Revamping distance learning

  • Open distance learning today can be a leading agent of knowledge generation and propagation

Nov 8, 2017-

There has been a large increase in the number of higher education institutions in India. Besides the number of national universities set up by the Government of India jumping from a mere 18 in 2004 to 46 in 2017, there has been a conspicuous mushrooming of state government (332), deemed (128) and private (216) universities across the country. But despite this, the density of higher education institutions in India is one of the lowest among middle income countries in the world. The gross enrolment ratio at the higher education level is still relatively low at less than 25. This is a negative score for a resurgent India, with its recommitment to becoming a leading agent of knowledge generation and propagation. India has one of the highest percentages of youth population, the fact that India has not been able to harness the demographic dividend actually could be attributed to both the thin spread of higher education facilities and also to their declining qualities.

Rising relevance

It is against this backdrop that the Open and Distance Learning (ODL) mode today is considered to be a critical intervention in terms of accessibility, affordability and quality.  Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) in New Delhi was set up with this vision in 1985. With over 200 academic programs, a network of 67 regional centres, over 2,600 study centres, and 29 overseas centres, today it serves over 3 million students in India and 40 other countries abroad. It is the world’s largest ODL based university. It triggered the idea of ODL among neighbouring countries, and those nations further away as well. No university or institution in India has as much reach in the poorest and remotest areas as IGNOU. But like many other higher education institutions, it is still not student-centric. It is not able to map a region and its communities in terms of their aspirations and needs. It randomly tracks a student from the time of enrolment to when they are awarded a degree.

IGNOU triggered a range of ODL based institutions across 29 states India. However, most of them, including IGNOU, face similar challenges. The major significant challenge lies in the question of how to bring ODL programmes imparted through the various open universities on par with the programmes and courses offered by reputed regular universities? Quality, employability and acceptability are three measurable indices. Many institutions both in public and private sectors still perceive that the degrees and products coming out of the ODL system are still not up to the mark. And many industries and institutions still do not recognise ODL based degrees.

This misperception is witnessed and recorded in various selection boards and is related to hiring a diverse set of professionals, such as university teachers, private sector managers and civil servants. These issues are also related to relatively lower gross enrolment ratios, accessibility and inclusiveness, and the more serious problem of gaps between what is produced and what is required. For instance, it was estimated that over 82 percent of the 18 to 23 age group did not have access to higher education a few years ago, when India needed at least 4.5 lakh full time scientists annually and the availability was hardly 1.5 lakh. There are thousands of vacancies for teaching and research positions across the country lying unattended as these institutions do not get the right people to fill in these positions.

Addressing issues

In the absence of a national regulatory and professional benchmarking authority, IGNOU itself for decades served as both stake holding university and regulatory authority. Though the University Grants Commission has now taken over the regulatory function, nothing transformative is on the horizon in terms of polices and strategies. The ODL institutions require a threefold strategy to jump start an easily accessible quality education.

First, there is a need for a collective and nationwide benchmark to ensure minimum quality in terms of materials, delivery, teaching, learning and, of course, accountability. In this game of quality management, a professionally robust and highly accountable regulatory authority could play a pivotal role.

Secondly, it is essential to redesign the programmes and courses so they are relevant to the communities and the people at large. Ways to link schools in the villages and mofussil towns with the university system should be explored. At the school level, there should be methods to nurture appreciation for interdisciplinary learning and field and community oriented courses.

And thirdly, there is a need to constantly compare these institutions, processes and products with the institutions that have a higher benchmark for quality, both in India and abroad. For this to happen, the basic approach would be to steadily improve the skills and training components of educational managers, faculty members and other essential constituents and stakeholders.

Another formidable challenge is to drastically transform the entire delivery system, including the modalities of enrolment, mode of teaching practices, degree of technological interventions and contents, infrastructural amenities and bottom to top feedback mechanisms. The basic question is to understand and appreciate the country’s diversity in terms of geography, community, history, culture, environment, economic laggardness and recognition of traditional skills. A huge portion of students are just first generation learners who need to be handled innovatively and delicately. This way a critical mass of informed, intelligent, forward looking youths could be generated at the village and community level. And they will be the actual agents of transformation. This is what Verghese Kurien did with the ‘Operation Flood’ project that transformed India from a deficit nation into one that is the world’s highest milk producing country. He created, celebrated and sustained this critical mass to take the mission forward.

Another challenge is to make the ODL system globally oriented. It will sharply enhance the level of competitiveness so that India can better compete globally. The ODL based higher education institutions could be a critical instrument of soft power politics at the global level. ODL instrumentalities could have a great impact on the conduct of foreign policy and could re-influence India’s traditional partners in South Asia, South East and East Asia, Middle East and of course in Africa and Latin American countries. This will also integrate the huge labour market in these countries to India’s labour supplies and help India reap the benefits of the demographic dividend.  For instance, among the huge aging population in Europe, the US, and Japan, the most conspicuous spurt in demand is that of nurses and health support. The demand is met mostly by Filipinos and others. Could a course like nursing and country specific language be fitted into the ODL network for young and culturally vibrant girls and boys to capture this market?

A conflict devastated country like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Myanmar would find the ODL devices to be the quickest and most sustainable means for their reconstruction projects. India has never entered and managed its neighbourhood through a potent and rewarding instrument like education and the ODL system. In today’s Africa, they need huge manpower to harness natural resources. The Chinese and the Europeans are there in a big way. How India can assist the Africans in the generation of skilled and capable manpower in ten different areas of natural resource management is the challenge and call of the day. The India-Africa Virtual University project launched a few years ago is a landmark initiative.

Lama, former Pro-Vice Chancellor and President of India’s Nominee in the Board of  Management of  IGNOU,  New Delhi, is presently a high end expert in the Institute of South Asian Studies, Sichuan University, China

Published: 08-11-2017 08:13

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