Learners | Foundations of Self-Learning Materials | Course Design | Preparing Structure of a Unit | Writing Introduction and Objectives | Content Presentation | Preparing Activities | End Matters | Finalizing Your Unit | References | Templates

Who are Distance Learners?

Subhash Mondal is a student of the Master of Arts in Distance Education of IGNOU. He is eighty years
old, a retired schoolteacher, who has been doing various courses through distance learning to
spend his retirement life and help the community through his learning.
Aditi Sutar, a homemaker, 35 years old, has two children (Ram, 8 and Shilpa, 3), and is a student 
of a BA programme through the distance mode. She could not complete graduation before marriage, 
and now she is pursuing her BA to continue further studies in English literature - her subject of
Vikas Singh, 18, is a student of the Bachelor of Computer Application through distance mode. He 
wanted to join a job-oriented course, which is cost-effective. He comes from a family of 
un-organized workers, and can’t afford the high cost of education elsewhere.
Ramesh Mishra is a mid-career corporate executive due for his next promotion that requires a 
master’s degree in business management. Though he is a law graduate, he has joined an MBA 
programme offered through the distance mode so that he can earn the degree without taking leave 
from work.
Swati Sinha, 35, is a physician by profession. She has joined the Maternal and Child Health 
programme of IGNOU to enhance her knowledge and skills to serve her rural community.

These are some of the types of distance learners. As teachers of distance education, we must know our learners. Who are they? What are their motives for joining a programme? Under what constraints are they studying? Understanding our learners will help us to design a programme that is useful, suitable and effective for them.

Characteristics of Distance Learners

If we closely look at the types of students presented above, it will become clear to us that distance learners are heterogeneous in nature. They come with diverse backgrounds, demography, disparities and motives. Distance learners usually have the following characteristics:

  • They are adult learners (except some in Open Schools).
  • They have family and job responsibilities.
  • They join a programme with a purpose.
  • They are both young and old.
  • They come from both sexes.
  • They are both employed and unemployed.
  • They are married and unmarried.
  • They spend their own money to do a course / programme.
  • They have less time for study.

Why is it important to Understand Our Learners?

For any programme of studies, the learners are the target group. Understanding the learner profile is important to design the programme as a learner-centric one. We can design and arrange for support services, and also develop learning materials that are suitable to their learning styles, level of knowledge, language comprehension, ability to use technology, etc.

What Information should we gather about Learners?

Dighe (2002) lists five categories of information that we need to know about the learners:

Demographic factors

  • What age group?
  • What sex, marital status?
  • What occupation (if any)?
  • What educational background?
  • What income background?

Motivation factors

  • Why do they want to learn?
  • What are their aspirations?
  • What are their hopes and expectations?
  • How would the programme relate to their lives and their work?

Learning factors

  • What learning styles do they have?
  • What learning skills do they have?

Subject background

  • What knowledge and skills do they already have in the subject?
  • How do they feel about the programme?
  • What personal interests and experiences do they have that could be relevant?

Resource factors

  • When, where, and how will they be learning?
  • Who will be paying their fees and expenses?
  • How much time will they have for the programme?
  • What access do they have to media facilities?
  • What access will they have to human support – from counsellors and other learners?

Implications for Understanding Learners

The above information can be gathered through a survey of prospective learners. However, it is important for us to utilize the information in our programme and course design. Some possible examples of the survey results and their implications for course design are given below:

The prospective learners are: So, the course must:
  • Poor in understanding English.
  • Be in the language they are comfortable with; or the level of English language used should be at a low level of readability index.
  • Mainly male with a small number female.
  • Use non-sexist language for communication, and provide examples that address both sexes.
  • Having considerable experience in the field/ subject
  • Use a lot of activities/ examples to appeal to their experience.
  • Busy and have little time for study.
  • Use the ‘must do’ knowledge and skill components in the units/ lessons; cover little of ‘should do’ and nothing of ‘nice to do’.
  • Not skilled in learning from media.
  • Avoid use of more media, and provide training on learning skills.
  • Returning to study after a gap of 5-10 years.
  • Provide sufficient guidance in the study materials to develop confidence.

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Develop a learner profile.

Using the information in this session, develop a learner profile of the target group for whom you are planning to develop a course/ programme.