Building an online learner support system

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Dr. Vijay SP Srivastav

Head-Computer Division
Indira Gandhi National Open University, New Delhi Indira Gandhi National Open University is the largest university in the world today with more than 1.8 millions of students enrolled. There are more than thousand academic courses offered under the umbrella of about 140 academic programmes. Meeting the student requirements at such level is indeed a great challenge. Information prior to admission, admission details, SIM (Self Instruction Material) despatch details, examination date sheet, examination results, on line forms submission are some major requirements which IGNOU has to meet timely. Having perceived the demand, Computer Division at IGNOU started developing and putting online solutions through

Distance education was started in India in 1962 in the form of a pilot project through correspondence course in the University of Delhi. Having discussed at many forums through various committees, a recommendation was made to set up an “Open University”. The very first step towards this was made in 1982 by Government of Andhra Pradesh, one of the States in India, by setting up an open university to strengthen non-formal education in the state and to provide access to higher education to the adult population of the State. The model chosen was that of the British Open University.

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Soon, Govt. of India decided to have an Open University at national level and a bill was moved in the Parliament to set up Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU). The bill addressed education for all, life long education, weaker and disadvantaged section of the nation. As the result, IGNOU, which is one of the most popular and pioneer open institution in the world, was set up on September 20, 1985 by an Act of Parliament. It combines in it the functions of a regular university and a national body to promote, coordinate and determine the standards of distance education in the country. With the evolution of new methodologies in imparting education and aid to both learners and the teachers distance education is proving to be boon in providing access to the spatially and geographically disadvantaged.

To promote education at state levels there are about 14 state level open universities. Distance Education Institutions (DEI) which offer courses in dual mode of educational delivery has grown from one in 1962 to 132 in 2007. The programmes on offer cover all from certificate to doctoral degree. To take care of the need of further marginalised group National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS) has been in existence with state level branches. All the distance education programmes in India are promoted and maintained for their standards by Distance Education Council. It was established by IGNOU in 1992 with unique mandate to focus its role as an apex body of distance education in India. It supports State Open Universities (SOUs) and Correspondence Course Institutions (CCIs). Programmes offered by CCIs are through the dual mode universities and they impart education through correspondence/ distance mode. Under the Convergence plan efforts are being made to achieve more and more educational requirement goals under joint collaboration of conventional and distance mode of imparting education.

Courses and Programmes

IGNOU academic programmes on offer vary from community based short term to doctoral level. They cover a wide spectrum, starting from awareness courses, say, on Internet and eMailing or a course on office automation tool. Other programmes are related to certificate, PG certificate, diploma, advance diploma, PG diploma, bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D. degree. Course design and development procedures are rigorous, based on the principles of good practices in curriculum development and Self Instructional Material (SIM) design. In order to accomplish the mammoth task it utilises the expertise available in-house and with international and national institutions and non-government organisations in the team approach. The programmes are developed for the various fields to cover learners from rural and tribal areas, disability groups, jails and rehabilitation houses, government and non-government sectors, parents and home-makers, employers and the employed. IGNOU offers today a total of about 140 academic programmes, altogether offering about 1050 courses. The remarkable achievement in students’ enrolment and their interest is not only because of one reason. While the IGNOU programmes are seen to be popular and attractive for all in the country, the course delivery and services to student through IGNOU site are equally found to be contributing multi fold. This happens because of innovations almost in all respect for better and better delivery and support. With the objective of making the course delivery at the door-steps all efforts are put in to facilitate the students through IGNOU website for static and dynamic information.

Services to Students

An open and distance delivery system has a number of activities required to be performed, like Admission, Academic courseware production and distribution, Pre Examination, Performance Evaluation, Post Examination, Multimedia production and Communication facilities.When planning about technology for distance education we must keep in mind that the distance learners need clear goals and objectives. Websites and on line service deliveries must be congruent with the course and course goals

The very first requirement is that of bridging the gap of distance between learner, teacher, and the service provider. Once student takes admission, then making available SIMs to the right address at the right time, that is, well before conducting the counseling session is the next challenge. Bringing out regular updated SIMs, Multimedia CD’s, web contents etc. are another challenges need to be addressed time and again for updating the materials. Target group may not have access to library system, whether online or offline in their neighborhood. Hence SIMs have to be self-explanatory and presented in concise and precise manner.

Performance evaluation in terms of assignments and examinations are required to be carried out in each semester (term end). Evaluation activities, as such, are further required to be met. Preparing for appearing examination (pre-examination) invites requirements like : getting registered for those many courses in that particular semester, submission of examination form for writing examinations for the courses (at most) registered for, preparation of Examination hall ticket/Admit card and making the same available to eligible students, apart from other administrative and monitoring reports for arranging examination halls and preparing hall wise list of students/invigilators/assistants and so on. Once the evaluation of examination papers has been accomplished, it requires to prepare the result, semester wise and comprehensive, and then informing students through post or through web site. Further preparing convocation list, and for others like list of awardees etc. may be required towards post-examination activities. Meta data maintenance has to be sufficient enough for meeting all kind of requirements including management reports for day wise operations, MIS and others for the apex body at the top management level in terms of strategic reports.

Communicating with students is yet another aspect to be met preferably, through e-Communication. Addressing general queries, timely feed back, and communication with students/teachers/coordinators/service providers and so on using the state-of-the-art technology in terms of e-Communication, tele/video/radio conferencing should have sufficient coverage for effective delivery. Hence, virtual campus setting up, their running, maintenance and management has to be efficient and effective enough to interact with students, time and again for occasional address, orientation, and imparting education in ODL.

Student Support through IGNOU Website

Regional Centres, Study Centres, and Tele Learning Centres all over India and in other countries come together through Internet using web based applications running at IGNOU headquarters in New Delhi. As stated above, both static and dynamic information are made available with frequent updating of the site. After the students are admitted at the country wide Regional Centres, they are allotted Study Centre in their neighborhood at the nearest location of their residential addresses given while applying for admission

As in other ODL institutions, IGNOU students admitted are from various background – some may be working on transferable job, some with parent’s transferable job, some may be female students married while pursuing the course and so on. Hence there is requirement of “address changes” around the year. Similarly when Term End Examination (TEE), at the end of each semester, is held in June and December every year, results are required to be put at IGNOU site so that students could know about their performance from any where they have access of Internet. Prior to conduct of the TEE Hall Ticket, for appearing in the examination, is required to be made available online. Input to the Hall Ticket comes from the earlier submitted Examination Form, provision for which has also been made through the IGNOU site with payment gateway, apart from off line submission of the form. Comprehensive Grade Card, which reflects all the courses in terms of marks/grade obtained by individual, is also required to be made available through IGNOU web site.

Similarly when Entrance Tests are conducted, as the pre requisite for taking admission in some IGNOU’s programmes like: Management Programme, Bachelor in Education, Bachelor in Nautical Science and so on, then, respective results are required to be put on site. Other applications through virtual data base which are required to be put on IGNOU website are study material dispatch status, final certificate/diploma/degree dispatch details (if not collected in person on the convocation day) and notifications on various schedules like: Practical examination, TEE, TV channels , Radio Counseling,  Edusat programmes apart from other which are required to be provided, now and then, for the benefit of students and also for those who wish to be IGNOU students.

Having seen the enormous requirement towards student support services as above IGNOU developed the very first application for the comprehensive “Grade Card” and “Address Checking”. The response in terms of access to IGNOU site was overwhelming. Demand started pouring in for further coverage in terms of wider applications for student support services. The next application in this internet based virtual data base approach was declaring the semester wise “Term End Examination Result”. This had further better response through the website hits.

Today, applications corresponding to all requirements as enumerated broadly in previous paragraph are available on line. This has resulted in great demand of frequent updating which takes place almost daily. Once the data is available from Service Divisions, they are prepared and uploaded, in most of the cases, on the same day. The IT Division runs all seven days a week. A tour to IGNOU website will enrich with all such facilities being delivered online. The latest additions are online examination form submission with payment gateway, online grievances redressal, alumni details, and additional information (eMail, Mobile number etc.) submission through Further, online admission with payment gateway is targeted from July 2008. For the forthcoming term end examination to be held in June 2008, a total of 93357 forms have been received online.

Metadata is maintained separately for Student Support Services in Microsoft environment. Integrated modules talk to each other for data sharing. Application servers are maintained and populated by in house team. There is a separate in house team responsible for maintaining and managing browser/mail/DNS/Web and other project related servers.
To have integration at the organisational level covering all processes, IGNOU has started implementing ERP modules. To cover such functionalities it has started from back offices automation which is targeted for implementation by October 2008. Further processes are under study for integration and incorporation to have integrated management solution through a world class data centre and storage system at Computer Division in headquarters.

Advantages of virtual data bases and Internet applications can be planned and worked out for bringing more and more facilities to ODL learners and making the delivery system friendly, in time, and demanding. When planning about technology for distance education we must keep in mind that the distance learners need clear goals and objectives. Websites and on line service deliveries must be congruent with the course and course goals. Such services must be prompt enough in responding to all queries. System design, as such, must be exhaustive to accommodate total and prime requirements with enriched metadata. Alternate solution for the system, proper and sufficient manpower support, adherence to time frame are some of the vital issues which require attention of one and all in providing support services. System should be flexible enough to meet the demand based requirements from learners for delivery, answering to queries keeping in mind the various needs and motivations for enrolling in distance education.

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