Friday, February 8, 2008

Quality in Distance Education: What does it mean for the learner?

A journey that got my grey cells working. Here, I draw a parallel with my experiences during the journey and Distance Education. I share my thoughts on Quality in Distance Education while trying to answer two crucial questions: What matters most to the Distance learner? Where our efforts should be concentrated?

Fresh from an invigorating refresher program in Delhi and a short visit to my historical home town at Barrackpore, I set off for my place of work at IGNOU Regional Centre, Itanagar. The plan of travel included an Air Deccan flight from Kolkata to Guwahati to be followed by an overnight Bus journey to Itanagar. (Road travel is the only means to reach Itanagar).But why am I telling you all this?

I think what happened in the course of my journey can potentially throw up some lessons in Quality. If I may extrapolate from the constructivist approach towards learning, it may have some relevance for Distance Education also.

The Deccan flight (DN-653) starts from Kolkata and terminates at Imphal traveling via Guwahati. I have consistently preferred this mode of journey over the train partly because of its convenient timing and substantially because the trains in this route take an inordinately long time to reach Guwahati. (Indeed, train travel from Guwahati to Kolkata takes much more time than what it takes to travel a much longer distance from New Delhi to Kolkata).

On 3rd February 2006, a fine sunny day, the check in and boarding of the aircraft was swift and smooth at the Netaji Subhas Airport in Kolkata. The problems began after the boarding was completed.

As the departure time (12:15 pm) approached the captain of the aircraft asked the crew to prepare for take off. Immediately, the aircraft crew moved to their positions and the regular safety demonstrations accompanied by announcements in affected accent followed. But just as everything appeared to be ready for take off, in came the announcement from the captain that the aircraft had developed a minor technical snag which would be resolved in 20-30 minutes.

I reckoned that this time could be used to free myself from the shackles of the seat belt and move to the rear-end lavatory to ‘do the needful’. But just as I entered, another announcement from the captain followed. This time the captain announced that the repair of the aircraft may take an hour or longer therefore the crew may prepare to evacuate the plane.

Inside the lavatory, while I struggled to get the flush to work which simply refused to budge, in came the untimely knock on the door by the aircraft crew posted at the rear end of the airliner. In a jiffy, I walked out complaining that the flush isn’t working.

Driven out of the aircraft, passengers had to exit the aircraft bay, re-enter the airport building, obtain a fresh boarding pass and go through the security drill all over again and wait anxiously for the signal to board the aircraft again.

At around 2:15pm passengers are allowed to board the aircraft again. But even as the aircraft was being readied for take off, the captain delivered the knock out punch. This time the pilot announced that the flight will first land at the terminal stop – Imphal and then revert to Guwahati. The reason: early closure of the Imphal airport during evening hours.

After what seemed to be a long and arduous journey in the cramped non reclining seats of the low cost carrier, we finally reached Guwahati. Indeed, while waiting for the luggage at the luggage retrieval line I realized that my flight number had changed from DN653 to DN654. By the time I could retrieve my luggage it was well past 5:30pm. A journey that in normal circumstances should have ended in Guwahati at 1:30 pm took 4 hours extra.

I hired a cab hurriedly and set off for the Guwahati Bus Terminal at Paltan Bazar. I was lucky to have got the last available seat on the rear end of the last bus to leave for Itanagar.

Looking back at the whole episode, here I would analyze the events of the day from a quality perspective. So, what are the things that went wrong? What could have been done better?

Clearly, the ground maintenance staff did not do their work well enough which resulted in the technical snag. Had they done their part; the aircraft would have taken off smoothly and passengers would have reached their destination on time. The flush in the lavatory too would have functioned properly.

Secondly, after having delayed the flight by about 2 hours, the airline added insult to injury by forcing the passengers destined for Guwahati to travel all the way to the terminal stop at Imphal. While the ostensible reason was early closer of Imphal Airport, the real reason was to pick up passengers from Imphal for a return flight to Kolkata via Guwahati. Thus the passengers traveling to Guwahati had to travel unnecessarily for an extra hour and 15 minutes.

Thirdly, having subjected the passengers to the afternoon torture, at least the carrier could have been courteous enough to provide free snack to the passengers to soothe their discontentment. Far from it, as is the normal practice in low cost airlines, the carrier sold snack to the passengers and actually made more money that day as hungry passengers had no option but to buy the hugely overpriced snack packs.

Looking back at the whole episode, here I would analyze the events of the day from a quality perspective and try and draw a parallel with the way some large Distance Education institutions function.

Like the initial smooth check in and boarding of my flight, learners get an almost effortless entry into Distance Education institutions (DEI). The admission criteria of DEIs in India are among the most lenient in the world. Similarly, the hiccups that I faced during the journey are so typical for a student enrolled with the largest distance education institution of India. Delays of all kinds - related to receipt of study material, updating of assignment grades, declaration of results, etc - are a common complaint from the distance learners. In many cases, hapless students are caught napping due to frequent changes in the programmes without any communication. Much like my flight which changed from DN653 to DN654 and about which I realized only after the completion of my journey.

So, what are the things that went wrong with the flight? What could have been done better?

An airline with quality consciousness ingrained in its DNA probably would not have invited such a situation. They would have made it doubly sure that the aircraft is well maintained and ready for flight.

Even if, as a rare case, such a technical snag was to occur, the airline would have taken care to minimize the discomfort; not maximize it, as was the case with the Deccan flight (DN-653). For instance, the passengers would have been carried through the usual route via Guwahati to Imphal rather than via Imphal to Guwahati. Thus an unnecessary flying hour for the Guwahati bound passengers would have been prevented.

Further, a quality conscious airline would have provided free snack to the passengers considering the fact that the flight which was to reach Guwahati at 1:30pm actually reached there at 5:30pm. Surely, that would have mitigated passenger discontentment significantly. Indeed, it would have potentially earned some goodwill for the airline.

This whole episode underscores one simple but important point: That for a system to succeed, all its parts need to work in a synchronized manner. If any one of the parts does not deliver there is bound to be a systemic disorder if not complete failure. Distance Education Institutions are not immune to this premise.

In distance education also, the quality of a learner’s experiences during his academic journey, from admission to convocation, hinges on the manner in which various departments of a distance education institution carry out their respective responsibilities. The more synchronized their efforts; the better would be the results. If any of the departments fail, it would lead to systemic disorder and discontentment of the learner.

So far, in my limited experience with IGNOU, I have not seen a year without some or other discrepancy. Systematic disorder seems to be the order of the day at IGNOU or should I call it ‘management by chaos’?

To be very candid, for all the hullabaloo about academic counseling, I reckon that majority of the distance learners care much less about counseling. They just want a degree as soon as possible, and in some cases, by whatever means. Excuse me for saying this, but I have strong reasons for it which I shall not elaborate.

If only the Distance Education Institutions’ Study Centres, Regional Centres, Student Registration & Evaluation Division and Material Production & Distribution Division played their role to perfection much of the existing student discontentment will disappear, drop out rates decrease and perhaps we will have substantial pass percentages to boast of. That would be a much more meaningful achievement than our misplaced sense of pride in garnering huge enrollments which is more a result of the extremely open admission criteria than anything else. Here, when I emphasize; synchronized working of the said departments, I mean all student related activities other than counseling.

Alas, I don’t see it happening with the given processes and structure. It calls for change: not just continual but transformational.

Manoj Tirkey - POLEMICS - Diversity of views - ACADEMIA - An academic discourse