An assessment of the quality of learning programmes comes at a time when concern for quality in higher education is perhaps at an all time high (Nielsen 1997:288; Eaton 1999:26). Being quality minded in education means caring about the goals, needs, desires and interests of customers and making sure they are met (Whitaker & Moses 1994:76).
Literature reveals that there is a growing interest in the application of quality management (QM) philosophy in the education sector. QM focuses on achieving quality and can be defined as a philosophy and guiding principles intended to meet the needs and expectations of external and internal customers (Bradley 1993: 169; Herman 1993: 2; Pike & Barnes 1994: 24; Greenwood & Gaunt 1994:26). Moreover, quality needs to be improved continuously.
All processes in any organisation contribute directly or indirectly to quality as the customer defines it (Swift, Ross & Omachonu 1998:93). Applying this principle to education means that the learning process needs to be assessed to determine the quality as defined by the learner. This will determine whether learners' needs have been met (Arcaro 1995:24).
This approach is also applicable to distance education where teaching and learning are separated in terms of time, place and space. A constant threat in distance education is that the "faceless" numbers of learners may become invisible to educators (Wilcott 1995:41). Distance education programmes therefore do not always address the needs of the learners (Nielsen 1997:300). Learners' perceptions thus offer crucial information to lecturers if their expectations are to be met (Van Niekerk & Herman 1996:44). Ramsden and Dodds (1989:16) also regard learners' perceptions of content and teaching as central to the evaluation of a course. Educators and distance education learners must therefore continuously engage in a process of improving the quality of the learning experience (Schon 1995:27; Schargel 1994:3; Greenwood & Gaunt 1994:156; Wilcott 1995:39).
Recent developments in higher education in South Africa through inter alia the establishment of Education and Training Quality Assurance Bodies and the Higher Education Quality Committee focus on quality assurance in higher education (RSA 1997; RSA 1998:5). According to the National Plan for Higher Education (RSA 2001:19) "... quality is central to redress and equity. It is unacceptable for graduates in general and those from previously disadvantaged communities in particular, to be short-changed in terms of the quality of programme provision as it would not only impact on their ability to improve their own life chances, but it would also adversely impact on the broader agenda for social and economic development". This is likely to lead to increased assessment of learning material by learners themselves. The Norms and Standards for Educators 2000, for example requires an internal quality review process to ensure quality improvement (Explanatory notes to the Norms and Standards for Educators, 2000:6). Implied in this review is the assessment by learners enrolled in the programme.
2 Problem Statement
Assessment of the learning material and its delivery constitutes a valuable indicator of whether quality has been attained. Thus the following research question was posed: To what extent did the learning material and assessment system of a module in Human Resource Management (HRM) delivered by distance education meet the needs and expectations of the learners?
In an attempt to answer this question, the article aims to:
* explain some concepts relevant to the research question;
* provide an overview of the module in HRM;
* determine the learners' perceptions of the module;
* propose how the learning material and assessment system could be improved to meet the needs and expectations of the learners.
3 Explanation of Important Concepts