Saturday, June 8, 2013

Distance education: challenges & opportunities


Randeep Wadehra

Quality assurance in distance education and learning Edited by Insung Jung, Tat Meng Wong, Tian Belawati

Sage. Pages: xxiv+307. Price: Rs. 795/-

Over time, education has evolved from being a formal, structured system confined to classrooms to a more open and informal arrangement that is perceptibly less rigid. The open university system and its byproduct, distance education, are the salient features of this latest way of teaching. It all started in 1946, when the University of South Africa became the first open university. In 1969, the Open University of the United Kingdom followed suit. Now, there are any number of open universities providing education to students around the globe, thanks to the internet technology, which had facilitated the launching of first e-learning course in 1984. Today, students have virtual classrooms and their own tutors, who provided academic lectures from thousands of miles away in real time. However, as the book rightly points out, quality assurance remains an issue. 

Since education has become an “industrial product” that is delivered at the “consumer’s” doorsteps, the need for setting certain standards has become imperative. As Asha Kanwar mentions, the term “standards” has been replaced with “Quality Assurance” since the Open & Distance Learning, or ODL, has acquired industrial production line features “in the sense of mass production and extensive mass distribution of study materials.” This very feature of “mass scale production and distribution” raises questions about the feasibility of assuring quality. Although various open universities can reach out to students globally, there is no global institution having the facility or authority to ensure quality. Moreover, doubts persist whether such an institution is feasible or even desirable. Nonetheless, several countries have established regulatory and/or accreditation bodies, which help develop quality assurance policies for their respective higher education sectors. 

While discussing the existing regulatory network pertaining to quality assurance in distance education, the book enumerates several steps taken by different countries and institutions in this regard. The growth of distance learning institutions in Asia has been impressive. Side by side, national level accreditation agencies were formed in Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, China, Korea, Sri Lanka, Singapore and Philippines. In 2004, the Asia Pacific Quality Network was established, followed by the ASEAN Quality Assurance Network.

However, as various contributors to this tome agree, it takes time to conceptualize quality assurance standards. The reason for this is simple. It is not possible to apply the standards designed for the conventional education institutions to this essentially 21st century phenomenon due to the vast differences that exist in education delivery systems and oversight needs. Moreover, there is inevitably a gestation period for these standards to acquire a formal profile, and be implemented through pre-determined systems and structures. The various open universities have come to realize that their reputations will depend upon several factors, viz., the reliability of their course development systems, the efficiency of systems set in place for delivering distance education and, vitally, integrity of assessment procedures. This is where the quality of staff employed will come into play. The faculty as well as the various administrative and supporting staff will have to be so integrated that high quality educational content is developed and regularly updated. The human resource employed – faculty, tutors, staff etc – should be able to realize its full potential vis-à-vis quality assurance. The delivery of such content should be aimed at having a lasting quality impact upon the students – the ultimate consumers.

Although distance learning has taken great strides in the recent years, much more remains to be done. This volume provides a thought provoking and informative discussion, even as it outlines the challenges and possibilities that the future holds for the growth of distance education.

 Published in The Financial World dated 08 June, 2013


No comments: