Distance education: A lonely endeavour

| | in Oped

Given the many merits of distance education, which helps develop a learning society, it is disheartening that institutions have have been directionless in providing quality education. It is time to bridge the gap in distance learning

Distance education was born in Europe but flourished mostly in Asian and African countries. This model of education is most suitable for the less privileged and the otherwise occupied. Working professionals, housewives and other groups find it most convenient as they don’t have to give up their work to pursue education. However, the success of learners depends upon how well the imparting institution supports them. Hence, the role of the institution becomes crucial. It is important to examine the performance of institutions and the system, as in the developing countries, a large number of learners opt for distance education.

Major distance education institutions in India are the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) in higher education and the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS) for pre-degree. Both institutions together cater to nearly six million learners from across the country and abroad. No other institution caters to as many learners as they do. The School of Open Learning of the Delhi University has more learners on its roll as compared to any other college of the Delhi University.

Most importantly, distance education provides flexible conditions for learning which is most suitable for the less privileged or one’s who are employed or those who lost the first opportunity to pursue education. A case in hand is the training of in-service untrained teachers in India.

Ever since the Right to Education Act was passed in 2009, we could train less than five lakh teachers in a period of five years; as a consequence we failed to fulfil the promise the Act made to make available a trained teacher for every class of 35 to 40 learners in primary schools. There was an estimated deficit of more than 11 lakh teachers in July this year. There was no way we could train so many teachers in a period of two years.

In August this year, the Ministry of Human Resource Development identified NIOS to undertake training of 15 lakh untrained in-service teachers against IGNOU, which is rightfully mandated to undertake the training for reasons well-known to the MHRD. IGNOU has a large teacher training department, whereas NIOS does not have great expertise in teacher training.  Nevertheless, the programme has already started showing positive response. We need to analyse the case with the objective to understand how institutions and systems stop delivering or become vibrant.

Distance education is capable of catering to large number of learners, so, the per head cost comes to much less as compared to traditional methods of classroom-based education. IGNOU was established after careful thinking and planning. It was given the mandate through an Act of Parliament to impart as well as maintain the quality of distance  education in the country. While it successfully delivered in the first two decades of its establishment, in the last 10 years or so, it failed to not only deliver but even maintain its image. The prestige its degrees and diplomas commanded earlier has been falling. Diploma in primary teacher education offered by IGNOU in the State of Bihar during 2007-09 was de-recognised by the National Council of Teacher education; the statutory body responsible for maintaining quality and standards in teacher education.

IGNOU and distance education are almost synonyms in the Indian context. Any analysis of distance education will most naturally converge into analysing IGNOU. It is different from any other university in the country as its budget does not come from the University Grants Commission (UGC), and, therefore, it has more autonomy than any other university in the country.

However, by some erroneous decision, the unit within IGNOU, which was responsible to enforce quality in the distance education system, the Distance Education Council (DEC), was shifted to the UGC. This was a violation of the IGNOU Act, which was passed by the Parliament, as IGNOU was given this responsibility through the Act.

The UGC has been averse to distance education. Somehow, the two systems, which were expected to work in tandem, came at loggerheads and since the DEC was shifted to the UGC, it has almost been defunct. UGC also does not have the expertise required to give leadership and direction to distance education. The massive network of distance education, which comprised of IGNOU and the State open Universities, besides the directorates of distance education of different universities, all got directionless.

The UGC has squarely failed in providing the leadership it was expected to give since the DEC was merged into it. Surprisingly, educational planners, who have all along been under pressure to increase seats in the higher education institutions, have not been able to focus on distance education. Distance open learning could, and has been accommodating large number of aspirants who are not desirous of pursuing full-time education but aspire to acquire higher degree.

IGNOU has gone into hibernation in the last couple of years. The vice chancellor was sent on leave towards the beginning of 2015 as he completely meshed up with the system and the institution and since then, the in-charge vice chancellors have not taken any initiative to serve the desirous learners. 

Institutions’ performance completely depends upon the leadership. IGNOU has been without a leader for very long. We cannot expect our institutions to perform without a visionary leader. Private partners are making efforts and are also performing better in many cases. If we do not rise to the occasion now, we may land up in a situation where giving a turnaround to the institution may not be possible at all.

(The writer is Chairman, National Institute of Open Schooling. Views expressed are personal).

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