Thursday, April 19, 2007

Quality Assurance in Distance Education

I participated in a 2-day National Workshop-cum-Roundtable on Quality Assurance in Distance Education on 16-17 April 2007 organised by my institute. I served as a discussant in a session entitled "Towards Qulaity Assurance Mechanism", and presented my views in a short presentation entitled "TOWARDS A QUALITY ASSURANCE MECHANISM FOR DISTANCE EDUCATION: NEED FOR CLARITY AND CONSENSUS". Here follows the text:

Quality in open and distance learning has been a matter of concern from the beginning. This is particularly so, because of the need to have parity of the graduates of the two systems. Moreover, it emanates from the assumption that the face-to-face method of teaching-learning practiced in most of the institutions is of high quality, and this is the only way to provide quality education. There is also no definite clarity on the meaning and definition of quality, and its assurance. Quality in open and distance learning in India is a matter of IGNOU Act, and thus, within this framework, the Distance Education Council (DEC) was established in 1991. Ironically, the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC), which is the agency to assure quality in Higher Education in India was established in 1994. The NAAC now has a clear set of guidelines on method and criteria of assessment for the higher education system in India. The mechanism for the open and distance learning is still developing. This is probably due to two reasons: lack of Clarity and Consensus; and therefore the sub-title of my presentation. I would like to argue for having these two essential elements within any mechanism for the open and distance learning system. I propose some areas of concern that need clarity and consensus for deliberations in this Workshop-cum-Roundtable.

There seems to be confusion over the use of these two terms in practice. However, both have different meaning and connotation (see ):

Recognition: the explicit and formal acknowledgement of a government as stamp of approval
Accreditation: to certify (a school, college, or the like) as meeting all formal official requirements of academic excellence, curriculum, facilities, etc.

As for the academic process, recognition is given to an institution by virtue of the ‘legal process’ applicable in a country. According to the UGC Act, 1956 “22 (1) The right of conferring or granting degrees shall be exercised only by a University established or incorporated by or under a Central Act, a Provincial Act or a State Act or an institution deemed to be a University under section 3 or an institution specially empowered by an Act of Parliament to confer or grant degrees”. Thus all universities are recognized entity to award degrees. They need not seek recognition from another agency, unless otherwise, there is provision to the effect that education and training in specialized subject areas and/or methods be recognized by special agencies. For the open and distance learning, we are concerned with the mode of teaching, and thus, the IGNOU Act says “it shall be the duty of the University to take all such steps as it may deem fit for the promotion of the open university and distance education systems and for the determination of standards of teaching, evaluation and research in such systems, and for the purpose of performing this function, the University shall have such powers, including the power to allocate and disburse grants to Colleges, whether admitted to its privileges or not, or to any other university or institution of higher learning, as may be specified by the Statues”. This does not give any power to recognize or not any already recognized institution. However, the scope of the IGNOU Act for promotion and maintenance of standards of distance education system, cover any institution beyond recognized universities. Therefore, the mechanisms of accreditation should follow both ‘recognition’ and ‘accreditation’ approach – ‘accreditation’ for already recognized institutions of higher learning and ‘recognition’ and ‘accreditation’ for other institutions.

What should be the unit of assessment? The NAAC follows the institutional assessment practice, and also has provision for specific programme assessment. Other national agencies responsible for quality in various areas/ subject disciplines primarily focus on programme as the unit of assessment. However, the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) follows both institutional recognition and programme accreditation. In open and distance learning, this is a critical issue as in one institution, there may be different programmes of varying quality particularly because of the fact that distance learning is a method and technology dominated system. Ideally, the practice should be programme assessment in open and distance learning. However, institutional assessment can also be used particularly for institutions that are not within the UGC parameter.

What should be assessed? This is a bigger debate. What is a product in higher education is not clear. To many of us this approach itself is not acceptable as the term connotes the market driven approach to teaching and learning. Nevertheless, in open and distance learning, there are various products in the form of teaching-learning material in print, audio, video, multimedia, webpage, etc. These can be assessed for quality. However, the claimants of the process assessment emphasize that without a good process, we can’t have a good product. If we want a good product, then we should have good process in place. Thus, the process of quality assurance in practice in an institution should be subjected to assessment as in the case of the Australian Universities (see AUQA). The ISO 9000:2000 also is a model of quality assessment that ensures an ISO certified institution is able to meet the needs and demands of its customers in a planned and controlled manner. So, we can consider process quality as a means of assuring quality.

What should be the nature of quality assurance mechanism? Should it be voluntary or mandatory? The NAAC model is so far a voluntary approach. However, Govt. also wants it to be made mandatory. Ideally, the practice of quality assessment should be left to the consumers to decide, and therefore, a voluntary approach would lead to efforts towards quality improvement by open and distance learning institutions. Quality can’t be ensured by forcing institutions or programmes to be subjected to assessment. Quality is something that come from the within.

What should be the way to describe quality? There are various practices in India. Some follow a grading pattern, and others either accredited or not accredited type of categorization. A yes/no pattern is rigid in its depiction, and therefore, we may use a grading pattern. However, the grades should also have explicit descriptors to convey qualitative meaning.

It is important that we get into consensus in all these issues, and devise a systematic mechanism that can provide us a set of guidelines to undertake external monitoring of open and distance learning institutions in India. However, that does not preclude self study and continuous improvement model for quality assurance. I would like to emphasize at the end that educational institutions (including the national Open University) should be ethically and legally stopped from running courses and programmes in which they do not have core faculty. The use of teachers as ‘academic managers’ and hiring of part time consultants has been helping many to generate resources, but quality is definitely being compromised. There should be some minimum deterrence in this respect to ensure quality. Running a programme without core faculty in that domain knowledge is like ‘quack’ treating patients.

What I have presented above as ‘Versus’ actually demands that these be treated as ‘And’. In open and distance learning system, the mechanism of quality assurance in India should include recognition and accreditation, institutional and programme assessment, process as well as product assessment, voluntary and mandatory approach; and yes/no type accreditation followed by qualitative grading (if yes). The mechanism should be developed through a consensus approach after due deliberations at the national level.


Anonymous said...

I subscribe to the idea of accreditation but a different body from the existing body to come out with a grading system separate for ODL due to the uniqueness of the programm from the conventional system.

Anonymous said...

I do not see much difference between distance education and conventional except for the mode of instructional delivery. Therefore, the criteria for accreditation used for conventional education could be adopted for distance education by the same accreditation agency.This will reduce expenses on accreitation particularly in developing nations