Open and distance learning has great potential to democratise higher education: Ex-VC IGNOU

By Mohd Naushad Khan |

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PROF M. ASLAM, Former Vice-Chancellor, IGNOU, is member of the Collegiums of Eminent Social Scientists constituted by the ICSSR; Fellow, EDI of the World Bank; Distinguished Fellow, AGRASRI, Tirupati, A.P; and Patron, Hope Foundation, Vadodara, Gujarat. He was conferred seven national and international awards; authored eight books and visited 35 countries across the world. In an interview with MOHD NAUSHAD KAHN, he said open and distance learning has tremendous potential to democratise higher education.

You have spent more than 26 years in IGNOU – an apex ODL (Open and Distance Learning) institution, as a Professor, Director and finally its Vice Chancellor, please throw some light on what this ODL is all about?

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Open and Distance Learning is basically the outcome of the realisation that adult populations across the world also need opportunities for education at all levels. This concern has been accelerated by rapid technological changes and shifting market conditions. The educational system faced the challenge of providing increased educational opportunities to larger numbers without increased budget or causing any physical dislocation.

Distance education is not strictly an invention in itself but a reaction of the education system to the new challenges and demands. It provides opportunity of education or re-education to those who missed or cannot afford to join formal conventional system. The open education is a philosophic construct that advocates removal of all the constraints on the practice and delivery of education (i.e. barriers that hold back willing learners) that have been built and institutionalised over the centuries, while distance education is only a modality of educational dispensation – the only feature of openness inherent to it is that the learner is not asked to be physically present in a classroom.

The open learning mode through distance education today has come to be accepted as a well-recognised mode of education and training relevant to and necessary for meeting the emerging demands of our society. Because of the openness and flexibility of the open learning system, more than 105 countries have already established their own open education institutions.

How do you briefly trace the origin of Open and Distance Learning in India?

In India the origin of Distance Education was the outcome of the realisation as to how quality education can be offered to much larger body of population which remains outside the University system. To address this concern a committee headed by Prof V.K.R.V Rao was constituted in 1970 by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and University Grants Commission.

It took policy planners sometime to give serious thought to the committee report. Finally it was only in 1982 when Dr. B.R. Ambedkar Open University as first state Open University was established in Hyderabad. It was followed by establishment of Indira Gandhi National Open University in 1985 by an Act of Parliament. Today we have Indira Gandhi National Open University at the national level and 14 State Open Universities at the state levels. In addition, there are hundreds of Directorates of Distance Education based in conventional universities offering Open ad Distance Learning programmes. We also have National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS) for school level interventions.

What has been the performance of this group of ODL institutions? Briefly

The fact remains that Open and Distance Learning is a modality that provides immense benefits not only to the learner population, but also to the society as a whole. The performance of above group of ODL institutions is a mixed bag of success. It was a welcome development when NIOS started vocational education alongside formal courses i.e. Eng.& Technology, Agriculture, Commerce, Health. It was equally encouraging to see State Open Universities offering programmes in non-conventional areas like YCMOU in Nashik initiating programmes in areas like Home Gardening, Fruit production, Floriculture, Landscape gardening. BRAOU in Mushroom cultivation and UPTROU offering programmes in Desktop publishing. IGNOU at national level developed a large number of programmes particularly in emerging areas like Computers, Nursing, Rural Dev., Tourism, Information Technology Participatory Forest Management Disaster Management, HIV AIDS, etc. IGNOU had the distinction of taking up a project on ‘Education and Training of Elected Members of Panchayats” under which 70,000 elected members were trained through distance mode in four districts of Madhya Pradesh. It was conferred, “Commonwealth of Learning Presidents Award of Excellence” during 2nd PAN Commonwealth Conference held in Brunei Darussalam in 1999.

In this long process of development they seem to have lost consistency and direction and they have also not been able to emerge as centres of excellence. The policy planners also seem to have not been convinced about the potential of Open and Distance Learning as a mode for supplementing and reinforcing conventional system. In order to take care of their finances they seem to have been running after numbers and in the process compromise quality. Recently, ODL also has not been able to effectively face the challenge posed by Corona lockdown. ODL had the mechanism to capture classroom teaching through Self-learning Material. In my estimation, it was a golden opportunity for this group of ODL institution to develop new model of learning to be implemented through multi-mode intervention.

Does ODL hold value in the market?

This question is best put to those who come seeking education/qualifications through ODL modality. If enrolments in open universities, open schools and other ODL institutions all over the world is any indication of the market value of distance education, there should be no doubt about its value in the market. What should be understood is that it is not the educational modality, but the knowledge, skills and positive attitude acquired through learning that is required in the labour market. Any modality of education that equips learners with these attributes will have value in the market. Distance education is no exception to this fundamental rule.

Is it cost effective? Is it better than regular courses?

ODL is certainly cost-effective in comparison with face-to-face education for obvious reasons. Earlier studies at the UKOU showed that the cost per learner in ODL settings is 1/3rd of that in face-to-face settings. Of course, the relative cost advantage offered by ODL depends on the extent of technology involved, but overall it is more affordable in terms of time as well as money. The other economic advantage that the ODL systems provide is that learners can remain economically productive while they study for qualifications. Whether it is better than regular courses is a question that is best linked to the question of quality in distance education.

What constitutes learner population for distance education, which is unique to this system?

Open and Distance Learning provides immense benefits not only to the learner population but also to society as a whole. Here I may point to the crucial ones that standout conspicuously:

  1. It caters to all the four contemporary types of learners – the traditional teen-age school leavers supported by their families or the state, the teen-age learners forced into labour market for want of support and are in need of education, the new learners who as adults want education/training for horizontal or vertical mobility on their terms, and the digital natives who prefer distance modality to the four-walled regimen. I may add yet another category of learners, who otherwise have no access to education – the tradition ridden women learners together with the other unreached sections of the Indian society.
  2. It is endowed with flexibility to assess the needs of the society and tailor make courses to cater to the labour market and societal development.
  • Together with its extensive reach it provides for education in one’s own time and at one’s own pace and place.
  1. Generally, it is relatively more affordable and user friendly than the face-to-face operations.
  2. It provides for cross-border operations as well as trans-modal delivery options. And so on……

As you have mentioned that quality is an important factor for success of any ODL intervention. How to then maintain quality and standard in ODL educational interventions?

It should be noted that the notion of quality entered educational discourse through the portals of distance education. Earlier we used to talk of standards in education, not the quality of education. It was the deep concern of distance educators for quality in distance education modality that brought forth the notion of quality to the centre-stage of educational dispensation. Distance education institutions assure quality of what they provide by focusing on the components of the enterprise:

  1. Products – it is common knowledge that distance education institutions prepare study materials suitable for self-learning. These materials (be they print based or electronic materials, experimental kits, study guides or whatever) are prepared following standard rules and regulation and quality control procedures to ensure their relevance, quality and usability.
  2. Processes – the processes we are concerned with are those of educational dispensation, i.e. delivery of materials and learner support through the postal system, broadcasts, on-line and/or face-to-face tutorials/counselling, and a strong provision for intensive didactic-communication through the mechanism of assignments and assignment-responses. Here too the processes are to be obtained in accordance with the set regulations that pay focused attention to the concerns of quality and learner satisfaction.
  • Outcomes – they refer to the graduates who obtain qualifications through ODL.

Their quality as graduates is ensured through a rigorous evaluation system that comprises internal (formative) and external (summative) assessment. Having outlined, briefly though, the quality assurance system in place for distance education institutions, it is the human factor that emerges to be of utmost importance in maintaining quality in the system. If the people involved in maintaining quality at various stages of the operation ignore their remit, sure quality will be compromised. And that is no different in the full-time educational systems – it is not unknown that some teachers do not take classes regularly, do not come prepared to their classes and so on.

What would you consider some of the major achievements of IGNOU during your tenure?

I am of firm belief that success of Open Universities like IGNOU greatly depends upon how effective their delivery mechanism is. For IGNOU, delivery mechanism meant a network of Regional and Study Centres. I paid a lot of attention to strengthen this network. Every week, I used to have 2-3 hours interaction with them through video conferencing. I owe my achievements (if any) to this network spread across the country. Briefly some of achievements during my short tenure were:

The enrolment figures for January and July, 2014 admission cycles crossed 7,22,000 both through fresh and re-registration, which itself was a record. It gave boost to our financial strength.

IGNOU took up the task of training about 24,000 in-service teachers for the Kendriya Vidhyalaya Sanghatan (KVS) and about 36,538 teachers from 5 North East States and signed MOU’s with State Government of Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram, Sikkim and Tripura.

Significant initiatives were undertaken in tribal regions of the country such as in Gadchiroli by our Nagpur Regional Centre towards employability of IGNOU students. A 100 % placement was achieved in January, 2014 for 48 10th-pass Tribal students of Gadchiroli at District General Hospital, who underwent six months IGNOU Certificate in Home Based Health Care (CHBHC) course introduced in July, 2013.

IGNOU has 94 special study Centres in Jails. Thirty-four of them were added during 2012-14. IGNOU is perhaps the only University in the world which has extensive programmes of education and training for Jail inmates free of cost. For the first time IGNOU was able to generate enrolment of more than 200 rural students in district Khandwa for Certificate in Food and Nutrition (CFN)/DNHE Programmes. There is a particular village called “Singot” from where IGNOU got an enrolment of 50 students (mostly girls) for our Certificate in Food & Nutrition (CFN) programme.

IGNOU started working on its flagship undergraduate programme (B.A. /B.Com) to blend its curriculum with skill-based component so that along with graduation, the students can have some skill competency certification to enhance their employability in line with Prime Minister’s initiative.

What does future hold for this system?

Open and Distance Learning has a great potential provided it is properly understood, and ODL interventions are meticulously conceived and planned. It is most important that those who are engaged in planning, management and implementation of ODL educational interventions do have conceptual clarity about Open and Distance Learning. Currently ODL is at crossroads partly because of the situation created by Covid-19 lockdown of educational institutions and partly due to lack of conceptual clarity about ODL and other online learning modes. It seems that Covid-19 has changed education for ever. It is, therefore, necessary that:

The Government revisits its policies pertaining to educational goals particularly relevant enabling policies in relation to the use of ICT technologies for educational purposes;

The regulatory bodies like UGC, AICTE and others also need to revisit their mission and reshape regulatory guidelines;

Educational Institutions both national and state Open Universities need to reorganise their operations and application of technologies in the process of learning and teaching, keeping in view Cognitive development; Importantly, teachers in general and ODL teachers in particular need to be reoriented in planning and management of learning and teaching processes based on emerging technology enhanced didactic transactions;

It is important that accountability parameters are kept in place both for the faculty and supporting divisions;

There is an urgent need to enter professional domains aggressively, such as teacher training, at a large scale;

Open and distance learning has tremendous potential to democratise higher education. It needs to be recognised and encouraged as an effective alternate mechanism by the policy planners.

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