Friday, September 4, 2009

Policy on Distance Learning in Higher Education

My letter to the MHRD on the draft Policy issued for comments:

Dr. D.K. Paliwal
Deputy Educational Advisor (DL)
Ministry of Human Resource Development
Department of Higher Education
Room No. 325-C
Shastri Bhawan
New Delhi

Dear Sir,
This has reference to the Public Notice dated 28th August 2009 regarding “New Policy on Distance Learning in Higher Education”. While the attempt of the Ministry needs appreciation, I would like to submit before you some points for kind consideration of the intelligentsia of the Country so that we are able to create a knowledge society that recognizes the importance of 'learning' and for that matter Life Long Learning through Distance Education (DE).

Let me first appreciate the good work done so far. Probably for the first time in India, a policy statement on open and distance learning in higher education sector has been placed before the public for discussion. This is a bold attempt to admit past mistakes, rectify the errors committed, and willingness to improve and promote DE as a mode and discipline as recommended by the National Knowledge Commission. It is not possible for the Country to meet the challenges resulting out of the commitment towards Universalisation of Secondary Education, if we do not strengthen the DE systems of the country. Towards this, the policy clearly emphasizes the significance of distance education. The emphasis of use of ICT, research in Open and Distance Learning (ODL) and training programmes on ODL for teachers and administrators should be appreciated and implemented carefully.

The quality concerns on 7 (d) is really good as most institutions (including Open Universities) consider distance education as something in which with least investment can receive higher returns! Insisting on having full-time appointed faculty before starting any programme should help establish credibility of a programme, and this is something that should be insisted upon.

As mentioned in 7 (c), franchising of distance education by Universities should be stopped. It is where most distance education institutes and Open Universities, without proper quality checks join hands with private/less quality (private is not always less quality) institutions to offer programmes in the name of Private-Public Partnership (PPP) though a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) making it a perfect understanding to earn revenue from student fees. So, all the Open Universities and Distance Education Institutes offering programme through such MoUs and not having their own investments in the Study Centres should immediately be stopped.

Now, some suggestions and concerns.

  1. That the policy should emphasize the significance of distance education for fostering a knowledge society by encouraging life long learning.
  2. That the policy be re-named as “Open, Distance and Online Learning in Higher Education”.
  3. That the emergence of National Commission on Higher Education and Research (to be established) would call for amendment to IGNOU Act 1985, especially the role assigned to IGNOU for maintenance of standards in distance education systems. It is appropriate that the nature of IGNOU (as a single mode distance teaching open university) may also be reviewed, as it has already started on-campus face-to-face programmes (which should fall under the approval of UCG). The IGNOU Act, Clause 4 emphasizes that IGNOU should in spirit be a University that uses various communication technologies to deliver instructions. So, in the light of the new Commission coming up, it is imperative that the IGNOU Act be amended suitably and its nature be clarified. Moreover, the DEC of IGNOU will have no role after the new Commission is established. Till then the modalities suggested are good to streamline operations.
  4. That distance education will not be permissible in programmes having “extensive practical course work” is something of a major concern. What is meant by the phrase – extensive practical course work? Do we as a nation want our disadvantaged students to learn only Social Science and Humanities through DE? Do we believe that Science and Engineering subjects can't be taught through DE? This calls for a change in the mindset and understanding about DE and instructional design as such. Distance education can and should provide sufficient practical opportunities necessary for achievement of learning outcomes of a course/programme. If a programme that requires practical and does not have adequate provisions for the same in its design then that programme should be stopped. There are laboratories in colleges, universities and research institutions all over the country that are not utilized during week-ends, holidays and vacation period, and why can't we utilize such opportunities to provide practical experiences to DE students? Why can't Open Universities establish centralized/regional labs as done by the Dr. B.R. Ambedkar Open University? Let's all of us think -- What we want? Do we want quality education of all types for all or just one type of education for the large segments of population and another for the elite? My humble submission is that all kinds of programme should be allowed through distance education, provided the programme design adheres to the basic professional requirements of the programme and addresses the competence framework specified by the quality assurance agency ( what ever that may be).
  5. It is also not understood why exemption is being given for the time being to Universities offering programmes before 1991 and established before 1985. Quality is a matter of process and attitude and not age of the institution. Earlier established institutions do not necessarily follow the quality benchmarks, and therefore, everyone should be treated equal. We should not create different types of institutions within the system and thereby create confusion in the minds of the students.
  6. The point 7 (ix) is going to create hardship to the students who have already undergone a programme of study some years back. The suggestion of one chance appearance in another examination is probably not well thought out, and it is submitted that its operational mechanisms may be considered before the policy is finalized.

The above submissions are made before the Ministry for its kind consideration as a concerned Citizen of the country and as a professional practitioner of distance education and educational technology. Views expressed are personal and have nothing to do with the official position of the undersigned.

With regards,

Yours sincerely,

Sanjaya Mishra
Reader in Distance Education
Maidan Garhi
New Delhi 110068