The Open Varsity Concept

The establishment of Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) at New Delhi in 1985 was an important milestone in the history of higher education in India. The university aims at providing free access to higher education to large segments of population, particularly to the disadvantaged groups living in remote or rural areas. Working people, housewives and other adults who wish to upgrade their qualifications or acquire knowledge and skills can now hope to do so at their own places of work or residence without the necessity of going through a formal university system.

Some of the distinctive features of the university are relaxed entry qualifications, a greater choice in the courses of study, freedom to study at one's own pace and convenience, and the use of contemporary and appropriate educational and communication technology. The university conducts its courses through printed materials which are supplemented by academic- counseling and audio- visual mate rails. The student support services include face-to-face counseling sessions which are held at study centres established in different parts of the country. These study centres (132 in number at present) operate in the evenings on the weekends and holidays. In addition to providing academic-counselling they generally have audio-visual facilities, a reference library and reception and information services for the use of students. 

Besides IGNOU, there are at present four more Open Universities in the country and about 40 other university-level institutions which offer courses through the distance mode of teaching. Together they cater to the needs of more than 11 per cent of the total student enrolment in higher education. During the last 15 years, with the beginning of British Open University (UKOU) in England, the open university system has emerged as a concept larger then correspondence education. The correspondence courses generally operate within the overall framework of a conventional university, follow the rules, regulations and course structure of the formal system. They do not provide scope for innovation and are not flexible enough to adjust to the needs of different categories of learners. In short, correspondence education is an extension of the formal system of education and, in the main, prepares learners for the standard public examinations. 

The open university system (and distance education), on the other hand, aims at varied goals. It works for the personal growth of the learner, facilitates in-service training, and provides life-long and continuing education for the masses. The open universities have autonomy like other universities in the country to devise their own courses keeping in view the societal needs. IGNOU, for instance, has begun with innovative courses in management, rural development, food and nutrition, and creative writing besides its bachelors degree programme. Distance education. Distance education can thus be seen as an answer to the rapidly changing social aspirations which demand an educational system which is as potent in its effect as it is extensive in its range.

The genesis of distance education can be traced back to Issac Pitman's shorthand course which he conducted in 1844 through correspondence for his distance learners in the U.K. In the USA the first efforts to organise the correspondence instruction were made in 1873. In Europe pioneering work was done in Germany and Sweden in 1890 and with the onset of the twentieth century, a number of correspondence instruction schools were set up throughout Europe. In the USSR, in the 1920's a vast contingent of "peoples, teachers" were trained through specially devised correspondence courses to eradicate illiteracy in the Russian population which was at that time as high as 76 per cent. The task was successfully completed by these teachers in about two decades. 

In India distance education had humble beginnings in 1962 when correspondence courses were first introduced in the country by the University of Delhi. It got a big push during the seventies when postgraduate diploma and certificate courses were started by many correspondence course institutions. In 1982 the Government of Andhra Pradesh took the momentous decision to establish the first state-level open university in the country, namely the Andhra Pradesh Open University. 

The distance mode of education has thus been in existence for more than a century but it was called by various names such as postal tuition, correspondence education, home study, non-formal education, etc. In essence, all these terms were used to describe a teaching-learning situation where the teachers were linked with the learners through the printed word and later through various kinds of electronics media as well. In view of the media applied, later some institutions called themselves "University of the Air", "Tele-University", etc. However, to emphasis the reality of non-contiguity of the teacher and the learner, the International Council of Correspondence Education under the chairmanship of Prof. Bakshish Singh (recently retired from IGNOU) adopted the term distance education in place of correspondence education and, accordingly, renamed itself as the International Council of Distance education. This was done at the 12th world conference of the ICCE held at Vancouver in Canada. 

Distance education courses may have been started in some countries as a poor alternative to the ongoing "regular" programmers of the universities, but this is no longer the case. The innovations in the field of communication technology and distance teaching methodology have ensured that learners no longer suffer because of their physical remoteness from their teachers. Recent student have conclusively proved that distance learners perform as well as the face-to-face learners in most cases when proper care is taken of their special problems like isolation from the teachers and other learners, building and sustaining motivation, receiving quick and appropriate feedback and availability of comprehensive study materials.

A sure indication of the effectiveness of distance education programmers is the growing number of distance learners all over the world. According to a report compiled by UKOU in 1984, there were over 2,100,000 students studying in 756 distance learning institutions in the world. In our country IGNOU has more than 80,000 students on its rolls whereas it started with about 4500 students in January, 1987.

The distance mode of education has thus, successfully exploded the age-old myth that higher education can be imparted only within the confines of a classroom. The open university system is already being seen as a sound alternative to the existing system of education. Its qualities of flexibility, innovation and relevance to social needs are considered as an additional advantage. In fact, more and more people all over the world are questioning the efficacy of the conventional (or face-to-face mode) which inevitably results in huge costs and little productivity in terms of the general output though there is no doubt that the two systems will work together complementing each other for a long tome to come.

The open university system does not compromise on quality for producing quantity. The course team approach which most open universities in the world, including IGNOU, adopt to produce teaching-learning materials ensures the pooling of the best resources in the field. The resultant printed lessons and audio-video supplements are excellent both in their content and presentation. Moreover, unlike the classroom lectures, these materials are student active and are available to students for use whenever they like. The feedback on their progress too is much more accurate and helpful.

To overcome the problem of students' isolation from their tutors and other students, the open universities employ the most advanced means of communication. It is expected that an independent channel for educational  broadcasts will be available to the IGNOU students in the near future. With the introduction of such a channel, the problems of isolation and access will get resolved to a great extent.

The university has already a full-fledged Communication Division which produces audio and video programmed which are an integral part of the course materials. To further meet the increasing demand for software, 28 out of the 48 Commonwealth countries have contributed some funds and established an organization called the Commonwealth of Learning. Once this institution becomes functional, it is hoped that the students will be able to transfer their course credits from one open university to another in these countries.

The major challenge that the open universities face in India, besides the operational difficulties, is that of providing the opportunities of higher education to the rural masses. The immediate response to the IGNOU courses has been more from urban areas because the already educated urban class has responded well. Steps are being taken to get proportional representation in admissions from the rural areas by giving more publicity to the courses in the regional newspapers and decentralisation of admission procedures. Entrance tests are being conducted at examination centers all over the country on the basis of population clusters and response for admission to various courses. Mobile study centers, well-equipped with audio-video facilities and a reference library, too, are being planned. 

There is no doubt that open universities are a great step forward towards democratising and equalizing educational opportunities. Commenting on the future role of these universities in higher education, Prof. B. N. Koul, Director, Distance Education, IGNOU says, "The concept of open education marks a major revolution not only in educational thought but also in education processes, and with its promise of undoing the constraints which the institution of education has developed, accepted and suffered from over the ages, we look forward to the unfolding of the 21st century as the century of educational emancipation".  ◙