The open and distance learning (ODL) system breaks barriers. No matter who you are, where you are based, what your previous credentials, and how you scored, a strong will and a bare minimum eligibility criterion can make you realise your dream of a higher education through this mode. You can be a dentist with a love for history, a software engineer enamoured by pottery, a housewife besotted with psychology, a media professional fascinated by heritage conservation, a young graduate craving for an MBA, a school drop-out or someone with no formal qualification. The open-learning system is indeed open – a short preparatory course can lift you onto the tertiary-level education universe.
Today, more than a third (30-40%) of the total 1.32 crore students pursuing higher education in India are studying through ODL - under the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), 14 state open universities and more than 200 dual-mode (which have both regular and distance-mode streams) universities and institutions.
There is a “huge demand” for open and distance courses in India, says Swaraj Basu, ex-director, Distance Education Council (DEC), which gives recognition to ODL institutions. The favourites are conventional subjects such as history, political science, English, BA and BCom, followed by education, management and computer science.
“The numbers (in enrolment) are increasing like anything,” says Basu. As programme coordinator for MA history at IGNOU, he saw the large number and diversityamong the takers. “Even doctors and engineers can join and do MA in history. You should be a graduate in any discipline. We have about 7,000 students per year for MA history. It’s the same in political science, sociology, public administration. There’s more demand in MA in English – about 10,000.”
Most non-regular students in the country go in for printed, self-learning material (the “foundation” of ODL in India) instead of opting for online courses, which still have much limited reach despite the government’s thrust on ICT. "Technology is helpful mainly in support services like getting assignments, information, online submission of forms, getting the admit card, and the result,” says Basu.
Another yet unaddressed area is quality and support services. While there are noteworthy examples of open and distance education institutions, the physical distance is irksome for many aspirants and students.
Basu says, “I think most try to maintain quality. There might be some aberrations. Quality is a big concern. A mechanism for quality regulation is yet to be ready.The process of evaluation of programme and accreditation (to be executed by DEC) is at the planning stages.”