On Friday, the higher education funding and regulating agency, the University Grants Commission, notified new rules for open and distance learning programmes in India.
These courses that deliver printed, recorded or online learning material to students so that they can study on their own time and at home have proliferated since the Dr BR Ambedkar Open University, in Telangana, and the Indira Gandhi National Open University in Delhi were founded in the 1980s. They hold classes periodically and do not require students to attend classes regularly in an institution.
The new regulations aim to standardise the structure of such courses, their administration, evaluation and monitoring. Covering practically every aspect of distance learning, they set quality standards for every type of learning material, formalise a system of internal checks, define the administrative structure – the headquarters housed in a university or deemed university, regional centres and local “learner support centres” – and specify the number of staff, teaching and non-teaching, each must have.
But teachers said some of the regulations reflect the Commission’s lack of knowledge about how distance education works in India, and pointed out that many of the the rules may be impossible to implement.
“With these conditions – they require ‘full-time-dedicated’ staff – no dual-mode public university can get their courses recognised,” said K Murali Manohar, president of the Indian Distance Education Association, a group of teachers involved in distance learning. Dual-mode universities offer both distance learning and regular classroom learning.
Data gathered by the association, Manohar said, shows that there are about 1,750 permanent teachers engaged in distance learning at the Indira Gandhi National Open University – the only central, standalone institution for distance learning – 16 state open universities and over 350 dual-mode institutions (all but 25 of which are public). These institutions teach about two million students.
Janmejoy Khuntia, who teaches at Delhi University’s School of Open Learning, with an enrolment of 4 lakh, said, “Some of the regulations betray the UGC’s cluelessness about distance learning.” One rule, for instance, says there should be one deputy registrar and one assistance registrar at the headquarters for every 5,000 students. “That would mean 80 deputy and 80 assistant registrars in the school [School of Open Learning] alone, whereas all of Delhi University has fewer than 30 deputy registrars,” said Khuntia.
In fact, the entire distance learning system is understaffed. Manohar pointed to the fact that the University Grants Commission’s own Distance Education Board “does not have a single permanent staff member”. He added, “There is no mechanism to regulate but the Commission still holds all powers.”
Other sticking points
Harish Gautam of the Krantikari Yuva Sangathan, an organisation of School of Open Learning students, has reservations about the fact that the regulations permit students with just post-graduate degrees to serve as counsellors. Manohar, however, said that this can work, provided the students are given the necessary training to discharge their duties.
But he wondered why the rules allow private universities to run “off-shore” centres but not public ones.
Teachers are also wary of the emphasis on online learning. “To substitute classroom learning with technology, we need uninterrupted connectivity but that is not guaranteed,” said Khuntia.
Another contentious area, say teachers, is an attempt to introduce a choice-based credit system – which was forced on central universities in 2015. The new regulations do not specify how credits, which are dependent on the number of study hours, would be computed in a distance learning system.
Another “major flaw”, according to Khuntia, is that the rules are vague about the terms of the deal between a university and institutions serving as learner support centres – “two separate legal entities”.
However, the regulations do score on one front: monitoring and quality control. In addition to defining separate and detailed quality standards for printed, video, online and computer-based learning material, they also require the establishment of centres for internal quality assurance.
These centres will not only formulate “improvement plans” and annual quality assurance reports, by taking into account statistics such as enrolments and pass percentages, they are also tasked with creating channels to collect feedback. “The regulations also require the director of the school or centre to be from distance learning and that is very important,” said Khuntia.
The Indian Distance Education Association has been demanding such a mechanism, though Manohar expressed uncertainty about how effectively it would be implemented. “If there is no staff at the apex, it will be very hard to monitor [down the line],” he said.
The new rules come four years after the regulation of distance education in India was transferred from the Distance Education Council, an entity under the Indira Gandhi National Open University, to the University Grants Commission in late 2012. The shift had led to strikes and protests by teachers. “The government assured Parliament twice over the past four years that a separate council would be established [to govern distance education],” said Kapil Kumar, teacher representative on the board of management at the Indira Gandhi National Open University.
The notification of the new regulations has put paid to those hopes and the university’s teachers are miffed. “Thirty years of IGNOU’s experience was not taken into account,” said Kumar. “As a result, you have regulations that show how little the UGC understands the purpose of distance education and the learners.”
Kumar added, “They do not meet for months and then do not understand how distance education works or that our university was supposed to offer courses not available in the regular medium.”
Teachers pointed out that as per the regulations, universities will now need to get the Commission’s clearance for every course they teach – and separately for each year of it. The School of Open Learning at Delhi University will also have to seek fresh approval.