VOL XLII NO 31

New Delhi, July24, 2004

Distance

Education

in

Delhi

University

The Great Academic Divide
V.P.Jain
Introduction

It is admission time in Delhi University (DU), and the annual scrabble for university places has started. The DU’s regular courses’ seat strength of about 43,000 would leave out twice as many disappointed. This residual will be pushed to what is, euphemistically, called the non-formal stream, the School of Correspondence Courses (renamed as the School of Open Learning) admitting the bulk of them. In fact, the total intake in the School would be more than the enrollment in all the colleges taken together, that is, more than fifty thousand. It would be worthwhile to ponder over their fate. First the profile: The beginning in Distance Education in the country was made with the establishment of the School of Correspondence Courses, in Delhi University, as a pilot project in 1962. Soon, the initiative was replicated all over the country: Institutions of distance learning mushroomed in every State, and a milestone was created with the opening of the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU)

In

the year 1985. It is an irony that while the latecomers in the field have graduated into faculties and universities, the School which was a pioneering institution of its kind has been languishing for want of adequate institutional support. The institution is no more than an “academic parking lot” for the surplus students: the university officials have been more than content only to use it as a buffer to absorb the pressure of thousands of admission-seekers every year who fail to get admission in the regular stream in the colleges. With swarms of students, and no worthwhile academic package and virtually no facilities, the institution has earned the dubious distinction of being termed as an ‘academic slum’. Contrary to the propaganda to paint the School as a shining institution (see School Newsletter), the overall dimensions of the brutal exclusion of the students from the mainstream education in the university are quite staggering.

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Course Options The students of the School are discriminated against with respect to the range of courses and subject options. The School offers only BA (P), B.Com (P) and three Honours courses at the undergraduate level, namely, English (H), Political Science (H) and B.Com (H) for a student population of more than one lakh. The subject options in BA (P), which accounts for the bulk of enrollment, is limited only to half-a-dozen or so of outdated and outmoded courses, from a pool of well over fifty programmes (traditional and job oriented) available in the formal stream (see DU Information Bulletin). Ever since the School was started in 1962, not a single department in the university (there are more than eighty) has cared to design and develop a new curriculum, especially for the students of the School. Such is the deep-seated bias against the distance mode that most of the departments have even refused to extend their routine courses, for example, Sociology, Psychology, Philosophy, just to name a few, to the students of the School. Twenty job oriented courses are available in the formal stream, but only one in the School. No science courses are offered. It is a pity that the IGNOU, which started much later in the field of distance education, offers a wide spectrum of courses (more than seventy) in science, social science, humanities and ICT, while Delhi University is quite content to be a laggard. A law must be enacted to make it mandatory for all the departments to extend all their courses for the students of the non-formal stream also. Decentralisation The School has on its rolls one-and-a-half lakh students, and they are squeezed into a college structure which was designed to accommodate a maximum of only ten thousand students. A regional centre was opened in South Delhi at Moti Bagh, way back in the 1970s, to cope with the situation. That was the beginning and end of the decentralisation process, even though it has

been a constant refrain: various committees (for example, the Panchapakesan Committee way back in 1996-97) have drawn up plans, N number of times, to set up regional centres earlier also (and accepted by the Executive Council and Academic Council). Once again, the AC has reaffirmed its faith in the proposal, in the recently adopted ordinance to rename the SCC as the School of Open Learning (SOL). But when it comes to implementing the proposal, we are suddenly gripped by the procrasti-nation psychosis, and every VC has, at least so far, left it to his successor to accomplish the task. We sincerely hope that the present regime (which has, of course, already completed four years of its five-year tenure) would be able to come out of the ‘do-loop’ and save the chaotic situation that continues to deepen with more and more students huddled into the non-formal stream every year. Imagine the plight of one-and-a-lakh students who are required to commute long distances to the School, even for petty academic and administrative work. One often witnesses mile long queues at the various counters and nobody to help the harassed lot. Self-Study Centres The success of Britain’s Open University, as well as the IGNOU, owes much to the network of self-study centres. The IGNOU, for example, is serviced by an efficient and effective networking of more than 25 regional centres and more than 500 study centres all over India. The Open Campus (approved by the AC and EC) has been designed to organised itself with a chain of self-study centres, spread all over the city, with elaborate paraphernalia as learning support system: a decent library (both printed and electronic study material), audio-visual teaching aids, computer network and tutors. It is an irony that the university has not bothered to open a single such centre so far. The self-study centres can be located in various colleges of the university. The

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sharing of the infrastructure between the regular students of the colleges and the students of the Open Campus (that includes the School of Open Learning) can be worked out in an optimal manner to the advantage of both. The campus can finance creation of the necessary infrastructure, both hardware and software and networking requirements. The willing teaching faculty of the colleges can be associated with the academic programmes of the Campus as an adjunct faculty: to develop new courses, participate in personal contact programmes, organise practical classes for science based courses and help the Campus students as tutors in the self-study centres. The selfstudy centres will be integrated with the Open Campus by computer network and will have the facility to download study material of choice, fortified with self-help on-line collaborative tutorial systems. Faculty-support System The faculty-support system of counselling (the primary job of the faculty in the School) was done away with in the last academic session. The academic schedule of the teaching faculty was neither prepared nor notified to the students. Every college in the university implemented the teaching schedule last year, as per the directions of the Academic Reforms Committee, on the first working day after the vacations, that is, on July 16 itself. The other student support system, namely, the student response sheet (SRS feed-back mechanism) has virtually ceased to exist, and no attempt has been made to revive it. The study material also continues to be prepared in the old fashioned non-interactive mode. No systematic study has ever been made to study the staffing pattern in the School, which is highly asymmetrical. In a set-up where the economies of scale are positive, the large number of students enrolled should be a boon. Of the thirteen departments, five departments are one-member faculties. The Department of Education, for example,

which has a lone member, has been on leave for more than six years, and yet the Department functions (or does not function) as well as other departments. It is unbelievable that, till date, the School, an institution of distance learning, does not have a website of its own, even though several colleges in the formal sector have launched the facility already. A School web-site (scc-col.netfirms.com) was launched last year, at the personal initiative taken by some faculty members, to demonstrate how simple the task is. Thousands of queries from students are received everyday, in the sub-domain of the university computer centre, which remain unanswered. The School continues to observe a five-day week, in open defiance of the university directive to reschedule it to a six-day week. The Staff Council of the School was not convened to constitute the mandatory Academic Supervisory Committee to monitor all academic programmes in the School. Finance Distance education is cost effective in various ways. Distance learning often operates at more efficient teacher/student ratio. The School has a teaching faculty of about sixty for a student population of oneand-a-half lakh. Several studies have established that the unit cost in distance education is distinctly lower than in the conventional mode. On an average, the financial deficit per college is estimated to be of the order of five to six crores of rupees per year. The total deficit for all the colleges in the university comes to more than five hundred crores per year. In sharp contrast to this, the estimated deficit for the School, which caters to more students than the combined strength of all the colleges taken together, is no more than the average of only one college (that is, six crores). The UGC has declined to meet even this small deficit which is negligible (a few hundred rupees per student per year).

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Privatisation of Education The MC of the School, which is a nominated body of the university, does not have a single member from the area of distance education. What is more, the university has thought it fit to appoint a practicing CA (what are his credentials as an educationist, lesser still as an expert in distance education?) in the MC, even though the university Treasurer is an ex-officio member. As was apprehended the MC has already pushed the agenda of privatisation: one-and-a-half lakh marginalised students of the School have been forced to finance their own education to implement the “user pays principle” (Birla Ambani report) by resorting to unprecedented hike in the tuition fee (hundred per cent), while their elite counterparts in the colleges would continue to be subsidised to the tune of five hundred crores per year. Examination The examination system in the university has lost all the credibility it once enjoyed. The School has been forced to adopt the same format with disastrous consequences. One of the serious problems with the examination of the students of the School is the inordinate delay in the evaluation of the scripts and declaration of the results. Several computer based on-line examination modes are available and more can be developed for the students of the Open Campus. The university has introduced a system of internal evaluation as part of the examination reforms. However, the system has not been extended to the students of the School. The most sordid tale pertains to the failure to work out a mechanism for internal-evaluation for these students because there is no e-learning platform created, nor is there any attempt to do so. Consequently, the annual examination of the students of School was held as a separate entity, called category B, and they stand further segregated and downgraded, may be a prelude to awarding a separate degree.

Department of Distance Education The university operationalised the Department of Distance Education by appointing an OSD of the Department two years ago. However, the Department has ceased to be operative without assigning any reason. It is shocking that the Department of Distance Education, which is to play a pivotal role in furthering core competence in the area of distance education in the university, should be put in a limbo in this fashion. The Department is expected to offer academic programmes leading to Certificates, Diplomas and Degrees in distance education. It is also designed to develop expertise to help produce courses for delivery through the distance education mode, and also to actively involve in research, training and extension education activities. It should be borne in mind that the Department of Distance Education is not an exclusive preserve of the Campus of Open Learning (as per the new ordinance), and is well within its rights to float its courses in the formal steam also (like the Department of Education). Similarly, all other Departments in the university (five have already done so) are expected to go online and offer their courses online, in the Campus of Open Learning. Post-Graduate Studies The VC appointed Director, Campus of Open Learning (COL) in the year 2002. With the appointment of the Director of the Campus of Open Learning, the third campus, as a virtual campus is supposed to have come into existence in the university. In contrast to the North and South Campuses, which specialise in the formal teaching mode, the Open Campus has a specific distance learning focus. All the departments in the university conduct postgraduate teaching, either in the North Campus, or in the South Campus, or in both. With the new dispensation, rationality demands that the Departments offering PG courses through distance mode organise

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their programmes in the newly created elearning space, that is, the Campus of Open Learning. The proposal to continue to use the School as a surrogate for the Campus of Open Learning for post-graduate teaching (where the courses taught are university level courses), is seriously flawed and, if implemented, will render the third campus superfluous, a self-defeating exercise. How long will the post-graduate students belonging to the distance education stream be used as guinea-pigs for the benefit of a faculty not considered upto the mark by the university (the AC and the EC have rejected the recommendation to accord departmental status to the School faculty)? It is pertinent to note that the students in the formal stream have the privilege to be taught by the Professor level faculty in the Departments, and thus, have an obvious advantage over the students of the nonformal stream. The basic idea of restructuring was precisely to assimilate these underprivileged students also in the mainstream, by shifting all post-graduate teaching from the School to the concerned Departments in the new set-up of the university, within the institutional framework of the Campus of Open Learning, where it actually belongs. However, the distinguished teachers of the School can be associated with post-graduate teaching in the Departments as guest faculty, as part of cooperative teaching in the university. The School, like any other college, should concentrate on undergraduate teaching. Campus of Open Learning In spite of all the media hype to convert the School into the Campus of Open Learning, a metaphorical conversion (the Campus of Open Learning is not an institution), which entailed a paradigm shift to make distance education integral to the university system as an all-embracing phenomenon, all that the university has succeeded in doing, perhaps taking its cue from Oscar Wild’s The Importance of being Ernest, is to re-christen the institution as the School of Open

Learning, a damp squib. The School of Open Learning would, in no sense, be a revamp, unless it is embedded in the elearning space, that is, the Campus of Open Learning, which as an alternative roadmap is designed to promote distance education in the university by rationalising the academic product portfolios. It is unfortunate that the university got embroiled in an unnecessary controversy regarding the imple-mentation of the Chandrashekhar Rao Committee report, a case of heightened expectations, which only served to obscure the substantive agenda, that is, the creation of the platform of distance (e-learning) education. Now, that the issue has been sorted out, all efforts should be made to commission the recently created computer network in the university, so promising a gift as the e-learning space, to further distance education in the university. The computer network as the virtual campus, with requisite support from various faculties, is precisely what would constitute the Campus of Open Learning. The Open Campus would organise on-line learning applications which would include delivery of course material and course modules, access to library collection and media archives, discussion groups and chat rooms, assignment submission and return system, and self-assessment tests as part of internal evaluation. The Campus of Open Learning, by drawing the best talents in the university, will innovate and design curricula, develop teaching methodologies and systems of evaluation for the students of the open campus as a special target group. The Campus would, thus, provide an open platform for shared academic activities in the domain of course design, instruction and evaluation, which would revitalise and stimulate an otherwise stagnating teaching and learning environment. The university, with the convergence of the formal and the non-formal system of education, will thus become a full-fledged dual mode institution. It is a pity that the Director, Campus of Open Learning was appointed two years ago, and also given a grant of rupees fifty

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lakhs, yet the ‘expression profile’ of the campus, a new education paradigm, is not visible. It is a pity that by not giving concrete shape to the Campus of Open Learning, we are missing a great opportunity to innovate and experiment, by adapting to meet the challenges of the new millennium. Extra-Curricular Activities The academic strides apart, high profile colleges make sure that their students are also well versed in various extra-curricular activities (ECA). From a broader perspective, the sustained success of these high ranking colleges can be attributed to their emphasis on all round personality development of their students, by enriching their cultural and emotional domains. Anybody heard of ECA for the students of the School? Of course, they don’t count: presumably, they are not going to assume leadership roles in society, so why bother? There are immense possibilities though: all kinds of online discussion groups and hobby groups and chat groups are proliferating all over the globe. Only if we take notice and give a helping hand. It, however, needs a different mind-set and a vision and commitment for the underprivileged, by providing a level playing field. It is sad that the School continues to be treated with disdain, and accorded stepmotherly treatment. For years no new course has been introduced, no new facility like the study centres created or regional centres added. It is not surprising that the School has the highest dropout/failure rate in the University. The university continues to pursue policies of exclusion so far as the students of the non-formal stream are concerned. All the reforms enacted so far, be it innovative courses, examination reforms,

extra-curricular activities, remain confined to the students of the formal sector only. Conclusion Given the elite character of the university, the resistance to accord a fair deal to thousands of segregated, marginalised students is understandable: the restructuring of the School as the Campus of Open Learning is an initiative, essentially, in the direction of social re-engineering. Most of the students of the School come from marginalised and socially disadvantaged sections of the society, the poorest social strata accounting for the bulk of the enrollment. The egalitarian conception, that everyone has a right to an education appropriate to one’s potential, and that every institution must offer students, from rich and poor families alike, the chance to realise it fully, is the only democratic standard. If, however, distance education technology is to be used only as a pretence to let thousands of marginalised students to merely exercise their democratic rights to higher education, whatever it may mean, as appears to be the case in Delhi University, one has to seriously ponder over its legitimacy. The university then must exercise its right to reinterpret to block or even to turn aside, such an exclusionist policy direction (namely, the Model Act) by asserting its academic autonomy. The merit of any policy, including the policy of educaton, has to be judged by the 'Rawlsian Difference Principle' or the Gandhian dictum that requires maximising the advantage of the worst off, and not the already privileged. V.P.Jain Department of Economics,School of Open Learning, University of Delhi.

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