With just over two months since he became head of the country’s largest open and distance learning university, Professor Ravindra Kumar has grand plans for the varsity, its learners and teachers. A historian with keen interest in distance education besides Indian culture, heritage, art and architecture, Professor Kumar has worked with the Indira Gandhi National Open University for 22 years. He shares his vision for the varsity with HT Education. Excerpts from an interview.
What is the state of open and distance education in India?
Open learning in India today occupies a very important place in providing quality education in the tertiary sector. The standardisation of textbooks, called self-learning material (SLM) in open education parlance, has made a significant and far-reaching impact on the teaching-learning process in the country. Everyone concerned about the state of education in India today must appreciate that the SLM has become a game-changer in higher education. It has democratised education by making available quality learning material (of the same type and standard) across geographical places and diverse demographics, diminishing social and economic barriers and physical distances. Moreover, the SLM is always in the public domain for rigorous examination as its quality distance education courses are popular and in demand because of their “open” nature, flexibility and outreach. Ignou marks its presence in all parts of India, including the far flung areas of Ladakh, Port Blair, Kavaratti and Kutch. Ignou today accounts for a sizeable proportion of the total student enrolment in the higher education sector. Steady growth in student enrolment in Ignou is primarily due to the flexibility available to the learner in choosing her/his own convenient time for learning against the rigid and often inconvenient teaching schedule observed by the conventional higher education institutes. Additionally, the learner is offered a wide array of programmes, areas and subjects to choose from and enhance her/his learning experience with the use of technology and ancillary educational resources and tools of competency enhancement.
How do you see the demand for open and distance courses in India?
I see a great future for the open learning system, especially in India. The system is not a competitor for the conventional classroom model of teaching-learning transaction. The truth is that all have to co-exist and serve the tertiary sector given the enormous and ever-increasing size of student population. Thus everyone has a reasonably good opportunity to expand and serve higher education; and everyone’s future depends on the quality and acceptability of their SLM/teaching. It is quite clear that scores of conventional universities are in poor shape today and are finding it extremely difficult to sustain in the wake of the demand for quality teaching. The choices and options have undergone multi-fold expansion, making it possible for our new-age learners to make informed selections. The SLMs of open learning and ever-increasing use of newer ICT tools are making it possible to experiment with alternative strategies and innovative methods swill definitely meet the newer demands of these learners.
Do you think only those who don’t qualify the cut-off lists in various colleges opt for a distance learning degree?
The notions such as “cut-off” and “drop-out” are illustrative of the colonial mindset. Our conventional set-up is rigid and static - fixed class timings, compulsion to cover course in given hours of classroom teaching and almost complete inability to revisit the classroom exchanges for someone not able to attend a class for any reason. Why should terms such as “drop-outs” become the norm? They are the underprivileged ones and deprived in many ways. We at Ignou and at other open universities open a window of opportunity to them by minimising, if not completely doing away with these. This is reflective in the socio-economic profile of the ODL learners and the enrolment pattern of Ignou. Delhi-NCR, Odisha, West Bengal, Bihar, J&K, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Kerala and the North-East states are significant contributors to the enrolment of Ignou. Also, what makes open learning so popular in the country is its accessibility, affordability, flexibility and multi-modal approach of student support services starting with quality oriented study materials, face to face counselling, TV/radio support and facility for appearing in the exam on pan-India geography twice in a year.
What are the disadvantages of a distance learning degree according to you?
It is ironical that its acceptability as compared to that of the conventional mode education is still low. Regulatory bodies like the University Grants Commission, All-India Council for Technical Education and National Council for Teacher Education etc need to play a vital role by unambiguously declaring the parity between open learning and conventional classroom degrees. They must also to let recruitment agencies understand the nuances of ODL and declare it at par with the conventional mode qualifications.
What are the pros of a distance learning qualification for students?
The greatest advantage is its flexibility. You can study while you are employed, ie you can enhance your qualification without compromising or giving up on your profession or formal career. This facility is not provided by conventional institutions. The learner can start at any stage, even after retirement, or as in the case of housewives along with their social and family commitments. The best part of distance education is that it gives an opportunity to get back to your studies even after long breaks.