Sunday, 1 January 2012

The Promise of Distance Education

Just a few days ago, I was part of a panel discussion, at the Indo-US Education Conclave 2011 on distance learning’s role in expanding the horizons of education. It was evident, from the discussions, that distance learning has come a long way from the age of “correspondence programmes” which was looked upon as the poor cousin of traditional programmes. Technology clearly has been the catalyst which has transformed distance learning to become an acceptable alternative to the more traditional learning methodologies. Traditional universities are looking at distance learning to supplement regular programmes, and increase engagement with students. Online universities are creating portals that aim to become a virtual campus, and create an environment that students would expect in a physical university, complete with student lounges, fraternity or special interest clubs, counselling services, the whole 9 yards. The private sector has moved a significant amount of training and development to virtual classrooms, thus allowing for standardisation and enhanced productivity, the bulwarks of corporate training. The future of distance learning seems to be unfailingly bright.

What is missing in this fairly bright picture though, is the application of the distance learning model at the primary and secondary level education. Distance learning, in these spaces, still languishes in the dark ages of “correspondence courses”. This is not to say that there is not enough quality digital or multimedia content available in these areas. There has been significant work done for generating content for K-12 programs both in India and abroad, but it has been almost exclusively targeted towards the urban, affluent students, to work as a supplement to their regular education programmes. If we could use our existing telecom infrastructure to deliver this content at remote areas of our vast country, where students of different age groups share the same physical classroom due lack of facilities, it would have done wonders to the nation’s capability building programmes. The boogie of choppy telecom infrastructure should not stop us from designing innovative delivery mechanisms for content that could reach remote locations.

The Human Factor, this time, carries a survey on the behaviour and wants of both present and potential users of distance learning. While it is clear that DL is now perceived as a fairly acceptable mode of learning, the results of the survey also throw up important questions for stakeholders and policy makers. Other than for corporate training, as an individual choice distance learning still comes a distant second to traditional programmes. Most users think of distance learning as a mode of acquiring supplemental skills, and a significant number of students already have either an undergraduate or a post graduate degree. Very few students after their K-12 look at it as a mode of further studies. This clearly shows that we are not using a potent weapon like distance education to achieve the HRD Ministry’s stated goal of doubling our Gross Enrolment Ratio to 30. The other number that is alarming is that a very large number of users are engaged for less than five hours a week with their learning material, where in the traditional programmes the average is around 25 hours a week. This could mean that our design of content and learning environment is not yet engaging enough, or that users enrolled in programmes are not committed to their learning programs.

We sure have come a long way with distance learning, but it seems we have a longer way to go to be able to leverage its full potential. Happy Reading!

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