The University of South Africa (Unisa) is one of the largest distance education universities in the world. Teaching physics at a distance is a complex and multifaceted problem which is compounded in the South African context by the diversity of educational backgrounds of the learners involved. The fact that students are distributed over a vast geographical area, presents unique problems for the incorporation of the practical component into the curriculum. Current research involves a fundamental evaluation of the aims and objectives of the introductory laboratory. The project is based on the notion that practicals, as they have been used in most physics curricula, are not particularly effective or efficient, although they are costly both financially and logistically. Design, development and delivery of efficient study material imply that there should be agreement between what the student knows and can do, and what the material offers. An in depth profile that takes into account biographic as well as cognitive characteristics of the target group, is therefore being compiled. This paper gives an overview of the specific problems and circumstances that were identified for distance education in physics in a multi-cultural society, and proposes a new model for the incorporation of the introductory laboratory into the curriculum.

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