When I say Distance Learning here, I am combining Open and Distance Learning under the same label - because, in India, these two terms are used interchangeably and without a real distinction. There are specific universities, in every state as well as at the national level, set up for Open Learning. But they function like any other university, requiring a level of formal education as the pre-requisite to entry, a mass of paperwork to go through its courses and a number of pen and paper examinations at every level. Distance Learning, by contrast, is only a term variation, offered by brick-and-mortar universities, in exactly the same format. By some estimates, there are more than 3 Million students in India in these programmes, making it one of the largest, if not the largest, in the world.
Distance learning, of course, is enormously valuable to the Indian society at large. We simply don't have the classrooms to teach everyone in. This has become even more important as the traditional family structure in India, which offered many people an economic shelter [as it did to me while I was in college]. So, as kids start working straight out of school, distance learning provides them an attractive option to study for college. Most middle class parents would want that too. And, therefore, distance learning is becoming a substitute, in many cases, to formal college.
I was doing some base level studies on who takes distance learning programmes and why, and the outcomes somewhat surprised me. I have studied all my life - despite the work pressures - and was often subject to ridicule from my friends and family when I invariably had an exam to write or an assignment to turn in every summer. I took pride in my enterprise, but reflected upon their inability to understand my motivation, and pinned this down on the Hindu theory of Ashrams in life. The traditional Hindu thinking is that one lives through different stages, Ashrams, in life sequentially: starting with Shaisav [childhood], then Brahmyacharya [internship/ studentship], Sansar [Earn and Raise a family], Banaprastha [Retire] and Sanyas [when you leave the society and pray and wait for death]. While the economic realities changed and people needed lifelong learning, the thinking didn't - I argued - and hence people around me was not comfortable in me taking the exams and upgrading my skills and knowledge on an ongoing basis. I found great comfort in the success of distance learning in India, as this clearly indicated that the barriers are breaking down.
However, when I went beyond the surface, I saw a different picture. First of all, many of distance learning students in India, at much as 50% by some estimates and an overwhelming 90% in my sample, chose distance learning because their choice of degrees were not available in the traditional colleges. Most people chose IT and Management, and liberal arts degrees, though available, are at the bottom of the pack. Some people also chose very specialized streams of study - like Geographic Information System [GIS] and Banking - not because they had an interest or they were in the field already - but because of the prospects after study and easier entry criteria.
I also noticed the enormous success of distance learning study centres all over India. They run like regular colleges, offering a number of attractive courses to the students at an affordable price. Their teachers are often not up to mark and their infrastructure is crumbling, but they pass off as they are not subject to the same level of supervision and compliance as the regular colleges. In fact, the study centres have successfully commercialized education in India. Participating universities have amassed fortunes by appointing study centres and it is not uncommon to learn about corruption in the process of selection of a study centre. In course my study, I have been told by one entrepreneur how his erstwhile partners influenced the university's selection committee through a clever combination of vice and blackmail, and then, after being appointed a nodal agency, auctioned off the study centres in other localities to the highest bidders.
It indeed ushers in a disturbing realization that while we need more distance learning, there is something wrong the way it is done today. The regulatory framework is simply too weak and more often than not, distance learning study centres distort the process of education and shortchange both students and the universities. They also distort the labour market by hawking degrees to undeserving candidates. Technology usage in distance learning remains limited and where available, often poorly implemented.
Overall, I concluded my study with disappointment and sadness. I noted, like many things in India, distance learning, despite its enormous possibilities and advantages, remains the ugly underbelly of education. As with many other things, I noted things are changing - with the advent of private education and greater consumer awareness. But, in the end, a note of caution. I was told by a boasting distance learning entrepreneur that they succeed by reaching education to those who can not get education. Like wrong medicine isn't a substitute of right treatment, poor quality education isn't better than no education. In fact, it is worse - as it creates a false impression, distorts the person's self-realization and undermines the perceived value of education overall.