Providing Seamless Access to Sustainable and Learner-Centric Education : Prof V N Rajasekharan Pillai, IGNOU, India

Prof V N Rajasekharan Pillai
Vice Chancellor, Indira Gandhi National Open University

How has the journey been so far since you joined the University? What were the challenges that you faced and the steps that you took to overcome the same?

When I joined the University, the number of students enrolled was around 1.2 million. The University has grown tremendously over the last 20 years. Expanding the services for students was one of the major concerns for the administration. Even though we had increased the number of services and programmes, the infrastructural facilities necessary for efficient student support services had been lacking.

One of the causes of concern was to ensure that the study material was dispatched to students on time. Therefore, decentralizing the distribution of study material through regional offices had to be done in order to make the system more efficient. This ensured that there was less number of delays and loss.

 Another challenge was that of providing access to opportunities for quality higher education. According to the recommendations of the National Knowledge Commission, Open Educational Resources and Open Access should be used as a means for radically increasing the widespread availability of high quality educational resources. Therefore, e-Gyan Kosh has been launched by IGNOU as a repository of learning resources.  It includes digitized and uploaded storage of over 95% of IGNOU’s self instructional print material.

Providing connectivity and technological support to all the study centres, including Internet connectivity, has been our initiatives towards strengthening the technological infrastructure.

IGNOU is now conducting examinations regularly in January and June and has arrangements for decentralized assessment and evaluation. We have expanded the number of evaluators and have included experienced teachers from across universities. We have tried to complete the evaluative work in two months and declare the results subsequently, thereby ensuring that the students get their exam results on time.

Another major issue was the submission of assignments. During the time that I joined, there was a decision to stop the process of submission of assignments. However, I have revived the process since assignments form an integral part of the student learning process.

 How do you see Open and Distance Learning as capturing the aspirations and needs of the rural  population and otherwise? How important is it to use ICTs for the ODL system?

The ODL system has proved to be beneficial not just for rural population alone, but also for those in the urban areas, the migrant population, the underprivileged, and those living in difficult terrains. Similarly, there are tremendous possibilities of satellite based education to resolve the problem of reaching out to those living in difficult terrains. Therefore, we are strengthening the capabilities of satellite based education.

Satellite based communication is going to play a significant role in distance education in India. It is particularly effective in reaching out to diverse populations spread over vast geographical dimensions. By making use of ICTs, it can be used in a variety of ways both for online and offline provision of resources. Besides providing conventional telecast of educational programmes and the live telecast of programmes with two way interaction, satellites can be used for carrying a rich mix of multi-media material and provide access to large databases, at very low costs.

There has been a concerted effort of strengthening the use of ICTs for ODL. With this objective in mind, the Advanced Centre for Informatics and Learning has been set up. The Centre aims at using ICTs for teacher education, skill development and development of subject based ICT pedagogy. Efforts are being made to decipher ways and means of improving the teaching learning process based on subject based ICT pedagogy.

For the first time in 2007, IGNOU started the Research and Teaching Assistantship (RTA) Scheme. Around 200 full time research scholars are working in the University under the programme. Several research studies  under the able guidance of University teachers have been brought out till date. The overall objective is to train more and more students in research and to develop subject based pedagogy. This will have a significant impact not only in the field of ODL but also in other areas of education.

Our endeavour has been to provide better learner services to the deprived and disadvantaged, particularly to those in accessible regions.

The Government came up with the budget with a clear emphasis on Higher Education, allotting a promising amount. What is your take on this? What are the key issues, according to you, which remain unaddressed as far as Higher Education is concerned?

The main objective of the 11th Plan (2007-2012) is expansion of enrollment in higher education with emphasis on inclusiveness, equality and relevant education. The 11th Plan has set a target of increasing the enrollment ratio from the current 11% to 15% by 2012. Gross Enrollment Ratio in higher education has to increase substantially by about 84 lakh students over a period of five years. It is estimated that ODL system will account for about 30% of the overall enrollment by the end of the 11th Plan period.

With the aim of addressing issues of access and equity in higher education, IGNOU has adopted the ‘Convergence Scheme’. This scheme creates convergence of Open and Distance Learning and Conventional Systems. It takes into account the need to interface with the conventional system, use innovative technologies and optimize the access to physical facilities, intellectual and knowledge resources in institutions to achieve its goals.

While IGNOU has over 2000 Learner Support Centres, the Scheme on Convergence has helped in creating synergies with well endowed colleges. This has resulted in qualified faculty and state of the art infrastructure  being made available to students, in addition to providing additional mentoring on a flexi time basis.

Lately, IGNOU has been aggressively getting into various collaborative initiatives. Under your leadership, IGNOU has been very successfully established and positioned itself as a very strong entity in the arena of higher education. Could you tell our readers about these new partnerships?

As an Open University,  we have to make use of the open, flexible and innovative practices in education. Many educational practices which caters to learner requirements have to be assimilated into the system. As an Open University, we do not  create the entire physical structure for classrooms. Therefore, collaborations with other universities and higher education institutes are important. Even the content for the system has been developed through effective and long standing collaborations with teachers from conventional systems.

Thus, collaborations are very essential for starting new programmes and sustaining existing programmes. It is also an economically viable model where the existing infrastructure have been used by the educational system for the benefit of the student community. We are also trying to optimally utilise the available services by roping in part time services of teachers, educators, content developers, examiners, and academicians across the country and abroad.

Another collaboration of great significance is the Gyan Deep initiative of IGNOU meant to educationally empower the soldiers of the Indian army through grant of degrees- a step aimed at providing the jawans with a second career option. It is based on the US system of community colleges in defence cantonments, and will benefit a majority of 1.2 million soldiers of the army. The programme was launched on 4th September, 2009, after IGNOU signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Army Chief General Deepak Kapoor.

It is heard that IGNOU is going beyond the distance education set up, and plans to establish mainstream face-to-face courses. What are the possible reasons behind this move?

The IGNOU Act very clearly states that the Open University will not only offer a variety of programmes but assume a leadership role in promoting a distance education system in the country.

Open University System means opening the learning process by making the educational facilities available to every individual with minimal restrictions. It facilitates optimal utlisation of the infrastructural and intellectual facilities available, wherever they are, for providing knowledge and skills to maximum people with minimum restrictions. An Open University is an institution which has to be open to ideas, open to people, open to places and open to strategies for providing education.

IGNOU has combined its pioneering role in distance learning by extending the concept of ‘open education’ to include flexible, face-to-face programmes, making use of state-of-the-art facilities on-campus as well as on other campuses.

An Open University not just relies on the distance education mode,  but also makes use of open and flexible system of education.

INGOU has been offering face-to-face courses/programmes partly or fully for the last several years. All the  Engineering and Technology programmes, which have their practical and project works, and also have a minimum of 20% face-to-face component, have been offered on campus. B.Sc and vocational programmes are done by direct teaching in recognised academic institutions or industrial establishments. The IGNOU campus infrastructure is well equipped with digital studios and libraries etc. and therefore, selected number of Post Graduate students are being offered these programmes in the campus. These are proposed to be model study centres.

In addition, IGNOU has several full time regular programmes with the requisite rules, regulations, ordinances, and examination manual, taught by qualified teachers in other institutions with excellent facilities.

Where do you see IGNOU five years down the line?

In the next few years, we seek to enter into a major academic expansion plan by adding 10 new schools. This effort will be in line with the University’s commitment to adapting and upgrading the resources to contemporary requirements of the student community. 
We have recently been involved in the National Skills Mission particularly in generating employment in tune with the various schemes of the Central Government and State Government. The aim is to provide flexible knowledge and skill opportunities for the unemployed youth of India so as to meaningfully equip them with skills and opportunities. The scheme of Associate Degree Programmes through Community Colleges being offered by IGNOU will aims at developing skills for self employability of the marginalized and under privileged sections of the society.