Sunday, March 2, 2008

Bottlenecks in Distance Education: An analysis of the problems with probable solutions

Continuing the debate on Quality in Distance Education and my clarion call for Change: ‘not just continual, but transformational’.

These are some of my thoughts that I had formulated based on my first impression after joining IGNOU in 2006. They were forwarded to higher authorities. Here I am reproducing some of them verbatim.

1. Batchelor Preparatory Programme: This is a programme that has caused much damage to the pride & prestige of the university. It has invited criticism from all spheres – students, the job market, and the academia. Such short cut provided by the university has misled the students enrolled for the programme on a road leading to no where. It has led to a blanket ban on employment of IGNOU students by numerous private sector firms. Rajiv Gandhi University in Arunachal Pradesh is refusing to admit such students for further studies. Also, it has led to confusion in the minds of the prospective learners – many think that after getting a degree from IGNOU they will not get admission for further studies.
The most coveted asset of an institution is its goodwill. This programme has eroded the goodwill of the university that was built over many years. Therefore, in the best interest of the university it is high time we discontinued this programme before the damage becomes irreparable.

2. Incentivisation of remuneration on the basis of performance: Some kind of incentive system can be worked out for teachers and academics so that some portion of remuneration can be linked to performance. Some objective criteria can be built within the appraisal system to arrive at the amount of incentive that may be given to the concerned academic or teacher. Further, the Appraisal system can be designed in such a way so that it operates in a continuous interlinked annual cycle, i.e., at the time of closing the Appraisal in the current year the next year’s target can be set and performance in the next year can then be benchmarked against these set targets. A more progressive Performance Appraisal system will allow for peer review and even reviews from subordinates and students. We can look for examples from some of the progressive universities abroad.

3. Chronic problem of huge number of student grievances: Given the huge scale of operations of IGNOU we will continue to have bottle necks if we are to continue with the present system. One may think of attacking the problem in two ways – (1) Decentralization OR if decentralization is not possible or desirable, (2) Employ a highly automated system for processing all kinds of data within the IGNOU system, ie, move towards a paperless office.
Let’s take the first – Decentralization i.e allow Regional Centres to function as autonomous units like affiliated colleges of conventional universities.
Some Advantages of Decentralisation
• Smaller scale of operations would mean the system will be more manageable thus ensure prompt learner support service. Indeed in a small scale one can achieve Zero Defects in the service.
• More autonomy like the autonomous colleges of universities where all procedures of admission, registration & examination are handled locally while the university only provides support to the Regional Centres in terms of funding akin to the UGC apart from providing expertise when sought by the Regional Centre. Of course the university will also award the Degrees/Diplomas & Certificates. This will enable more nimble functioning of the Regional Centres apart from providing more avenues for growth.
• Such a system will lead to healthy competition between different Regional Centres.
Disadvantage of decentralization.
• While some centres will shine progressively others may fade way if corrective measures are not taken timely.

Let’s take the other solution- A highly automated system using a comprehensive web-based software solution.
There are numerous examples of the benefits of automation in the corporate sector. The most common examples are of Enterprise Resource Planning. Within the context of the Centralized nature of functioning of IGNOU one may consider employing a comprehensive web-based software solution which can be accessed from any computer and all the data so entered through the software may be stored in a central server, which in turn can be mined by the web based software to generate reports. This would involve processes like scanning of forms instead of data entry by humans. The scope of such system should be such that it would involve automation of all office procedures thus move towards a paperless office.

This would be a truly transformational measure which would completely eliminate the need for data compilation and generation of reports manually. Such a transformation is possible with today’s technologies. It would mean computerization of all transactions - right from the point of sale of forms to all the routine activities of Finance and Accounts departments. Similarly all academic and student support activities can be computerized. On the administration side, all employee-related activities from the point of recruitment to the point of retirement can be computerized too. If such a transformational initiative is taken all the data can be saved in a centralized server which can be mined using a web- based software to generate reports as per the requirements of various departments. Thus the need for manual compilation of data can be completely eliminated. Such a web based system can be accessed inexpensively through any computer that is connected to the internet by using a freely available Web Browser like the Internet Explorer. Fig. 1 would illustrate the system.

Some caveats to the system:

Human Resource factors: A project of this nature will need the support of top management which has to take care of various human resource factors besides spearheading the project. Among other things it will require willingness to change on the part of the employees.

Security: Web based systems, being in the public domain, are most vulnerable to attacks from hackers. Recently, JNU’s Entrance Result’s web page was hacked. Therefore, adequate measures should be taken to ensure a secure website. The web security benchmarks set by some of the Private sector banks like ICICI and HDFC may be emulated.
Another option is to go for solutions like Virtual Private Networks to restrict access of the system to the computers of IGNOU only even while using the World Wide Web. However, some portion of the system pertaining to student related activities may remain in the public domain on the Internet.

High up-time of the servers: Since the whole system will depend on the centralized server it would be important to take adequate measures, if not taken already, to ensure a very high up-time of the servers so that users do not face difficulty in accessing the system.

High Speed Connectivity: For the success of the system high speed connectivity and adequate computing facilities for the affected parties are necessary to enable them to upload data/make entries through the web based interface.

Training: Basic computer training of the staff affected by the computerization process is necessary so as to enable them to use it efficiently.

Levels of accessibility of the web based system: Since the proposal is to automate all transactions, the accessibility of the system itself will have to be regulated in terms of entering transactions as well as in terms of generating system based reports. For example, in terms of making entries and generating reports, the Regional Director may be given access to the activities related to his region only.

Ensuring Power backup: Ensuring continuous supply of power, at least at the Regional Centre level, is very important for the success of such a system.

Pay-Offs of the System

Such a system will have many pay-offs. Some of them are listed below.
1) It will eliminate the mundane activities of manual data compilation and preparation of reports.
2) It will release time for more proactive activities like academics, student satisfaction by ensuring more time for monitoring SCs and PSCs.
3) It will eliminate duplication of efforts spent in compiling data at various levels.
4) It would potentially be cheaper to run as various activities can be carried out in the same computer by a single person in small centres. In Finance, for example, in the physical book keeping system, apart from the primary entry, the book keepers have to make entries in the subsidiary books also. With the computerized system, one primary entry in the computer may be sufficient as the system itself will make the rest of the related entries. The Financial statements can also be generated automatically by the computerized system.
5) It will release more time for the RCs to concentrate efforts in increasing enrolments in various programmes thus improve the inflow of funds into IGNOU.
6) It will definitely reduce the number of student grievances. Achieving Zero Defects will still be difficult but we will be tending towards it.

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