May 2008

Building knowledge society with open and distance learning

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In spite of our significant efforts and achievements in the post-independent era in India even now one-third of the adult population is illiterate, only 12% of the school eligible age children complete 10th standard, and only 10% of the university eligible age group gets enrolled in our 18600 colleges and 360 Universities. Can conventional methods cope up this scale of educational challenges? Can we make a major foray into educational technology by launching open and distance learning system?

Today all over the world, we hear the agenda, Learning for Development. Professor Amartya Sen portrays development as freedom, expressed concretely in the widely accepted programmes for bettering the human conditions that includes the UN's Millennium Development Goals, the Goals of Education of All, the Commonwealth objectives of peace, democracy, equality and good governance and sustainable development. Expanding human learning is essential to the achievement of every element in this agenda and knowledge is the path to freedom.  Conventional teaching-learning methods cannot cope up with the scale of educational challenges, particularly in highly populated developing countries.

Technologies of different kinds need to be harnessed to supplement the conventional teaching and learning process. We need to promote powerful models for applying technology to learning for various purposes. We need to eliminate illiteracy and ignorance, we have to create wider access to schooling, we have to improve the health condition of the people, we have to find out methods for increasing the income of our farmers, and we have to link learning to better livelihoods.

If you look at the growth patterns of the developed countries, you will identify three innate educational criteria related to literacy, school education and post-school higher education attainments. All the developed countries have achieved universal literacy. That is over 95% of the adults can read, write and count. The female literacy levels are also equal or even higher in these developed countries. The completion of school education of the school-eligible age children in the developed countries is near-universal, over 85%. The post-school higher education opportunities are there for between 50 and 80% in all developed countries.  In spite of our significant efforts and achievements in the post-independent era in our country even now one-third of the adult population is illiterate, only 12% of the school eligible age children complete 10th standard, and only 10% of the university eligible age group gets enrolled in our 18600 colleges and 360 Universities. These educational gaps are characteristics of all developing countries. Only by appropriate and innovative use of technologies we can address these challenges of scaling up of educational opportunities.
Educational technologies are particularly important for developing countries in the areas of higher education, teacher training, schooling, and non-formal learning. The large scale application of technology to learning began at the post-secondary level because success there was more likely to stimulate adoption at other levels than the other way round. For a number of developing countries, launching an open and distance learning system was the first major foray into educational technology. Higher distance learning has grown at an accelerating pace in the last two decades. These countries have also a tradition of dual-mode institutions that combine distance teaching with campus instructions. The developments in distance teaching-learning have had a huge impact on access all over the world. In our country, distance learning accounts for 24% university students and the government policy aims to raise this to 40% in the coming years.

Distance education has been particularly helpful for women. In South Africa, 4 out of every student enrolled in higher education study at a distance. In India, women make up 40% of distance students compared with 28% in the conventional face-to-face mode. 

Availability of trained teachers has been the major obstacle to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education. Africa alone must train and recruit 4 million new teachers in the next 10 years to reach the goal. In the last 15 years, teacher education at a distance has expanded its purpose and audiences, improved its effectiveness, and harnessed information and communication technologies (ICTs) in a sophisticated, but steady manner.

Achieving universal primary education is a vital developmental goal. Educational technology directly as well as through its application to teacher education can only address this challenge. Countries are focusing to alternative means of secondary schooling. Open Schooling uses high-quality self-instructional materials coupled with networks of local centres and trained facilitators to support the learners. Common curricula across the school systems make it easier to achieve economies of scale.

In addition to the application of technology to expand and enhance the formal education system in the areas of school education, teacher training and higher education, the basic development agenda of improving health, reducing poverty and in sustainable development, calls for learning on a massive scale. This should have the focus on improving livelihoods and fostering a healthy population. Improving the livelihoods in rural areas is central to poverty reduction. These livelihoods are mostly farming- dependent and agricultural extension is still largely based on face-to-face communication and demonstration. Communication technology has a great role in these areas of agricultural extension and sustainable development.

The United Nations have proclaimed the years 2005-2014 as the World Decade of Education for Sustainable Development. Sustainability is the key goal for the 21st Century. It means that future generations should have the same change of leading a fulfilled life as the earlier generations.  At the same time, the opportunity to live a quality life must be more fairly distributed around the world today. Sustainable development combines economic progress with social justice and conservation of the natural environment. Sustainability is as pressing a task as it is great and noble one. It cannot be merely decreed from the top hierarchy; it must be learnt.  In this context, Education for Sustainable Development instills the competencies that are required if we are to build our lives in a manner fit for the future.

The aim of ESD is to integrate the idea of a form of development which is environmentally, economically and socially sustainable into education around the world. Education for Sustainable Development is equally relevant to learning in kindergartens, schools, universities, further education and cultural institutions, or research institutes. The necessity of realizing the objectives of achieving a balance between economic efficiency, social justice and conservation of ecosystems and the responsible use of natural resources has to be integrated to the teaching-learning at all levels.

If the damaging consequences of global climate change are to be understood, and if effective countermeasures are to be developed, research is essential. Education, science and politics should work together to formulate the path for sustainable development. In order to bring sustainable development forwards, large numbers of scientists must work together in an interdisciplinary environment. They must make sure that scientific and research findings get through to education, the general public and public debate.

The most challenging problem which our country, and developing countries all over the world, have to face in coming decades will be to provide food, health, and economic security to millions of our population.  This requires a careful matching of scientific and technological vectors with social dynamics. Building up sustainable regenerative capacity of the land and water resources to provide basic food and economic security to the people at large, without compromising on the ecological and environmental integrity is the challenge before all of us. In this context it is absolutely imperative that we make use of advances in Science and Technology for building up the carrying capacity of the country on a sustainable basis.

Any successful educational programme has to take into account the needs of the intended learner. We also have to find out what type of knowledge work is needed for the real growth of the country and what type of skilled force. We have to look at the market requirements, service sector, we have to probe the agricultural sector, organised sectors of the country and see what are the types of knowledge they require, what are the kinds of skills they need. Then let us analyse the skills and knowledge we provide to our graduates. Then see the mismatch and fill the gaps. Find out the additional knowledge and additional skills required and create a mechanism for providing this additional skill, additional knowledge.

Sustainability Science in India

Sustainibility Science provides the theoretical basis for the planning and implementing sustainable development programmes and activates. It is an academic amalgamate/malange of multiple disciplines such as economics, engineering, environmental sciences, geography, sociology and political science. The alarming rate at which ecological degradation is taking place has highlighted the crucial need to reform the current development model and resort to a more sustainable one thus ensuring enhancement of the quality of human life.

In keeping with its vision of promoting the goal of ecological sustainability and fostering eco-friendly development strategies, IGNOU established a Chair chaired by Professor M.S. Swaminathan who has been referred to by the United Nation Environment Programme as the 'Father of Economic Ecology'.

The chair seeks to carry forward research and development in the field of Sustainability Science by adopting a systems approach for the development of strategies for sustainable development and initiate 'action education' programmes in major eco-systems. The chair will also create various courses for scientists, stake-holders and decision makers and along assisting government bodies with research.

Some of the activities of the Chair are as follows:

  • Action Research Projects on Sustainable Development in seven Agroclimatic Regions of the country (hill, arid, semi-arid, coastal, irrigated, mountain and island),
  • Education and training material,
  • Policy Studies for preparing a document on Sustainable Development resulting in the development of an 'Agenda 21 for India',
  • Organized sensitization and regional workshops on the five priority areas highlighted by the World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg in 2002 i.e. Water,  Energy, Health, Agriculture, Biodiversity and Ecosystem Management,
  • Spreading Public Awareness,
  • Research and Development,
  • Networking and building databases.

The future is distance learning

There are more than 5 million unemployed graduates in the country. We have to find out what skills they lack – based on regional, national and global requirements – and prepare modules of training, for upgradation of skills and knowledge subject wise, taking inputs from students and prospective employers

In other words, open and distance learning should have a major role in capacity building, rather than just awarding degrees.  But of course the Open University system should give the student a chance to earn the degree if he cannot afford to get it from the conventional stream for reasons beyond his control.

There are more than 5 million unemployed graduates in the country. We have to find out what skills they lack – based on regional, national and global requirements



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