Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Commensalism in Open and Distance Education

The Open and Distance Education (ODE) system in India and elsewhere works as a system supported by the existing educational infrastructure of the country. The cost-effectiveness of the system is due to less investment by the ODE institutions in infrastructure development and dependency on the conventional educational institutions for organizing support services. From my experience, I tried to analyze the current practices in collaboration with various types of institutions by the National Open University in India.

The Study Centres of IGNOU, by and large, are in the conventional face-to-face institutions that provide a few rooms within their premises to run IGNOU activities. The head of the institution is provided with some remuneration, and all the staff members of the Study Centre are normally drawn from the host institutions, and are provided remuneration for the part-time services rendered. Besides, there are Programme Study Centres, where specific services are offered to IGNOU students and the host institutions are reimbursed on per student basis. The faculty strength of the University is less in comparison to the number of centres and the student strengths. The courses are developed with the support of University and College teachers in other institutions. Mostly, these teachers are experts in their specific areas and are considered national resource. In percentage terms a significant proportion of the learning materials are written by outside experts. They are also compensated for their efforts. The academic tutoring activities are taken place at the study centres, where approved academic counsellors provide subject-specific guidance and assess student assignments. The tutors are also drawn from the conventional system and are part-time staff. They are also separately compensated for the counselling and assessment of the student assignments.

As a student of Biology in my college days, I recall the relationships between living organisms and try to apply the same to the institutions that are live according to social systems theory. There are three types of relationships in the living organisms: Symbiotic, Parasitic, Commensalism.

A symbiotic relationship is one where both the organisms of different species mutually benefit from the relationship.

A relationship in commensalism category is one where two organisms remain together but only one benefits and the other is neither harmed nor helped.

A parasitic relationship is one where two unrelated organisms co-exist together, one benefits from the relationship, while the other is harmed.

What is the type of relationship in the inter-institutional relationship between IGNOU and the other institutions?

If we look at the study centres of IGNOU, what benefits the host organization receives from IGNOU? Virtually nothing. IGNOU is benefited tremendously through the support of its part-time staff. There is no mutual benefit, but there is also no harm to any party. Thus, we can categorise it as a case of commensalism. If we look at the process of course development at IGNOU, it is a mixed relationship ranging from symbiotic to parasitic. The course writers are paid for their efforts and they also get credits. The University gets the course developed at less time and cost involving only a few course coordinators. To this extent it is symbiotic. However, if we look into the amount of dependency on the conventional face-to-face system for course writing work, it is clear that the relationship is parasitic. The compensation given to the course writers are not adequate and timely. The University gets the bigger share, and sometimes runs a course/programme without having sufficient expertise. The University is at loss for not being able to develop its own expertise, and remain dependent on outside expert for a long time, making itself a parasite on the other system. One may argue that there is no loss/harm to the conventional system, and therefore there is no parasitic relationship.
In order to make a collaborative system work better and effectively, it is necessary that the inter-institutional relationship is symbiotic. Both the institutions should benefit from the relationship. If that does not happen, the system is only used to gain individual benefits. So far, we work on a system that behaves in a pattern of Commensalism.

Other Resources on Collboration:
Institutional Collaboration in Distance Education Development and Delivery
Collaboration in Distance Education

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