Report on Open Distance Learning in India

The following is a brief summary of the Madhava Menon report on ODL in India titled “Report of the Committee to Suggest Measures to Regulate the Standards of Education Being Imparted through Distance Mode“. The report was released in 2010 it seems.

The report defines Open Distance Learning (ODL) as a term that encompasses the “open” and “distance”. “Open” means to the committee:

  • the removal of constraints of face to face conventional classroom method
  • flexibility for students who need an alternative to the conventional system
  • scale with equality

The term “Distance” means to the committee:

  • teacher and student have a space and time division/distance
  • “also involves e-learning, open learning, flexible learning, on-line learning, resource-based learning, technology-mediated learning etc.”

By this interpretation, ODL in India should be:

  • Asynchronous (time separation)
  • Either correspondence (print) based or self paced learning, but no blend with physical face to face modes
  • At par or better quality than conventional learning
  • Automatically equally accessible

The definition conflicts with reality (we are employing synchronous learning, we do contact mode blends, quality of eLearning and correspondence is questionable, infrastructure and other constraints come in the way of accessibility) and I think more of an emphasis should be placed on what these terms mean. In fact, the report goes on later to state that conventional and distance modes should be blended.

In this report, it seems that their conception is that the Distance Education model has evolved from the stage of “print material oriented correspondence education” to “the stage of self-instructional packages with an integrated multi-media approach, and incorporation of interactive communication technologies, leading towards building of virtual learning”.

The failure to appreciate the nuances of open-ness and “distance”, especially in a networked, digital world, show downstream in almost all of our policy documents and vision statements. In fact, the term “social media” or the term “Web 2.0” fails to find a mention in the report.

The report starts with a statistical picture of Higher Ed in India including stats on ODL from 2009. The statistics show:

  • Amazing growth in numbers (quoting the UGC [University Grants Commission] Annual Report 2008-09) since Independence
  • 3.6 mn learners in ODL, as compared to 13.6 mn in traditional HE; Technical and professional courses account for about 10%; About a half in undergraduate programmes, a third in certificate programs
  • About twice the percentage of students enrolled in post-graduate programs in ODL as compared to traditional HE
  • Apparently, the decision to allow Open Universities to enrol M.Phil/Ph.D. registrations was only taken in July 2011 subject to an 11-point criteria list (which I have not been able to locate yet).
  • We will need USD 200 bn to ramp up capacity in traditional infrastructure if we are to meet demand in the conventional manner – also a cogent argument for ODLs [there are about 200 ODL institutions in India today (intake 2 mn students) and 13 State Open Universities (SOU, intake 1.62mn students) apart from the largest one – Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU)]

The statistics are updated in the UGC Approach Paper for the 12th Five Year Plan.

The committee report also goes into some level of detail on:

  • Guidelines for student registration (Sec 4.6), Learner Support Services (Sec 4.7) and Assessment creation (Sec 4.8)
  • ICT use through radio, television, telephone, computer, Internet and satellite (Sec 4.8) [basically limited to an ancient understanding of today’s digital world]

In Technical/Professional Education in areas like Engineering, Pharmacy and Medicine, the estimated capacity is about 2 mn students. The report details the role and structure of AICTE and other bodies and outlines initiatives focused on the technical education domain.

Section 6 details the recommendations.

  1. Given the huge cost of setting up physical infrastructure for conventional HE, the committee recommends more effective utilization of resources (physical resources to be made available to ODL community in multipple “shifts”)
  2. Removal of barriers and institutional (AICTE, DEC and UGC) that exist today for more ODLIs to spring up, serving many more domains, is going to be critical. DEC could take the lead in specifying a clear and unambigous high quality approach and regulatory framework, but it is not a statutory body. Therfore, a new statutory body called the Distance Education Council of India, which would be an “independent and effective Regulatory Authority on Distance Education”, should be created. All authority should be devolved to this new body. “It will be the duty of the proposed DECI to ensure that the nomenclature of the degrees proposed to be awarded through such programmes are approved by the UGC, the institute has the requisite recognition from the respective regulatory authorities, viz AICTE, MCI, DCI, etc. for the regular course in conventional mode, it is affiliated to a university, it has developed the self learning material of desired standards, it has a credible system of counseling, evaluation of assignments and examination, it has the necessary infrastructure including laboratories, library, class rooms, etc. and qualified counselors as per the relevant norms.”
  3. Sec 6.14 (ODL in Conventional Universities) did not make sense. It attempts to restrict ODL departments in conventional universities from offering any program not offered conventionally, to stay geographically within their governing Act’s jurisdiction adn to not franchise learning centres to “private unorganized colleges or organizations” – the last perhaps would a death knell for organizations such as Sikkim Manipal University, as this would apply to State Universities as well.
  4. While talking about Open PhDs, the committee states, perhaps very impactfully since UGC reversed it in 2011, “UGC’s decision not to permit Ph.D programme through distance education mode may be reviewed in the light of the National Policy on Education”.
  5. The DECI will not territorially limit programs that are totally online
  6. Perhaps the most interesting recommendation is on the equivalence of degree (albeit with a qualifying suffix – “through distance mode”) between conventional and ODL.
  7. The DECI is conceived of as being managed by the UGC and later subsumed into whatever overarching body the (proposed) NCHER bill brings in.

Summary

Reading this report leaves me fairly bewildered. I must apologise if I hurt any sentiments (as I know I will), but here goes.

First of all, we are saying that we really do not know what we are doing. With such an impressive state machinery, millions of committees and years of experience, we still do not know.

The second thing I understand is that we are not willing to learn. If one structure fails, we will create another bigger one to supersede it. Whatever happens in the world is not important, so long as we have not thought of it.

Thirdly, we will not allow others to learn. By perpetuating systems like these and holding these confabulations behind closed doors with the merry pretence of consultation with stakeholders, we will systematically eradicate the ability to learn in others. We shall perpetuate mediocrity in our thinking on education.

Fourthly, we will waste time in writing (and having others read) voluminous reports and recommendations that repeat facts figures and assertions made in numerous other reports.

My Recommendations

In order to really meet our ODL challenges in an equitable and accessible manner, my recommendations are the following:

  1. Invest in enabling infrastructure so that digital technology and communications reaches every corner of India in affordable ways.
  2. Invest in cutting edge online techniques and research that will help meet our challenges
  3. Invest in creating and aggregating Open Content and tools
  4. Invest in building talent in Education effectively (maybe an Indian Educational Services without the bureaucratic trappings)
  5. Invest in building local, national and global communities and guilds that will build up expertise, generate employability and shape research for India
  6. Invest in data and learning analytics
  7. Deregulate the entire sector with the power to audit and shut down (if required) low quality providers or by imposing severe penalties of non-performance; regulate empirically rather than by design
  8. Focus government (yours and mine) funds in areas and sectors that have inadequate or none private focus (over time build these areas and sectors so that they start becoming self-sufficient)
  9. Educate consumers and give them adequate redress mechanisms
  10. Become open – don’t just solicit opinion from the same people, but actively reach out to community stakeholders and build the network
  11. Reward innovation and community contributions

Lastly. Get serious. There is enough talent and intellectual depth in India to solve our problems. Leverage that.

2 thoughts on “Report on Open Distance Learning in India

Add yours

  1. Well Distance learning is booming all over the world and a country like India should invest in this to equip its peoples with more knowledge in this busy era where every one is busy and have less time to attend any classes.

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  2. Almost 11 million students pass the class XII exams annually in India. But there are only 5 million seats available for these students in the regular conventional classes. Herein lies the importance of ODL for the 6 million students for an access to higher education. Further, there are many class XI and class XII drop-outs who could not complete even class XII! So many women have to be married off early without getting educated. Many have discontinued due to financial constraints. There are differently-abled and jail inmates who want to have access to higher education. Old men and women too have interest on education. ODL is meant for all these people.

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