Being a distance education student in India, particularly with a government-run university, is not as easy as it should be. Communication is sporadic; multiple campus visits are required; admission dates, exam schedules and results can be shrouded in mystery, confusion and delays.
In the absence of something as simple as a WhatsApp group, students are forced to depend on informal networks of their own.
“We talk to each other on the phone regularly and compare notes on things like study material, results and admissions dates,” says Nilesh Samant, 23, a finance executive pursuing a Masters in Commerce at the University of Mumbai’s Institute of Distance and Open Learning (IDOL).
“Eight months after admission, I still have only two out of the four book sets. The other two modules haven’t arrived. I’ve decided to shell out more money and buy reference books instead,” says Prabhakar Thakur, pursuing an MA in History at the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU).
At Savitribai Phule Pune University (SPPU), students say admission forms are returned to students over obscure reasons and there is confusion regarding exam schedules.
Director of IDOL D Harichandran says the institute has a website and a Facebook page. “Monitoring more platforms like a WhatsApp group or Google Docs would be not possible given our staff strength,” he adds.
An official response from IGNOU’s public relations office admitted that “the academic programmes in universities, both undergraduate and post-graduate levels, need to revise their curriculum and structure in tune with the changing employment requirements”, adding that “a strong presence on social media can enhance outreach and that is what we are aiming for.”
At IGNOU, study materials finally went online in July. “An e-Content app has been developed by the university, which is available on the Google PlayStore,” says the official response from the chief public relations officer at IGNOU.
Aiming to facilitate better communication, IDOL is now setting up 60 Learners’ Support Centres across the state. By the end of the year, they plan to have at least 10 centres in the city where students can enrol for courses, have questions answered, and collect study material. “Students will no longer have to visit the Kalina campus for such things,” says IDOL director D Harichandran.
In terms of the way forward, private institutions — admittedly better funded and far more expensive — offer a possible roadmap. They have been working for a while to ensure convenience, work out ways in which procedures can be completed online, communication is effective and schedules are clearly stated and adhered to. At WeSchool, education counsellors may even visit your residence or place of convenience if you ask, to help you choose between subjects and programmes. “I was confused between the specialisations in finance, investment and operations module of MBA and, after a visit from their counsellor, I got a clearer idea of what to pursue,” says Dhiraj Shetty, who works at a multinational risk management and insurance firm and is set to start his course next month.
At the Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies, classroom lectures are recorded and uploaded for students pursuing MBA through distance education, to give them access to the best faculty and classroom experience possible.
“I was keen on a full-time MBA, but I was wary of giving up my job. So I settled for NMIMS’s distance course. With their recorded lectures, I get the closest thing to a classroom experience. The faculty is also very quick in responding to queries via email,” says Nehali Jain, 24.
An up-to-date curriculum and good communication network are the two major factors for an institution’s success in imparting distance education, says Dhiraj Mathur, leader of national education practices at professional services company PricewaterhouseCoopers. “Going online is an important thing that universities must focus on,” he adds. “The public institutions are affordable and must take steps to improve their services so that more students approach them for higher studies.”