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Monday, January 12, 2004

Reaching out to distant learners
Peeyush Agnihotri

Those signals that come through cyberspace have touched all spheres of the terrestrial life. Education, too, has been enabled by technology and is reaching the doorsteps of the millions of studentsí worldwide, in the process making the Hindi proverb "Pyaasa Kuen ke pass jaata hai," redundant. Thanks to ICT (Information and Communication Technology), the well of knowledge is at the door-steps of the knowledge-thirsty. Online courses abound and so do the courses being offered by various universities (IGNOU, GJU and PTU, to name a few) through distance learning mode, where ICT is the sole facilitator and a fulcrum for knowledge dissemination.


Online learning and distance education have a few inherent advantages. The first and the foremost is the flexibility. Generally, online courses are not time-bound. A self-motivated student can thrash out his own timetable and take his own sweet time to complete the course. Secondly, the courses are not location-specific. A student can register at a university in New Delhi while sitting at Patiala and finish the course from the confines of his home. Syllabi, assignments, notes, discussion threads are all available online and so is the provision of chat with the teachers (teleconferencing, in case of distance education learners). Itís in the benefit of the student to schedule regular Web-based or tele-interactions with instructors and classmates to maximise the online learning experience.

Thirdly, courses being offered online or through distance learning mode are a manna from the cyberdom for those who want to pursue studies part-time just because they either are gainfully employed or canít attend regular conventional classes for whatever reason.

Another inherent advantage with technology acting as a conduit is that the student, by default, becomes tech-savvy in the process. Even if someone is pursuing an online course in, say architecture, he or she gets fairly conversant with Net browsing, chat sessions, file transfers and teleconferencing. Besides this, the student cuts through the red tape of the university babudom.


There is no coin that doesnít have two sides and talking of coins, Shylocks, ready to extract their pound of flesh, exist in all streams of trade and distance learning/online education is no exception.

Universities are offering sub-standard courses and all they are bothered about are the fees they receive from the students.

In a report that could be damaging for online/distance learning universities that was kept under wraps for more than a year and finally released without much fanfare in Australia, it has been pointed out that universities may be compromising their teaching standards in order to maximise revenue from online education. The report says while online learning can be a powerful tool for distance education, both students and staff suspect universities are using it as a moneymaker and not investing adequate resources like quality of the study material and the qualifications of teachers.

Students, too, tend to lose focus and a course that may be completed within one year, thank to the enforced classroom discipline, may take years to complete.

The way out

Recalls the Vice-Chancellor of Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), Prof H.P. Dikshit: "The Madhya Pradesh government launched a project on computer education in in 1992. The project failed because Principals and in-charge of such centres were too afraid to make the machine accessible to all fearing they might have to bear the prohibitive maintenance cost from their pockets if a PC broke down. Then young students were trained with hands-on experience of 15 days to take care of any breakdown. The maintenance cost thus became negligible and project a success."

What the Vice-Chancellor emphasised was that a team of local trouble-shooters and problem solvers needs to be created for those pursuing studies through distance learning modes.

He also said in the first attempt of its kind, the distance education council (DEC) is planning to regularise open learning courses offered by various universities across the country. The move is being seen as a major move towards bringing accountability in distance education, with only DEC-approved correspondence courses being recognised from next year. All universities offering courses through correspondence will now have to get their programmes accredited by the DEC.

Itís high time that online courses being offered by other MNCs, too, come under scrutiny.