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“Distance education is economically viable though the standard of education provided by open universities is as good as that provided by conventional universities.”

Prof. Amarjit Singh Narang,
Professor of Political Science, (IGNOU)

Distance education has a tremendous future

Enrollment in Open and Distance Learning (ODL) is growing by the day. The growth of ODL can be gauged from the fact that contribution of ODL in enrollment in the IXth Plan was 16%, while it has gone up to 24% in the initial period of the Xth Plan. As the number of students opting for ODL continues to swell, Bhuwan Sharma and Himanshu Kumar Singh of Amity EduMedia caught up with Professor Amarjit Singh Narang of Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) for a discussion on the pros, cons, future, et al of ODL.  

Besides being a Professor of Political Science, Amarjit Singh Narang is well-known for his widely-sold book “Indian Government and Politics,” which has been of tremendous help to university students. His other books include “Ethnic Identities and Federalism” and “Storm over Sutlej: The Akali Politics.” Professor Narang who is on the verge of publishing yet another book titled “Minorities and Police in India” is also the immediate- past Registrar (Administration) of IGNOU.

Here are the excerpts from the discussion: 

There is still a stigma attached to distance education. The job market is more comfortable recruiting students educated in conventional colleges/institutes. What can be done to make distance learning more acceptable?

First, our mindset that classroom teaching is the best is flawed. We continue to live with the misconception that when students are directly taught by the teachers, they get better opportunities.

Second, we make another cardinal mistake by equating distance education with correspondence courses. One must understand that there is a lot of difference between traditional correspondence courses and open universities or distance learning. Students opting for correspondence courses are sent some study materials, which again is sub-standard because the whole idea is to be cost-effective. Correspondence courses are part and parcel of established universities.

Distance education is provided by full-fledged independent universities. Any university worth the name of an Open University or distance university must have multi-media facilities. And, in fact, by using these technologies, particularly audio-video, radio and television, teachers can and do provide classes to the students. Once the misconception that ODL is nothing but simply a correspondence course is removed from the minds of the people, people will more readily accept it. It’s true that students mostly do not have direct contact with the students but there is virtual contact through the media. Having said so, I must add that open universities like IGNOU also ensures that there is direct interaction between the students and their teachers in their study centres where they can meet every week.

Can you highlight some of the pluses of distance education?

First, admission is flexible. We do not discriminate on the basis of the marks scored by a student in his last examination.

Secondly, open universities do not restrict a student from taking admission on the basis of his/her age.

Third, you can choose your timing. You can continue your job and study at the same time. It provides flexibility with regard to the number of years in which you can complete the course that you have opted for. For example, in IGNOU you are free to complete a three-year course in 5 to 6 years.

Fourth, is it is economically viable though the standard of education provided by open universities is as good as that provided by conventional universities.

Fifth, distance education is an alternative to those who live in a geographically challenged area. There are people in India or in many other countries who live in areas from where the university or a college is quite far.

Also, professions are getting extremely competitive, so you have to upgrade your skills continuously, but you can’t leave your job and do the same. Distance education gives you the option of doing both the things at the same time. Of course, having said that all, let me make it clear that distance education is not an alternative but an addition. It does not mean that conventional education is rejected. Students are free to join conventional colleges/institutes.  

And what are the drawbacks? What can be done to make distance learning more credible and popular?  

Some of the universities, both private and public, have taken distance education as a means of earning money, which is very unfortunate. To earn money, they start distance education without caring for proper standards, both in providing print material as well as other facilities vis-à-vis TV, radio, et al. This creates a problem. Students are deprived from availing standard education.

There are universities that are basically not meant for such type of courses. They are set-up with a certain purpose and target but they begin offering distance education for making money. Another drawback of distance education is that in the absence of a teacher many students do not fare well. There are students who need teachers to constantly motivate them.

That brings us to another question. As you know, part of the traditional college experience, of course, is the beauty of the campus; the college spirit. Can distance education ever evolve to compensate for the experience?

Yes, by all means. Let me give you the example of IGNOU. In IGNOU we have done two things. One: We have established study centres all over India. These study centres are generally located in already established colleges. Here students CANgo, except for a few courses (where it is compulsory). Students are welcome on weekends and we engage reasonably qualified teachers from that college or from other areas. So they can go there and talk with the teachers and other students.

At IGNOU, we also have the facility of live tele-conferencing. Through live tele-conferencing we can bring the best of the teachers available in India for our students. Students all over India can not only watch him but can also interact with him.  

Figures show that though India produces a stunning 2.5 million university graduates each year, nearly half of them are unsuitable for employment. What role can distance learning play to correct the discrepancy between the demand for quality manpower and its shortage?

This is a broad question and is not solely related to ODL. First, all human developments reports have made it very clear that any type of education is an investment. This holds particularly true for countries of South Asia, including India, where enrollment in higher education is still insignificant. Not even ten percent students from the age-group that should be availing higher education do that. This is one side of the question.

Secondly, there are people being produced and they are unemployed. So there is a problem in the type of education imparted and the relationship between the job and education. What distance education can do is to introduce certain vocational courses in certain areas. For example, IGNOU has successfully run courses on computer education. What distance education can do is help working people to continuously refine their skills.

The problem is a bigger one. We have to identify the type of jobs that are available in the market and develop courses accordingly. It is also important to develop a sense of dignity of labor. For example, in India, no one wants to be a bus driver because the job is looked down upon whereas a person doing the same job abroad commands the same respect as any white-collar job. All that ODL can do is to help provide vocational education at a cheaper rate.

Last but not the least, what is your take on the future of distance education?

In fact, there is future only for distance education, not only in India but even in developed Western countries. What I am trying to suggest is that in the present process of the so-called globalization, states are not in a mood to spend much money on higher education. They are directing their energy on privatization and spending less money on higher education. So, universities are getting costlier, therefore compared to establishing a new conventional university you can set-up a distance university at a much cheaper rate. Also, as a result of the development in technology, students are getting education right at home and they don’t mind it.

Third, as I told you, with the fast process of technological development, people in jobs are feeling a constant need to upgrade their skills. Herein comes the role of distance education. So distance education has an enormous future, enormous potential for growth but, at the end, I must again say that growth should not come at the cost of quality and services.

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