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Blazing a trail in open education

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The Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) is expanding its horizons. Led by its vice-chancellor V. N. Rajasekharan Pillai, the university has embarked on an ambitious plan to diversify its academic programmes as part of the major changes happening in the open education system. In an exclusive interview to The Hindu-EducationPlus, Prof. Pillai elaborates on the new initiatives of the university while stating that ‘brand IGNOU' embodies the hope and aspirations of several lakhs of people across the globe today.

IGNOU is completing its silver jubilee in November. Could you review its objectives and the extent of realisation of these goals during these years?

IGNOU's founding principles were social inclusion, democratisation of education and training, advancement and dissemination of learning and knowledge by a diversity of means.

Open university and distance education systems suiting the educational pattern of the country were the main approaches suggested in the original objectives.

In line with these objectives, IGNOU has provided education, training and upgraded the knowledge skills for largest segments of population particularly the disadvantaged sections of the society and those living in remote and rural areas including working people, housewives, disabled, and adults during the last 25 years.

Starting with 2, 000 students in 1985, the university has an active enrolment of over three million active learners on the rolls, in addition to over 1.2 million who have already benefited out of the IGNOU system through these years. UNESCO has recognised IGNOU as the world's largest university in terms of student numbers and the Director General of UNESCO, Mrs. Irina Bokova, in the IGNOU Silver Jubilee lecture, described it as a “living embodiment of inclusive knowledge societies in a globalised world.”

By occupying almost 20 per cent of the higher education space in the country with its 61 regional centres and 3,300 study centres, IGNOU played a very important role in reducing disparities in education by extending opportunities to villages and remote areas.

The university has generated a movement that impelled people of all kinds to knowledge and skills.

What are the major changes happening in the open university system globally, and how are IGNOU and distance education institutes in the country responding to these global challenges?

A paradigm shift in the open university system world over is that the system is not just giving opportunities for getting a university degree to those who cannot go to regular full-time conventional degree.

While continuing to cater for this purpose, the major emphasis is now on work-integrated learning or corporate learning and community learning, skill development and certification of different levels by innovative ways of networking and collaboration with the social sector, industry, and the corporate sector.

Keeping in view of the global changes happening in the ways and means by which knowledge and skills are being imparted, IGNOU has diversified its operations manifold recently.

In four years, we have added about 300 programmes more, now with the 415 academic programmes on offer. These include certificates, diplomas, advanced diplomas, associate degrees, degrees, postgraduate degrees, M.Phil. and doctoral programmes — durations varying from six months to five years.

Each programme consists of several courses, which are specific permutations and combinations of stand-alone independent modules. These modules are administered in the open and distance learning mode, e-learning mode, conventional classrooms teaching mode or by a judicious blending of these different learner-centric approaches.

We have also full-time regular postgraduate programmes in select subjects offered on the campus and certain regional centres.

There is lot of emphasis on advancement of research in the country. What are the initiatives being made by IGNOU in stepping up research?

IGNOU is heading for a paradigm shift in its research policy and research facilitation processes in the context of the global scenario of full-time research, part-time research and systemic research under the open university and distance education systems.

IGNOU has contributed significantly to educational technology, systemic research in ODL, learning management systems, satellite education, and ICT-enabled teaching and learning. A new scheme, the first of its kind in the country — the Research and Teaching Assistantship (RTA) — was introduced two years ago where full-time research in a domain area, along with development of teaching modules and teaching assistance activities, is taken up by young researchers under the supervision of a senior faculty member.

About 800 teachers and academics with Ph.D. and higher-level research qualifications are working in the university.

An exclusive research unit was created recently in the university to coordinate all these research activities.

Could you elaborate on the on-campus full-time programmes of IGNOU?

In an attempt to ensure maximum utilisation of the infrastructure and the vast experience of the large number of eminent academics, recently IGNOU started full time research, full-time postgraduate programmes in select specialised areas and programmes under the convergence scheme wherein the top-class facilities of the best higher education institutions in the country are availed of for undergraduate and postgraduate teaching.

The Research and Teaching Assistant Scholarship scheme has over 120 research scholars doing full-time research and teaching assistance.

The M. Phil. programmes and the rigorous course works, which are mandatory for the Ph.D. programmes, are also full-time campus teaching programmes.

Without compromising the original objectives and focus of the participating institutions, and ensuring quality, rigour and standards, new programmes and innovative strategies for providing relevant education and training need to be worked out. All over the world, universities including open universities are engaged in such practices effectively.

A country aspiring to enhance its gross enrolment ratio from 12 to 40 per cent in the next five years need to contextualise such processes and offer the best quality education to maximum number of students through its various universities.

From where will you draw the expertise for the new programmes? How do you rate the demand for such diverse programmes?

Let me start with the second part of the question. A ‘scientific need' analysis for starting a programme is a statutory obligation and has been a practice IGNOU has been following from the very inception.

At least four distinct phases are involved before a programme is cleared for launch by the academic council of the university — initiation of a concept note, a need analysis from the stakeholders and a market survey, design of a curricular framework for the courses/programmes, appointment of course writers for a definite period, scrutiny by the faculty in the discipline and the School of Studies' Board, Academic Planning Committee and Planning Board of the University and final consideration by the academic council.

The audio-video lessons will be prepared and then the programmes are announced after printing the self-learning materials.

It will take a minimum of six months and up to two years from the conception stage to the launch of the programme involving 10-50 highly qualified teachers from different institutions for each programme. We have now about 32 lakh active students, with an annual enrolment of about six lakh. We have now about 45 per cent of working and employed people. Work-integrated learning is a major focus of all our programmes. Women, including a major part of housewives, constitute about 40 per cent of the learners.

IGNOU has started centres recently in industrial establishments, medical colleges, engineering colleges, science and technology establishments, research and development centres and in a large number of NCTE-approved teacher training colleges.

The distance education system has been there in India for the last several years. But even now there is lack of recognition and acceptance of the system by the society, employer and the market. Is this not an issue of quality and standards?

Yes, there is an issue of proper recognition and acceptance of the system. It is not because of the system but because of the way in which certain institutions misuse the system.

This could be true of the conventional system of education as well. Distance Education or Open and Distance Learning today is a highly-evolved, scientifically-tested effective system of instructor-assisted, self-learning and technology-augmented system of self-learning.

Once such a system is effectively developed, it is cost-effective in delivery, it will provide quality education, and would provide the best option for scaling up with quality. The problems of non-recognition, inferior quality and lower standards arise when the course development, instructor assistance, student support systems, study material distribution are not happening systematically.


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