What to Know About Unisa’s Open Distance Learning (ODL)

Unisa open distance learning

Unisa is the largest open distance learning institution in Africa and the longest standing dedicated distance education university in the world. The university enrolls nearly one-third of all South African students.

Founded in 1873 as the University of the Cape of Good Hope, the institution became the first public university in the world to teach exclusively by means of distance education in 1946.

Throughout the years, Unisa was perhaps the only university in South Africa to have provided all people with access to education, irrespective of race, colour or creed.

ODL is a different way of learning… there is a physical distance between you and your university.

For most of us, this means that our previous learning experiences will not have prepared us for the Unisa study journey. In distance learning, YOU are responsible for planning your studies and managing your time effectively. You don’t attend daily lectures.

You learn from a distance and you connect to the university mostly via the internet.
If you completed your previous qualifications at a residential institution, it is especially important that you think about the adjustments you need to make to be a successful Unisa student.

But this doesn’t mean that you are on your own. Unisa has a number of support services for our students – from tutorial support and counseling, to online tools.

See also: University of South Africa, Unisa 2020 Application for Admission

The “distance” in distance learning means that most of your interactions with Unisa will take place at a distance – mostly in digital format.

Your study material

Your study material will consist of written content, whether on paper (eg prescribed books or textbooks) or online (eg e-reserves), instead of listening to a teacher or lecturer in a classroom.

In some instances, Unisa provides access to computers and the internet at our regional offices and other partner organisations, but you should have your own computer and access to the internet.

Your study world

The best way to cope with distance learning is to take full responsibility for your own learning experience and environment.

Your study world will be the environment you create – a room at home, a desk somewhere at work and, of course, the connections you make and the virtual networks you develop.

Your time

You will also need to remind your friends, family and work colleagues that your studies demand a lot from you, because they will probably forget that you are studying and make demands on your time.

What is it like to be an ODL student?

unisa odl studentStudent services & support

As an open distance learning university, there is not much face-to-face contact between Unisa and our students.

Nonetheless, our students come first and we provide many services to support you during your Unisa journey, such as our libraries, counseling services, regional centres and various student bodies.

Unisa provides you with a number of support services that will help you on your journey:

my Unisa

Unisa’s online student portal is the university’s most important study tool. It is how you will communicate with Unisa and how Unisa will communicate with you.

Click here for more on myUnisa.

myLife e-mail account

All registered Unisa students get a free myLife e-mail account. Important information, notices and updates are sent exclusively to this account.

It is your responsibility to activate your myLife e-mail account as soon as your registration is finalised.

Your myLife e-mail account will be the only e-mail account recognised by Unisa for official correspondence to and from the university, and will remain the official primary e-mail address on record at Unisa.

Social media

Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube are great channels through which to share ideas, find other students, ask questions and generally stay informed.

Unisa Radio

Internet-based Unisa Radio is a vibrant and informative platform of information and topics focused on our Unisa students. Its programming consists of music, informative interviews and talk shows.

Regional centres

You may visit a Unisa regional centre to connect to Unisa, get advice, meet other students, make use of Unisa services, have conversations with counselors, use the Academic Literacies services or use a computer (a limited number of computers are available at the regional centres).


Through the telecentre initiative, Unisa students have access to 1,450 computers with internet access in rural areas throughout South Africa.

Telecentres are private facilities equipped with computers connected to the internet, printers, photocopiers, scanners, faxes, telephones, and so on. Administrators are also on hand to assist students.

The dean of students and student affairs

The different directorates and divisions within the Student Affairs Department play a major role in connecting students by responding to student enquiries, and addressing issues such as student social development, student governance and leadership development, and the needs of students with disabilities.

Student counseling

Unisa’s counseling services provide career, academic and personal support to students. Support is available online and by e-mail, in person, by telephone and by letter.


The library is one of the university’s indispensable resources. Knowing how to use it (and using it extensively) is central to the successful Unisa student experience.

The Unisa Library is the largest academic library in Africa, containing more than 2.7 million items, including books, reference resources, e-books, e-newspapers and e-journals.

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