When the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) was established in 1985, the prime objective of the legislature was to democratize higher education and provide educational opportunities to those who could not attend the conventional face-to-face institutions for various reasons. IGNOU was also mandated to promote distance education and maintain the quality of distance education in India. The IGNOU Act also emphasized that IGNOU will use innovative educational technologies to deliver its degrees. Open universities are also popular because of their cost-efficiency and cost-effectiveness due to economies of scale. It is also not possible for the public sector to establish large number of face-to-face institutions to meet the growing demands of the citizens, and therefore, promoted the establishment of single mode distance education universities. So far India has one national Open University and fourteen state open universities. Today the distance education system caters to over 25 percent of students in higher education. In order to accommodate the same number of students in face-to-face institutions, we need to create over 1000 universities. This emphasizes that the distance education system has both its political and economic place in our society. However, in spite of over 45 years of the existence of distance education and nearly 25 years of the national Open University, the quality of education in the distance education system is questioned. Sometimes, this is due to lack of awareness about the robustness of the educational practices in the Open Universities and sometimes due to the over zealous educational administrators who without caring for quality offer educational programmes through distance education. The distance education system needs to be strengthened at a time when there is a growing perception that without face-to-face interaction the quality of education suffers. Further adoption of new technology as envisaged in the IGNOU Act is the need of the hour.
While technology augmentation is underway, the IGNOU has suddenly decided to start face-to-face programmes on the Campus from July 2009. However, it may be quickly added that there are some highly technical programmes that are already offered through face-to-face mode in collaboration with other Government agencies (such as the Hotel Management and the Nautical Sciences). Interestingly, these programme were offered in collaboration with institutes that had no authority to grant degrees, and thus, they wanted IGNOU’s collaboration, and IGNOU had very little contribution in their design, development and delivery. IGNOU has not offered any sound reasons for starting face-to-face teaching, except that it says some form of face-to-face programmes are already in operation, and other Open Universities like Hong Kong Open University, Athabasca University, Canada and Open University, UK are also offering face-to-face programmes! Lack of sound academic rationale for starting face-to-face programme by IGNOU needs some clarification. The Govt. of India needs to explain to the nation its policies and priorities vis-à-vis distance education.
Without going into the context in which other open universities offer face-to-face programmes, it is important for IGNOU to think of its role and actions.
- If IGNOU’s role is to promote distance education, is it right to start face-to-face teaching and create two categories of students? Do starting of face-to-face programmes lead to promotion of distance education?
- Has IGNOU conducted any cost-analysis before starting face-to-face teaching? What has happened to the concept of ‘economies of scale’ and ‘cost-effectiveness’?
- Is the present staff strength in each faculty sufficient to conduct quality face-to-face teaching? Is there sufficient infrastructure in the University to conduct face-to-face programmes, such as hostels, laboratory, etc?
- How does IGNOU think to reach the un-reached through the face-to-face programmes?
Distance education is not averse to face-to-face teaching as long as it is used as one of the medium of teaching and learning and not the ‘sole’ mode of teaching and learning. So, face-to-face interaction is used in distance education as a support to enrich the learning experiences depending on the need of the subject and/or the need of the learner to have extra support. So, for having research degree programmes in face-to-face mode in Open Universities (which is usually happening else where), is natural as it is a specialized training not expected to have more number of students. But, to start master degree programmes face-to-face for only 20 students on campus is outcome of an elitist thinking that does not believe in democratization of higher education.
As a distance education professional engaged in research and training on distance education, I have been talking of the advantages of distance education for the last 15 years, and suddenly my own University starts face-to-face teaching. It not only leaves me thinking and searching for the justifications, but also gives me a sinking feeling. I ask to myself, is distance education dead? Is it not contemporary? I asked one of my colleagues what is your opinion on this issue? The reply was – at the time of convergence due to technology, there is a need to re-think distance education. Yes, there is a need to re-think. But, in which direction? The conventional universities are adopting technology to use e-learning (that provided flexible, open and distance learning opportunities). This is progressive thinking, as the emergence of technology has made it possible that the ‘distance’ could be next door, and interaction could be more than the classroom! We have always attributed face-to-face teaching as rigid and in-flexible system, yet, the University has decided to go dual mode. I wonder what kinds of technologies the University will use in the face-to-face classrooms to be innovative and reach more than 20 students. I am looking for a rationale for going dual mode, as a teacher of distance education. Maybe I get my answers soon, and I request readers to help me in my endeavors.
N.B. This is not a criticism, but a self-reflection of a distance education teacher.