Online education has the potential to be an education opportunities' equaliser but, in practical terms, it has not realised that potential yet. This statement is borne out by Gilbert's (2001) contention that available statistics indicate that the non-completion, drop-out and inactivity rates for online graduate learners is almost double that of traditional learners. In specific reference to Athabasca University (AU) , Crawford (2000) cites high non-completion and inactivity rates , noting that from 1994 to 2000, 85 of the 423 enrolled students have withdrawn from online programmes for various reasons. The implication here is clear, online learning has not reached its full potential.
Following from the premise that online learning has not attained its potential, as evidenced in high withdrawal and non-completion rates, this research shall present a proposal for the establishment of a student support system as would positively contribute to higher student retention rates. Pending the contextualisation of the online learning environment to which this proposal is directed and a clarification of online delivery modes and models, the research will propose a tutoring and student support strategy whose primary objective is the reduction of inactivity and non completion rates, thereby contributing to e-learning's eventual realisation of its potential to function as an educational opportunities' equaliser.
The research will focus on the international e-learners, as in students who have enrolled in a university which is located in a country other than that of their residence or nationality. According to Gilbert (2001) increasing numbers of Third World learners are turning to the e-educational paradigm for their graduate and post-graduate studies, either because work, family or financial restrictions, among others, constrain their opportunities to travel to the university itself and reside in a foreign country for protracted periods of time. As Gilbert (2001), however, adds, a significant percentage of this group does not successfully complete its studies, as in earn their degree and, empirical studies indicated that the reason lies in that many felt at a loss within the virtual environment. Loss was not a consequence of limited technological skills, as are required to function within such an environment, nor of lack of access to the requisite technologies, those being a computer and internet connection but, because the institutions did not provide them with the guidance and support which they believe a necessary component of successful completion (Gilbert, 2001).
The above stated represents the focal point of the proposal's concern. Specifically stated, the concern is with the design and implementation of a support system which will offer e- and distance learners the guidance they require.
3 The Learning System