Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Bottlenecks in IGNOU: An analysis of the problems with probable solutions - Part 2

These are some of my thoughts that I have formulated based on my experience since I joined IGNOU in 2006. Some of them may have got expressed earlier also. All the views expressed here are with the intention to enhance the reputation of the university and the well being of students of IGNOU. The suggestions discussed under several headings are as follows: Introduce Performance based incentives 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. The targets can be set after mutual consent of the boss and the subordinate. 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. Such a system can be best administered by Human Resource professionals. Chronic problem of huge number of student grievances: Where lays the solution? Given the huge scale of operations, IGNOU we will continue to have bottle necks if the present system is continued. 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. This would involve strengthening of the Regional Centres in terms of physical infrastructure and manpower at all levels which includes additional teachers/academics. 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 smaller scale one can achieve Zero Defects in the service. Decentralisation will provide more autonomy to the Regional Centres. They can function like autonomous colleges and take care of entire gamut of procedures like admission, registration & examination while the university head quarter can operate like the UGC and provide funding and other kinds of support to the Regional Centres. Of course, the university will continue to 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. How will the system work? To enable complete decentralization successfully it would be important to strengthen the Regional Centres with physical infrastructure and adequate human resource. Ideally, an academic/teacher of Professor/Reader rank can be made the Director/Director in-charge of the Regional Centres. It would be even better if the top post of the Regional Centre is fixed for a specified term on a rotation basis. Let’s take the other solution- A highly automated system using a comprehensive web-enabled 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-enabled software solution which can be accessed from any computer. All the data so entered through the software may be stored in a central server, which in turn can be mined by the web-enabled software to generate reports. The scope of the 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-enabled 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.

Fig. 1 (A model software solution)

Requirements for the success of the system:

Human Resource factors: While a project of this nature is not possible without the support of top management it is also equally important to communicate extensively with the stake holders who would be affected by the change. It would be very important to take care of various human resource factors. 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. Few years back, JNU’s Entrance Results 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 certain sections 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, for making entries and generating reports pertaining to a certain region, 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, create academic content, and engage in academic research and seminars.
6) It will definitely reduce the number of student grievances. Achieving Zero Grievances will still be difficult but we will be tending towards it.

Effective use of the existing ICT infrastructure:

Enable broadband internet through the VSATs currently being used for Edusat only

We can explore the possibility of using the existing VSAT facility, which is currently being used only for Edusat counseling, to provide internet connectivity. Thus all the Regional Centres and Study Centres where Edusat facility is installed can have access to the internet and can also become part of an integrated network. The ERP system, which is currently being implemented at the Head Quarter, can thus be extended to all such locations. If not all the locations, at least the facility can be extended to all the Regional Centres. This simple act of extending the capacity of the existing infrastructure can result in savings on cost and increase office productivity.

Improve student support services using the IGNOU Webmail

It is heartening to note that IGNOU is gradually enabling its systems and processes by utilizing Information and Communication technologies. Here, I would like to share my thoughts on the powerful use of the recently launched IGNOU Webmail that uses the gmail server.

We can think of extending the email facility under domain to all employees of IGNOU and the Study Centres. This will enable faster communication of changes to all employees. Especially, at a time when IGNOU’s systems and processes are changing so fast, the email can be a tool for bridging all gaps in communication. Well informed employees can be much more productive than an employee who is not so well informed about the prevailing rules, conditions, and objectives of the organisation.

Even better idea would be to allot an email id to all the students registered with IGNOU. This will enable speedy communication about the changes in academic matters that concern them. Further, various egroups can be formed - programme wise - to enable collaborative learning among the students of IGNOU. These egroups can be moderated by the faculty of respective schools. The egroups would be a forum where learners can float their problems and get probable solutions from fellow students and the faculty. Members can also chat among themselves using the integrated chat engine to engage in academic discussions. Thus the class room environment which appears to be the advantage of conventional system can be simulated virtually.

If we take the idea a little further, various groups of learners can launch their own private websites with limited access to certain members or with full access to all members within the domain. They can post their problems on the website and the solutions can be viewed and reviewed by all members who have a valid email id under the domain.

Indeed, the IGNOU Webmail system can be used to facilitate online learning for all the programmes of IGNOU. Users can use the features of IGNOU Webmail after a minimal acquaintance with the interface of gmail.

Use of Mobile phones in Distance Education

With continual decrease in prices of mobile phones and tariff rates, the use of mobiles can be considered to facilitate Distance Education.

IGNOU can consider collaborating with one or more telephone companies to offer the services. As part of the collaboration, IGNOU’s learners can be offered a free mobile connection. Listed below is a possible scheme for using mobile phones for Distance Education.

1. The cell phone device could be given along with the study material. Perhaps, an option to this effect can be incorporated in the admission form itself, ie, whether the learner wants the SIM only or the Handset and the SIM. The course fee can accordingly differ for the two cases.

2. The validity of the SIM without monthly rental can be negotiated with the telephone company for a period of 4 years or the duration of the programme.

3. To have more bargaining power the whole initiative can be taken up at the central level. The initiative can be spearheaded by the Student Support Service Cell/Unit. (Smaller centres of the North East with enrolments of less than a thousand will not be able to negotiate attractive terms. Therefore, to have the best terms in favour of IGNOU students, a university level agreement will be appropriate).

5. SMS between students and IGNOU can be free of charge. This facility can be integrated with the Edusat / teleconferencing so that students can SMS their doubts/queries on real time basis. Further, the facility can be used to communicate to students about Teleconferencing Schedule, exam dates, face-to-face counselling sessions, etc.

6. Call rates for IGNOU students can be fixed at a lower rate. At least lower call rates can be negotiated for calls originating and terminating between IGNOU students and IGNOU. This will allow students to communicate with each other to solve their problems and provide support to each other.

7. Attractive rates can also be negotiated for value added services like online education, webcasting, mobile TV, etc.


Recent emphasis on training notwithstanding, it has been observed that traditionally IGNOU has been recruiting employees who are not given any training and they have to learn the ropes on the job. If this continues for a long period of time there is a risk of deviation in the office procedure of an organization. More so, if the organization is as dispersed as IGNOU is. Therefore, it is important to not only train the new entrants but also the existing employees to update them about the new changes taking place in the organization.

Irrespective of the position in which a new entrant joins, whether Group A, B, C, or D, initial training on the organization’s office practice is a must. Such training will acquaint new employees on matters concerning office procedure and the propriety of office practices. Initial training can be of great value for orienting the new entrants about the organizations stated objectives and ethics.

Training programmes also need to be devised to take care of the specific training needs of the staff belonging to different departments. Exams or tests can be integrated into the training programmes so that they are taken seriously. The performance in such tests can become part of the personal records of the employees.

A comprehensive training system for training needs assessment
The Performance Appraisal System discussed earlier can be integrated with an instrument for identifying individual training needs of employees. However, a more dynamic approach would be to have an integrated training system in place which will include all training related activities ranging from training needs assessment to evaluation of effectiveness of training programmes. This entire process of identification of training needs and provisioning of training programmes should be aligned with the objectives of the organization. Only then can we ensure effectiveness of our training programmes.

Delegation and empowerment

From my interactions with colleagues at various Regional Centres it appears that there is a tendency to look at junior officers as competitors rather than as colleagues who can make a difference. Therefore, it is important to create enough free space for officials at all levels to enable them to use their talents and creative potential. In short, each official can be allocated certain process for which he/she will be entirely responsible. To carry out the responsibility he/she should be given the freedom to assimilate the required resources. This would require delegation of financial and academic power at these levels. It would also involve direct communication to and from such officials on certain matters that they are engaged with. It should be realized that one is most motivated when he or she has a sense of ownership of the process that he or she is engaged in. Thus we can ensure responsibility, authority and accountability at all positions.

Scope of innovation in Material Production & Distribution

From my limited experience at IGNOU I have realized that a bulk of the students’ complaints refer to Non-receipt of study material. We must realize that our core competence is in designing and developing course content and that the industrial activities like material production and distribution are not our core activities. The huge number of complaints is an evidence of that. Material storage and distribution requires some specialized professional skills like logistics and material management. Therefore, we may consider outsourcing the entire gamut of activities pertaining to material production and distribution to a large publication house. The distribution channel of the publication house can be effectively used for speedy delivery of study material.

There exists a latent demand for IGNOU’s study material in the open market. This demand can also be met if we will allow retailing of IGNOU’s study material through book shops. Students who do not receive the material on time or those who have misplaced their study material can conveniently source it from the market.

Therefore, IGNOU can enter into an MOU/agreement with one or more publisher(s) and strengthen the distribution channel. In doing so, IGNOU can also potentially increase its revenue through royalty, commission, etc. I believe, thus we can reduce the number of complaints relating to non-receipt of study material.

Need for a Quality Procedure and an Internal Audit team

Quality is one issue that we very often keep debating as Distance Educationists, but rarely have we tried to move beyond the debate. If we seriously desire to ensure quality then we should start thinking in terms of implementing a quality procedure under the guidance of a dedicated Quality Control Department. Perhaps one can think of having an internal audit team which can take care of internal audit of accounts as well as quality audit of all other office procedures.

We can consider the ISO Quality Systems as a tool for implementing quality in Distance Education. To put very simply, ISO Quality Systems operate on the principle of ‘say what you do, do what you say’. The emphasis is on consistency. Therefore we would have to document all our procedures and ensure that we follow the documented procedure in delivering Distance Education. This does not mean that the procedure once documented would remain static, rather the Quality System allows for change and such change if and when effected, needs to be updated in the Quality Manual.

A Quality system will definitely ensure consistency in the delivery mechanism apart from improving the delivery of service for our learners and the staff within the organization.

One full time employee at the study centre on regular or contractual basis

Coordinators of some large study centres have been requesting for provisioning of an employee of Group-C level to man the study centre on the week days. This is especially required for large study centres where Edusat facility is installed. The this employee can be entrusted with the task of providing day to day administrative support to the learners and also sell Prospectus to prospective learners. This requirement has more relevance today given the emphasis on telecounselling and the recently introduced practice of Walk–in Admission for majority of the programmes.

Manoj Tirkey