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IGNOU reaching the unreached at lower cost with technology: Prof. Nageshwar Rao

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For the academic session 2015-16, IGNOU has received an overwhelming 3 lakh new applications, out of which about 45000 came through newly established online admission mechanism. “We are highly encouraged by the outcome of online admission process. In January 2016 academic session, we will announce the dates much earlier so that more students can apply online. We are now also looking to discontinue the publishing of the prospectus as with online system in place there is no need for prospectus,” says  Prof. Nageshwar Rao, Vice Chancellor (In-Charge), Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) in conversation with Mohd Ujaley.

Edited Excerpts:

For the academic session 2015-16, IGNOU has received an overwhelming 3 lakh new applications, out of which about 45000 came through newly established online admission mechanism. How has been university attempt with online system and what role do you see technology playing in raising the enrollment and ease for learners?
We are highly encouraged by the outcome of online admission process which we have done for the first time. This year, we have been little late in announcing the date for online admission as you know our admission process started in April 2015 and we made the announcement for online admission in May 2015. We thought that our online applications would not cross more than 10000 but students have responded positively and hence, the enrollment has touched 45000. We are getting feedback from students, parents and from our regional centres. They have pointed out some discrepancies in the system and same has been addressed. In January 2016, academic session, the system will be much more foolproof. We will announce the dates much earlier so that more and more students can apply online. We are now also looking to discontinue the publishing of the prospectus because it is a costly affair for the university as it has to be distributed, accounted and also people sell it on higher prices. With online system in place there is no need for prospectus. We are exploring this idea for the subsequent session.

The biggest achievement of the online admission system is that there is ease for the learners and for university enrollment has gone up by 30%. Now the learners need not to come to our regional centres, they need not to get their demand draft made and there is no need to stand-up in long ques, they can apply with ease and comfort from their home. Keeping in view of the demand for use of technology in  our system and administration, we have given special training to our own staff at headquarter and 67 regional centres spread across the country.

Most of the process related to examination, admission and recruitment are already conducted through our website. We are providing examination results, admit cards, mark sheets etc. online. Now only conducting online examination is left but that is a bigger issue because UGC does not permit us to do so. Couple of years ago, we started some online courses in which about 200-300 students enrolled but UGC did not recognise those courses, therefore, we had to discontinued them. However we are mentally prepared to do so as and when, we get the clearance.

You mentioned about reaching out to lower strata of the society with online admission process. Can you tell us what segment of the students are presently opting for online admission?
Presently, it is mostly urban students. Out of 45000 applications that we have received about 10000 are from Delhi itself and if you include all the metros, this number will be around 60%. Therefore, still we have to reach out to lower strata of the society and may be once we promote our online admission system, the responses from rural area will be higher. Also, with proliferation of internet connectivity, it is likely to go up.

Some of your regional centres including the Dehradun centre have sent proposal for using tablet. What is your view on using new technologies for improving the scope of the education being provided at IGNOU?
I am in favour of using technology for education but at IGNOU we are looking at a much better proposition. We had Gyan Vani and Gyan Darshan satellite channels. Recently it was discontinued but again we are trying to reactivate it. With these satellite channels, we can disseminate information in much better and cheaper ways. As far as use of tablet is concern, we need to look at two things: it should be cost effective to the university and student should not have to pay more. Our 90% revenue comes from the fee from the students and our average fees is about 3000 only. We are open to use tablet, it will not cost more than 4000-5000. And, also with tablet we will not have to sent the study material separately to the students, all the information and course material can be provided on tablet itself.

You will recall that earlier we put all our course material online under eGyan Kosh but due to IPR policy, we had to stopped it. About 90% of our course are already converted into digital form. We are now trying to overcome the IPR issue. We have put a proposal in our board to see that how IPR policy does not get conflicted with government directive. Once we are able to settle the IPR policy issue, I think there won’t be any need of using tablet. We can provide all the details online directly to the student and they can download it as per their own convenience.

Some of the international open universities are using predictive analytics tools to understand the learning behaviour of student and plan course material and curricula. Is IGNOU also  using such tools?
Yes, we are using it. We have a planning division, they have maintained data based of all the learners since 1987. Now we are making comparative study of the data: course-wise, age-wise and sex-wise. So far, it has not been published but I am encouraging them to publish it so that people outside IGNOU can also benefit from it. In addition to planning division, our regional centres are providing information about the popularity of different courses which helps in understanding the broader outlook of our syllabus and course. As far using specific software is concern, some of them are being created by our own staff as we have a computer division with the strength of 50 people. In addition to that there is technology enabled group of around 15-20 people, with their help, we always try to figure out learner friendly technology for adoption.

Due to the growing popularity of cloud computing, virtualisation, data analytics and other areas of IT, some universities have started offering advanced courses in these subjects. Is IGNOU planning to offer advanced courses in emerging technologies?
We completely agree that every course has a life cycle. Five years ago some courses such as MBA were very popular but today it does not have the same acceptance. University such as IGNOU are constrained by lack of technological manpower. The technological manpower that we have is not comparable with the private companies. Hence, it is challenging to offer courses in such as subjects. Also, if you look at the fees structure of these courses by the private organisations, it is very high. We got the societal responsibility too, so we have to ensure affordability of our courses. Understanding the importance of these course, we did signed few memorandum of understandings (MoUs) with some private organisations but unfortunately our experience has been quite disturbing. They used our branding for credibility but charged huge amount of fees from the student and that is completely against our motto of being affordable to all sections of the society. So we have cancelled those MoUs. How serious we are about modern technologies can be understood from the fact that we have been using Ordeal software from Tata Technologies and we paid them about 30-40 crores but when today that software has lost its relevance, we have moved to an advance version of SAP.

There is a feeling that people who get educated through the open  and distance learning programmes are less employable. What steps are you taking to help IGNOU students find suitable jobs?
The concept of only providing degree is getting changed. Now open learning institution are providing placement opportunities too. We have a placement cell at headquarter and at regional centres. In fact, recently our Noida centre organised a placement opportunity meet in which 11 companies and 500 student participated. Out of 500 students, about 150 were shortlisted and finally about 50 student were selected for the job. This indicates that the students of IGNOU are also comparable with the students of conventional universities. Also, IndiGo airlines has hired about 50 student from our HQ and now they are going to our regional centres across the country to hire more. In addition to these, we have industry collaboration with Hero Motors in which we provide the theoretical training and Hero Motors takes care of practical training. We also have a tri-party collaboration with the Tihar Jail, in which Hero Motors is the third party. Training is provided at Tihar Jail, we certify them and they get the job at Hero Motors. The people who are considered as liability, we are converting them into asset.

How do you ensure that IGNOU remain financially viable?
Open and distance learning is a very cost effective proposition. Government does not provide any grant except in cases where some developmental work has to be done. There are some fixed cost for preparing the course material else everything is on virtual basis. We do not own the teachers, we hire them. We have about 4000 teacher in IGNOU  but the work they do is for about 40000 teachers. We have counsellors across the country but we pay them on per lecture basis. So fixed burden is very limited. For example for a particular course if we have to spend 5 crore, within three years, we are able to get it back. You will surprise to notice that in last 2-3 years, we have not raised the fees but our finance remain strong.

What next do you see in open learning in India?
Recently government has given the task of visualising open learning for next 30 years. We see incorporation of learning, skills, employability and partnership with the industry at massive scale. There are couple of challenges such as we don’t need the manpower that we have right now. We need technological manpower. Other key challenge is that we cannot offer some of the popular courses in law, engineering, agriculture etc. Although, MHRD is very keen to offer these courses through IGNOU but respective educational bodies such as Bar Council does not permit us to do so. I feel they should allow us to offer these course.

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