A damning report - Teacher Education Offered at a Distance in South Africa - recently published by the South African Institute for Distance Education (SAIDE) says that most distance teacher education courses are outdated and of "exceptionally poor" quality. In fact, they are often models of bad teaching.
The report reveals that more than one in three extraordinary 13,000 teachers were enrolled on distance education courses in 1995 making it the largest teacher education sector in South Africa. The sector is ballooning - by 23 per cent that year - and private courses for profit are proliferating.
The rapid expansion of distance teacher education will incur enormous costs to the government, which not only subsidises public courses but also has to pay graduating teachers higher salaries for the rest of their careers (most students are under 35 years old).
"This added cost despite the fact that there is no necessary improvement in the quality of teaching of these teachers," write the report's authors John Gultig and Neil Butcher.
"In fact, aspects of the growth are creating an excess of teachers on the market in subject areas where they are not needed."
Within this bleak environment, a few small institutions are experimenting with exciting ideas. But these innovative projects run the risk of being swamped by the rapidly expanding, poor-quality and low-cost courses offered by large public and "for profit" colleges.
The report appeals for action to prevent cheap, poor-quality education driving out the more expensive but significantly better education offered by colleges committed to transformation and quality rather than simply expansion and profit.
Since the research was undertaken, the authors stress, changes have occurred: for example, some institutions have been closed, amalgamated or transformed.
Distance teacher education in South Africa has a small number of very large providers. Four institutions - the University of South Africa, Vista University, the private Lyceum College and the College of Education of South Africa - have around 95,000 students. Fourteen smaller institutions share the remaining 35,000.
Most of them, say Gultig and Butcher, can accurately be described as providing "outdated, inappropriate forms of distance education". SAIDE researchers found that the biggest and the newest institutions especially seem not to be meeting basic quality indicators.
"They provide very little or no contact student support, their materials tend to be unfriendly and didactic, and their programmes do not include development of practice as a function. Continuous assessment is either limited, contracted out, or not undertaken."
Most students - 117,000 - are studying while teaching, most are in primary schools, and most are trying to upgrade their qualifications from certificate to diploma level.
The biggest increase in new enrolments, 71 per cent, has been among qualified teachers upgrading diploma qualifications. African teachers comprise 86 per cent of the students, 70 per cent of all distance teacher education students are women, and 57 per cent are younger than 35 years.
Despite the lack of student support, Mr Cultig and Mr Butcher write, there are usually high pass rates in most institutions.
Distance institution s are also offering far too many courses, without achieving variety within the sector. Many courses are "remarkably similar in style and content" and some are "clear cribs" of other courses or have been written by the same people, who are paid twice.
SAIDE director, Ms Jenny Glennie says distance teacher education in the country is often far too theoretical, does not take account of the realities of teaching in South Africa - such as lack of facilities and large classes - and fails to improve teaching on the ground.
"The whole system needs to be revamped and rationalised, " she said.
"There also needs to be a complete rethink of the model of course design and assessment so that teacher education can begin to make a real impact on teaching in the classroom. These things need to be done urgently."