Success story

Print edition : July 15, 2011

The framing of the curriculum and the development of study materials are done most rigorously and scientifically in IGNOU, says Rajasekharan Pillai. - S. SUBRAMANIUM

Interview with V.N. Rajasekharan Pillai, Vice-Chancellor, Indira Gandhi National Open University.

IN the past five years, Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) has seen significant structural reforms at all levels. Much of the credit for this goes to its Vice-Chancellor V.N. Rajasekharan Pillai, who has not only incorporated flexibility in its programmes but has also worked towards expanding their reach to remote zones of the country. Rajasekharan Pillai has occupied many important posts and has played a crucial role in forming India's higher education policies. He was the Vice-Chancellor of Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala, and Cochin University of Science and Technology, Kerala, the Executive Director of the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC), Bangalore, the Vice-Chairman and Acting Chairman of the University Grants Commission (UGC), New Delhi, and the Chairman of the Distance Education Council. Excerpts from an interview to Frontline:

In a country where access to basic education is still a dream to many people, open systems of learning can be of great value. How far does IGNOU fit the bill in this context?

IGNOU is harnessing the potential of the open learning and distance education system most effectively to address the basic issue of providing education, relevant knowledge, skills and training to vast and diverse sections of society. In addition to providing scalable models of quality teaching-learning, starting with 4,000 students in 1987, the university has evolved into being the world's largest, most diverse and inclusive educational institution, with about four million students on its rolls at present. Looking at the breadth and depth of IGNOU's activities in recent years, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) described it as a living embodiment of inclusive knowledge societies in a globalised world. IGNOU is definitely a success story in the democratisation of education and training at all levels.

You have been credited with instituting many structural reforms in IGNOU.

Yes, I encouraged reforms at all levels, systemic, academic and administrative. To a significant extent, I could transform the university with the unstinting support of the academic and administrative staff. I don't think I have made any major change in the structure of the university. But coming from a comparatively rigid regular university system with over 36 years of working experience, I realised there was a lot of space for experimentation and innovation within these structures of IGNOU. I utilised this space effectively and it yielded the much-desired results without conflicting with the set objectives of the university. Partnering with the Central and State governments in their various developmental schemes in the education, health, social and corporate sectors and designing education and training programmes accordingly was a major, unprecedented intervention, which necessitated structural refinements within the university system.

The adoption of the Government of India guidelines for public-private partnership in creating infrastructural facilities to expand the regional centre-study centre network of the university across the country and abroad was one of the first initiatives I took in 2007. We have now over 3,000 study centres directly managed by us (without franchisees) compared with 1,400 in 2006. Regional centres increased from 37 to 61 during this period.

POLICEMEN AND CONVICTS appear for the Bachelor's Preparatory Programme (BPP) examination, organised by IGNOU at the Berhampur Circle Jail in June 2008.-LINGARAJ PANDA

Other major achievements include the establishment of 11 new Schools of Studies and the National Centre for Disability Studies; the introduction of full-time Research and Teaching Assistantships (RTA) for bright, fresh postgraduates; innovative technology-enabled education delivery platforms such as eGyankosh and Flexilearn@ignou; education and certification programmes for the Indian Army, the Indian Air Force and the Indian Navy; rural ICT [information and communication technology] capacity building and strengthening; an Assessment and Certification of Prior Learning (ACPL) programme; the Centre for Traditional Knowledge Systems; an IGNOU-UNESCO science Olympiad to promote science learning among schoolchildren; the decentralisation of study material distribution and of evaluation; the annual students' satisfaction survey; statutory changes for declaring results within 45 days after term-end examination; on-demand examination; and two convocations per year. The introduction of ERP [enterprise resource planning] in administration and finance was a major achievement during the Eleventh Plan.

Have your efforts shown desirable results?

Yes, in many areas. Timely distribution of study materials is happening after the decentralisation process. The quality of student-support services has been considerably enhanced with online, Internet and mobile services. The reach of our educational broadcasting, both radio and video, is now more than 12 times, with direct-to-home (DTH) facilitation in four years. All our study materials, video and radio lessons, are now available on the Internet. Conferences, convocations, lectures and public functions are telecast and webcast. For the past two sessions, results could be declared within 45 days of the examinations. Grade cards as well as final degrees could be distributed in 90 days.

Almost all our self-learning printed materials are now digitised and we have the largest Open Education Resource (OER) repository in the world now. The establishment of the Pan-African eNetwork in 2007 and its transformation to the proposed India Africa Virtual University (IAVU) is a significant achievement in our international activities.

In the disability sector, the starting of a degree programme in sign language for teachers of deaf students has led to the setting up of an Indian Sign Language Research and Training Institute, the first of its kind in the country. All our new buildings are completely disabled-friendly.

You emphasised the need to ensure maximum flexibility in the functioning of the university

An innovative system for providing knowledge and skills must be the overall objective of an open university. Such a system should be flexible and open with regard to the methods and pace of learning, combination of courses, eligibility for enrolment, age of entry and mode of examination, and the delivery of the programme. Such flexibility is inbuilt in the IGNOU Act. This has brought about an unprecedented transformation in the IGNOU system for which, to my knowledge, there is no parallel. This is necessary to provide education to large segments of the population, particularly, the disadvantaged groups such as those living in remote and rural areas, including working people, housewives and other adults who wish to upgrade or acquire knowledge through studies in various fields. This facilitation has helped education and training in the various arts, crafts and skills of the country, and in raising their quality and improving their availability to the people.

It has also helped the establishment of a Centre for Traditional Knowledge Systems and the introduction of programmes such as Certificate in Indigenous Art Practices (CIAP) and Assessment and Certification of Prior Learning (ACPL). The Centre for Corporate Education Training and Consultancy (CCETC) was started in 2008 to offer flexible and need-based education, training, and certification programmes at all levels looking at the requirements of the growing corporate sector. The Bombay Stock Exchange has instituted a Chair for Corporate Education and Financial Securities in the university very recently.

Most learners in this university are working people. What does IGNOU do to attract this section?

We have been promoting education, training and capacity building of workers at all levels all these years. What we have done additionally in the last 4-5 years in this area is to begin a number of study centres in industrial establishments and places near their workplaces. Recognising work-integrated learning, providing credits for it and making those credits bankable for acquiring a certificate, diploma or a degree from the university have made our courses and programmes popular among workers, particularly those in the unorganised sector. This is significant in the light of the fact that less than 5 per cent of the millions of workers in the country have some sort of an educational qualification.

Understanding the rapidly changing profile of the workplace, the university has revised the education and training modules by involving industry and social sector experts and delivered them in worker-friendly modes. We have also gathered inputs from the Central Board for Workers Education, and Indian and international labour institutes for such innovations. In fact, we have started an exclusive postgraduate programme in Labour Studies in the Eleventh Plan for generating theoretical and developmental insights for workers' education.

What is the idea of community college that you mooted? Has it started functioning?

The community college scheme of IGNOU, which started in 2008, has picked up very well in the country. IGNOU has about 600 community colleges, with nearly two lakh students pursuing vocational education, skill development and work-integrated learning on full-time, part-time and spare-time basis.

You incorporated innovative ideas such as a special programme for the disabled population into the university's functioning. How was it conceived and implemented? What other such ideas have you tried to implement?

IGNOU started a National Centre for Disability Studies (NCDS) in 2006. The overall objective of this centre is to train human resources in various areas related to the disability sector. The centre collaborates with the Rehabilitation Council of India (RCI) and a number of institutions in the country that are engaged in teaching, training and research in the area of disability. Training teachers for special schools, conducting awareness programmes for parents of disabled children, designing disabled-friendly study materials, ICT for the visually challenged and the hearing impaired, and a foundation course on education of children with disabilities are the major activities of this centre.

There are 16 programmes at the certificate, diploma, degree, postgraduate and postgraduate diploma levels conducted in collaboration with the RCI. There are over 14,000 learners in various courses conducted through RCI-approved centres and the regional centres of IGNOU.

In India, most sign language tutors have no formal qualification, and most teachers in schools for the deaf do not have any sign language qualification. In this context, the Staff Training and Research Institute in Distance Education (STRIDE) at IGNOU and the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN), the United Kingdom, worked together to systematically develop new approaches to distance education in the sign language medium. One of the key achievements of this U.K.-India Education Research Initiative (UKIERI) was the launch of IGNOU's BA programme in Applied Sign Language. We started this programme in 2009. Now there are three batches with learners from India, Africa, China, Nepal and Malaysia. For the first time, deaf students in India are able to access university education through the medium of sign language and gain an academic qualification with a dual award from the U.K. and India. The pioneering efforts of Prof. P.R. Ramanujam, currently Pro-Vice-Chancellor and the then Director of STRIDE, in this area are laudable.

Other innovations are in creating a knowledge repository to store, preserve, index, distribute and share the digital learning resources developed by the distance education institutions in the country. Known as e-Gyankosh, this has emerged as one of the largest educational repositories in the world. Over 95 per cent of the self-instructional print material (about 50,000 volumes) has already been digitised and uploaded.

Technological interventions such as the online platform, the Advanced Centre for Informatics and Innovative Learning (ACIIL), the Open Distributed Technology Enhanced Learning (ODTEL), the National Open and Distance Learning Network (NODLINET) and the Inter University Centre (IUC) for Technology Enabled Education have proved to be very effective in enhancing the quality and reach of learning.

Has IGNOU been able to expand its reach in terms of the number of students and courses in the last five years?

The number of learners, teachers, researchers, consultants, administrative and technical staff, programmes, courses, modules, and audio and video lessons has increased at an unprecedented rate in the last four years. We have about four million students now in contrast to 1.25 million in 2007. The academic programmes have increased from 125 to more than 500 during this period. The corresponding number of courses is more than 5,500. The number of students who received certificates, diplomas and degrees is about 2.25 lakh in the 2011 convocation in contrast to just over 1 lakh in the previous year.

We have partnered with almost all government departments and designed new teaching and training programmes to suit the development needs of the country. We have extended our collaboration with public and private educational institutions at national and international levels as well as with other sectors such as health, IT, corporate, and rural development. In social sectors, too, we have fruitful collaborations like the one with panchayati raj institutions.

Primary education is a huge problem in India. Do you support a universal education system here? How do you think IGNOU, a higher education centre, can collaborate with various States in effecting this programme?

IGNOU supports the universal primary education system of the country in a big way. The quality and quantity of teacher training is the most serious area of concern in achieving universal primary or secondary education. For the last few years, IGNOU has been providing a technology-enabled distance education support to the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan programme both at the Centre and in the States.

Recently we created five institutes for Competency Advancement of Teachers (iCAT) through technology in the five geographic regions of the country. For the next five years we have prepared a contextualised action plan for training and retraining of schoolteachers for various States.

What was the vision you had for IGNOU when you joined?

IGNOU had been progressing in the right perspective with a clear vision. What I wanted to do was to consolidate the multifarious activities IGNOU has been doing and also to work with the Eleventh Plan education expansion activities of the government. Offering opportunities to bright and young postgraduates for full-time research in core domains along with teaching has been one of my top priorities.

In this context the Research and Teaching Assistant (RTA) scheme was introduced for the first time in the country. After four years, we have about 150 such quality-trained potential teachers who can serve the conventional or the distance education system effectively. This I consider a major achievement of the university in the Eleventh Plan.

Skill development through the community college scheme, and the establishment of 11 more new schools and a number of chairs in special areas, like the Chairs for Sustainable Development, Satellite Education, Raman Chair for Science Education, Ambedkar Chair for Social Mobility, and the Tagore Chair have resulted in meaningful, quality-oriented expansion of the university.

In India, education is still a secondary requirement for the poor, who think of their children as productive members. Do you have plans to address this section?

We do have interventions in this area. Our skill development programmes through community colleges consist of interventions in poverty alleviation and nutrition security. The School of Agriculture and Chair for Sustainable Development headed by Prof. M.S. Swaminathan and the School of Extension and Development Studies collaborate with various national and international developmental agencies to devise short-term and long-term strategies to address these pressing issues.

How does IGNOU frame its curriculum, considering it has a large number of courses compared with any other university?

The framing of the curriculum and the development of study materials are done most rigorously and scientifically in IGNOU. Several people from premier institutions are engaged as experts, course writers and editors for each and every module, course and programme. Different phases of rigorous scrutiny are mandatory before the launch of a particular programme.

Only after the preparation of the entire study material and accompanying video and audio lesson preparations is a programme launched by IGNOU. This makes IGNOU study material the best in quality. Several hundreds of experienced teachers from all over the country have been involved in designing and developing the curriculum in addition to the full-time work of our 800-strong highly qualified and experienced teaching fraternity.

What challenges have you faced as the Vice-Chancellor of IGNOU? What are your plans ahead?

The challenges I faced were mainly related to people's apprehensions arising from the fear of change. To a great extent I could manage the change and alleviate the fear and apprehensions by extensive consultations and continuous dialogue with all stakeholders. When I discussed the university's expansion plans in line with the Eleventh Plan with my colleagues, there were, rightly, apprehensions that such expansion could lead only to the deterioration of quality.

Therefore I concentrated on systematic consolidation with stepwise expansion. Technological support was considerably enhanced. New teachers were recruited in very large numbers. A large number of consultants were appointed. External experts were engaged in a huge way. School boards, expert committees and the academic council met very frequently. The total number of such meetings in IGNOU during this five-year period was more than in the previous 20 years put together.

The number of study centres was doubled to provide enhanced student support. Above all, independent initiatives at all levels, both in academic and administrative set-ups, were encouraged and promoted.

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