Open learning is an umbrella term for any scheme of education that seeks to remove all barriers to learning. With open learning, individuals have flexibility and responsibility for what they learn, how they learn, where they learn and how quickly they learn. Distance Learning is one form of Open Learning in which the learners and tutors are separated by geographical distance. In Distance Learning, various modes like online learning, video conferencing, e-mail etc. are used to access education. Open and Distance Learning (ODL) has been envisaged as an instrument to extend education to those who couldn’t complete their education due to any restrictions.
The idea of Open University (OU) was first mooted by J.C Stobart, an educationist in 1926 while advocating for a ‘Wireless University’. World’s first OU was established in the United Kingdom in 1969 and India was one of the first countries to launch a discussion after its establishment. The idea was first evoked by V.K.R.V Rao, the then education minister in a seminar and recommendations for the same were made by the Parthasarathy committee in 1975. The national-level debate on OUs sparked a conversation in the states as well. Andhra Pradesh made rigorous efforts to establish the first OU in India-which translated into reality on 26th August 1982 in the form of Andhra Pradesh Open University, now called Dr. B.R Ambedkar Open University (BRAOU). With this, the national level deliberations intensified and birthed the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) on 20th September 1985 through IGNOU Act, 1985. This Act also made IGNOU an apex body which regulated and controlled all OU related matters through the Distance Education Council (DEC). This was followed by the inception of several OUs at the state level. According to All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) 2018-19, distant enrolment makes 10.62% of the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER), out of which 44.15% are women. Apart from 1 Central OU, there are 14 State OUs, 1 Private State OU and 110 dual mode universities. A comparison of distance and conventional system shows that while the former system engages 53% students, the latter engages 47% of them.
Since 2012, Distance Education Bureau (DEB) under University Grants Commission (UGC) is the regulatory body for distance education in India which determines standards, provides funds and promotes distance education. IGNOU is the pioneer of ODL in India and the structure, governance style of other OUs is broadly similar to it; based on self-governing corporate structures functioning on democratic principles. IGNOU, through its dual role was first conceived as an instrument to democratise education by making it accessible to the remote students. IGNOU degrees received UGC recognition in 1992 and in 1993, the Commonwealth of Learning (COL) recognised it as the 1st Centre of Excellence for Distance Education, empowering it to lead and nurture all ODL initiatives in the Commonwealth. The only government participation in the OUs is through the Visitor in IGNOU (President of India) and Chancellors (Governors) in State universities who enjoy over-arching powers like appointing the Vice-Chancellors. The important policy making bodies are called Authorities and include Board of Management, Academic Council, Planning Board, School Boards and the Research Council. There are also various Divisions, Centres and Cells which deal with the logistics, placements etc. The OUs also have several Regional and Study Centres, with extensive resource banks to extend the reach of ODL to remote and far-flung areas.
Organisational Structure of IGNOU
Distance Education (DE) gives a second chance to the people who couldn’t continue in the formal system and to the professionals who want to polish their skills without leaving their jobs. This way, ODL provides opportunities to young, old, specially- abled, disadvantaged and marginalised groups of learners without discrimination on the basis of age, sex, caste, space, time or income. Being a major contributor to GER, it has become integral to achieve 50% GER by 2030 as targeted by the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 and reduce the skill gap in the country. Flexibility, affordability and time-efficiency are the three pillars of DE. ODL adds to the individual’s skill bank at an unbeatable speed by allowing them to pursue 2 degrees simultaneously. The percentage of women studying in ODL mode is a testament to its role in women’s empowerment. In backgrounds where girls’ education is compromised due to economic constraints as well as due to their productive and reproductive roles, women are able to manage their education through ODL. It not only equips them with vocational skills for instant employability, but also makes them aware of their legal rights and allows them to become financially independent in future. In addition, it’s an option worth considering for those living in conflict zones and difficult terrains. The success of ODL system in levelling differences of the social order spoke through numbers in an analysis of enrolment data where the number of SC and ST learners in IGNOU had risen by 248% and 172% respectively, between 2010 and 2018.
Despite all these victories, the ODL system still faces prominent challenges in India. One of the major issues why people avoid opting for ODL is because of unending confusion about recognition and accreditation. There are a lot of disclosures that need to be scrutinised before enrolment which makes the entire process very tedious. The lack of clearly stated guidelines on accreditation and recognition has led to the blossoming of many fake and unrecognised universities which offer courses strictly prohibited under the ODL system. As a consequence, unaware students graduate with meaningless degrees which lead them to a future practically doomed. The derecognition of Karnataka State Open University by UGC in 2015 due to violation of ODL directives is a popular narration of the distress and uncertainty its graduates had to face for the years to come. Lack of societal acceptance is another reason for ODL’s mediocre reputation. ODL graduates aren’t considered to be at par with regular graduates, despite degree equivalence when it comes to recruitment because they have low employability skills.
The biggest challenge ODL faces, is technology. Universities like IGNOU have brilliant interfaces like educational satellites, mobile applications, digital repository, T.V channels, online discussion forums and online courses. However, all of these are handicapped with network restrictions and no electricity, thus limiting their reach. In the current context, NEP 2020 plans an overhaul of the ODL system through expansion and quality improvement. However, no concrete plan or scheme is given for the same. It proposes to allow universities sans prior experience to conduct ODL and online courses in a bid to achieve its 50% GER target by 2030. But the lack of experience will lead to deterioration of quality, performance and increase the risk for follies in a system which is already endangered by a colossal cash crunch.
A very common question prodding ODL’s success is whether it can be ever equated with the formal system. Well, the fact that many leading universities are offering courses in DE mode and are offering the same degree that they award to other students indicates that the academic community has largely come to accept the equivalence of ODL with formal education. Here, it is essential to focus on the primary stakeholders. ODL may not be the right choice for a regular student from a privileged background or for students who require special attention and proper classroom environment. It can never replace the formal setup or compensate for the personal bond between students and teachers, on-campus experiences and its associated psychological effects on learning. However, it has been devised to provide learning opportunities to those who wouldn’t have any otherwise, the number of which is quite large in our country. To solve the recognition and accreditation woes, government needs to spell policies clearly so that the learners can verify their universities properly. To diversify reach, every state and UT needs to establish an OU at the earliest. Since website is the face and most important asset of any OU, adequate investment needs to be made to achieve user-friendliness and efficiency. To stay afloat in the game, universities have to focus on strengthening their social media presence and use their platforms to promote ODL, online courses and platforms like Study Webs of Active-Learning for Young Aspiring Minds (SWAYAM). The regional centres should take it upon themselves to ensure inclusivity by bringing beggars, labourers, migrants, sex workers, transgender community and more women under the ambit of ODL through scholarships and other incentives. Under proactive leadership, these centres should also organise seminars and other events to increase the engagement among peers. Most significantly, the content quality needs to be upscaled by leveraging latest technologies like artificial intelligence, innovative pedagogical principles with teacher autonomy and curriculum flexibility should be introduced and different learning styles like live discussions, simulated and asynchronous learning need to be incorporated. Inclusion of employability skills in the curriculum and collaboration with the industry for work experience is a must. Wherever possible, work-from-home internships should be incorporated in courses. To solve the network issue, OUs need to explore offline teaching solutions and actively engage with the government to extend the network cover to the entire country. The gap between DE and regular education can be bridged by inter-institutional dialogues and mobility. This will allow learners to interact with and learn through the experience of others. Apart from this, there are a couple of things we can learn from foreign universities offering DE like hassle-free admission procedures, well-planned courses, tailoring of courses with student’s interest and advanced research opportunities and infrastructure. While institutions shouldn’t be allowed to offer distance courses without experience, those willing should get their staff trained in facilitating DE which should then be approved by government. Before opening admissions to the general public, in-house students should be encouraged to take up online courses as a pilot project. Lastly, the government’s reverence towards ODL should reflect in its actions; it needs to lay down a pragmatic plan of action for the development of ODL in addition to allotment of reasonable funds. Circumstances like these, call for a National ODL Policy. OUs act as an equaliser of opportunities and the Coronavirus pandemic, by taking everything online, has further levelled the field for both the systems of education wherein people are actually warming up to the idea of distance education.
Akshita is an undergraduate student at Jesus and Mary College, University of Delhi who is very enthusiastic about the policy domain and aspires to be a bureaucrat.