Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Virtual Open University of Orissa

From November 24-26, 2007 I attended the 13th Annual Conference of the Indian Distance Education Association (IDEA) at Bhubaneswar, Orissa, India. The Directorate of Distance and Continuing Education (DDCE), Utkal University, Bhubanesar organized the conference. Bhubaneswar is a city of temples that houses numerous monuments of the era of King Ashoka. The Khandagiri and Udayagiri caves, Sun temple of Konark, Sri Jagannath temple of Puri, and Chilka Lake are also some of the important places adjoining the capital city of Orissa, which is also one of the modern planned cities of the Independent India. The conference timing was also during the Puri Beach Festival organized to promote tourism in the state. The weather was good, and the atmosphere right for academic deliberations (See Orissa tourism site for more info on tourist interest in Orissa).

The host, Utkal University, is one of the oldest universities in the country and first university of Orissa, was established in 1943. With a sprawling campus of more than 400 acres of land, and 28 postgraduate teaching departments, the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC), Bangalore accredited the University with B++ Grade in 2004. The University Evening College established in 1962 was converted into Directorate of Correspondence Courses in 1975, which in 1996 changed to DDCE. It offers a wide range of programmes at graduate and postgraduate levels in both liberal and professional areas.

Prof. V.N. Rajasekharan Pillai, Vice Chancellor of Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) and Chiarman, Distance Educaiton Council (DEC) inaugurated the conference on 24th November 2007. Dr. R. Sreedhar, Director of the Commonwealth Educational Media Centre for Asia (CEMCA), New Delhi delivered the Prof. G. Ram Reddy Memorial Lecture. On the first day of the conference there was a session on “Open and Distance Learning in Orissa and Orissa State Open University”. Prof. Susmit Pani, Director, DDCE, Utkal University presented a theme paper and emphasized the need to have Open University in Orissa to promote ‘Open Education’. On the invitation of the organizers, I served as a discussant and panelist to comment and reflect on the thematic presentation. I would like to share my views here with a wider audience on the topic.

Prof. Pani deserves to be congratulated by all to have brought a much forgotten dimension in his theme paper -- the issue of open education in open universities. While there are large number of dropouts at the school level and +2 level, and in most degree colleges a large numbers of seats are vacant, there is still need for having Open University in Orissa. Prof. Pani also deliberated on the models that could be followed to start such an initiative, and gave the example of Karnataka State Open University, and Tamilnadu State Open University as examples. However, he probably favoured that the Orissa State Open University may be started by converting the existing DDCE into a full-fledged university and by merging the distance education activities of other universities in Orissa. Interestingly, except Utkal University, other DDCE do not have full-time staff.

The Orissa State Open University (OSOU), if at all comes up, would have the distinction of being the University with longest time in making! In fact, on the invitation of the Govt. of Orissa, A team led by Prof. Ram Takwale, the then Vice Chancellor of Orissa prepared the blueprint in 1997. It is now more than 10 years that the University is still being discussed! That blueprint may not work for Orissa now, but what is important is --providing better access to educational opportunities to the people of Orissa. The biggest problem in the state is high dropout rate in schools and colleges. The unsuccessful may be given a second chance through appropriate open educational opportunities. In fact, Open Universities, as the name suggest should have programmes that offer open learning opportunities. Interestingly, Open Universities in the country are closed with so many rigidities of the face-to-face teaching universities. Any new Open University in Orissa should have more of open learning opportunities – provide access to the disadvantaged, economically poor, marginalized groups, school dropouts; and also improve the quality of education through the rightful use of educational technologies. Therefore, in the new ever-changing societal environment, it is important to re-think Open University in Orissa. A conventional Open University may not be sustainable in the state without closing down other so-called distance education provisions. This is a difficult concept, as other universities may not like to forgo their revenue-generating unit. With Orissa being a leader in technology use (Country’s first Cable Internet was probably available in Bhubaneswar), is appropriate to advocate for an Open University that is virtual in nature and operates heavily on technology and through collaborations of existing institutions.

The Virtual Open University of Orissa (VOUO) would be successful, if it is more open and offer programmes across boundaries through e-learning mode. The University should be a facilitating agency to provide e-learning opportunities to the existing institutions, and collaborate with them to offer its programmes, besides planning for more open learning, vocational courses and programmes for the needy and poor. In order to develop a learning society, we need educational institutions that promote and foster open learning, and it is in this direction all concerned must think of Orissa Open University as a platform to provide open education. However, there is always the question of Govt. funding and whether the state Govt. can start another university with low funding. The VOUO may be started as a new Public Private Partnership (PPP) model, and being technology-driven many private agencies would be interested to join hands with the Govt. to start a new enterprise that can change the educational landscape of Orissa and may be the whole of the Nation. However, it is important that this should happen as fast as possible.

Postscript: While in Orissa, I had the opportunity to reflect on the distance education development in the province. The three old universities (Utkal, Berhampur, and Samblapur) and the two new universities (Fakir Mohan, and North Orissa) are having distance education units as Directorate of Distance and Continuing Education (DDCE). This gives some non-traditional opportunities to these universities to provide some interesting educational provisions that can’t be explained by conventional knowledge of distance education. The students of DDCE, Utkal University are mostly young and fresher. Number of seats is fixed, and they do not have study centres. They have outsourced some of the study material development to private publishers. On the other hand, DDCE, Sambalpur University has tied-up with a private agency to provide all its educational services and only acts a curriculum setting and certifying agency. The programmes on offer are called off-campus programmes and thus, classes are held in study centers regularly. The Fakir Mohan Univesity has acquired some of the materials of IGNOU to kick-start their programmes, but are also in the process of developing their own courses and programmes by involving subject matter experts and distance education specialists. They have been conducting workshops on distance education regularly, and are more serious about quality of educational materials.

These practices are quite different than what is considered to be a true distance education provider. The use of ‘continuing education’ in their nomenclature enables these institutions to offer ‘off-campus’, ‘evening’ face-to-face teaching and learning. The current text-book knowledge about distance education would reject all these as probably something other than distance education. However, these educational offerings are meant to increase access to education. Quality may be questioned, but who cares as long as Universities operate these under their legal framework, and as long as Distance Education Council certifies them. There are more inside stories that need critical examination in Orissa, whether it is outsourcing of textbooks from private publishers or making whole educational offering through a private partner. Intellectuals of the state need to think on the current practices, and take decisions that are in the best interest of the State, Nation, and the Learning Society.

The intention in this postscript is not to be judgmental, but to be reflective. Readers are welcome to share their views further to debate on the current developments in the state of distance education in Orissa.

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