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Jawarimal Parakh

Teacher as Distance Teacher: A case study of ODL system in India

Jawarimal Parakh
School of Humanities, Indira Gandhi National Open University, New Delhi, India

The first Open University was established in India in 1982 at Hyderabad which is now called Dr.B.R.Ambedkar Open university. The Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) – the first Open university with national jurisdiction- was established in India in 1985 by an Act of Parliament. To provide opportunities for higher education to those who have been deprived from it due to social and economical reasons is one of the major objectives of IGNOU. To reach the above sections of the society, a flexible and open education system is the need of the time. IGNOU Act provides the broad guidelines in this regard. The IGNOU Act defines the objectives and functions of the university and it also defines some important terminologies which are deeply associated with the Open and Distance Learning (ODL) system. The word “ Teacher” is one of them. If we look at the definition of teachers as employees of the University as given in IGNOU Act in respect of its objects, one can easily understand the role of teachers vis-a-vis other categories of employees of the University. But the definition of a teacher given in the Act initiated debate in early years of the University among teachers and management. This article tries to observe and analyze the efforts made by the teachers and management of the University to define and determine the duties and activities of the teachers and academics. It also tries to understand and analyse the impact and consequences of the evolving definition of a teacher in the past two decades on the academic activities of not only IGNOU but also on other ODL institutions in the country.

Teacher as Distance Teacher: A Case Study of ODL System in India

Education in modern times is changing rapidly due to rapid changes in the society. India is a democratic society where every citizen has the right to get education from the primary to the university level. The state must fulfill the needs and aspirations of the people for acquiring education. In the early 1990s, only 5% of the total eligible population enrolled in higher education institutions of India. A developing country like India cannot afford that a large segment of its population be deprived of higher education only because its colleges and universities have no place for them. The introduction of education through correspondence helped to some extent to reach the students who could not attend regular classes. However, the demand for higher education could not be fulfilled through Correspondence Courses Institutions (CCIs). It needed a long-term and effective strategy. Thus, it was at the right juncture of time that the open learning system entered the scenario.

The first Open University was established in India in 1982 at Hyderabad. It is now called Dr. B.R. Ambedkar Open University. It is a state university. The Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) was established in 1985 by an act of the Indian Parliament. India now has 11 state open universities and one national open university. In 2003-04, the total enrolment in the open universities was around one million. If we include all distance education institutions, the enrolment would be about two million. This means that 20% of the total enrolment in higher education institutions is in the ODIs (DEC-DATABASE, 2003-04). It is also obvious that open universities have a vital role in disseminating higher education to the larger sections of the people of India.

One of the main objects behind the establishment of the Open University is to provide higher education to the socio-economically deprived sections of India. The IGNOU Act says in its first schedule in section 1 (f): [It shall] provide access to higher education for large segments of the population, and in particular, the disadvantaged groups such as those living in remote and rural areas including working people, housewives and other adults who wish to upgrade or acquire knowledge through studies in various fields.

If we try to understand the definitions of teachers and employees given in IGNOU Act in respect of the above objects, we can easily understand the functions of various employees of the University including the teachers and other academic staff. Section 2(f) of the IGNOU Act defines the word "employee" as "any person appointed by the University and includes teachers and other academic staff of the University." This definition clarifies that the "teachers and other academic staff" are employees of the University along with any other persons appointed by the University. Again the sub section (p) of the section 2, defines the word "Teachers" as "Professors, Readers, Lecturers and such other persons as may be designated as such by the Ordinances for imparting instruction in the University or for giving guidance or rendering assistance to students for pursuing any course of study of the University." Section 2 of IGNOU Act includes 18 definitions of the words but it does not include the word "academic" or "academic staff" as a separate entity. It comes with the word "teachers" as a phrase or to define the word teachers for explaining their work in the Open University system. There is no denial that the role of teachers in Open University system is different from the role of conventional system in some ways. But it does not mean that this role denies the basic meaning of teaching. The definition of teachers given in the Act explains the nature of work in the Open University System. It includes:

  1. imparting instruction

  2. giving guidance

  3. rendering assistance to students for pursuing a course of study

The word "teaching" includes all these functions. These functions have been elaborated in clause 1 (vi) of Section 5 of the Act, which deals with the powers of the University. Here we see some more functions included in the "teaching":

  1. preparing educational material

  2. designing of the course

  3. delivery of the course

  4. evaluation of the work done by students

Designing, preparing or developing and delivery of the courses are the three main functions at the Open University system and include three types of activities: academic, technical and administrative. No educational material can be prepared without academic input. Academic input means imparting instruction, giving guidance and rendering assistance for pursuing the study in a particular field. But this input should be presented in a manner that the educational material could carry out the academic objectives. If any course communicates successfully to the students it means that the presentation is effective. The presentation and communication of the course are as important as the content in distance education. We can say that the presentation and communication are more important in distance education rather than conventional system. The presentation and communication are also called the delivery of the course, which has three aspects:

    1. effective presentation of the course

    2. successful communication to the student

    3. physical delivery to the student

The first two aspects are academic in nature and cannot be separated from the content of the course. Every teacher should be knowledgeable and well trained in how to present and communicate the content of the course either in a classroom or through the distance mode. Thus, the basic difference between a conventional teacher and a distance teacher is only the mode of the delivery. S/he should know how to present and communicate through distance mode and for it s/he should identify and apply the appropriate methodology. But how can a teacher decide which methodology is appropriate and desirable for a particular course if s/he is not an expert in the subject? This analysis shows that the knowledge of the subject and the pedagogy is an integral part of teaching and cannot be separated.

However, in IGNOU, these two integral parts of the teaching were defined as separate functions since its inception. In 1988, Prof. Rais Ahmed committee (RAC) opined, "Section 5(1) (vi) of the Act provides for creation of other academic posts, some of which are teaching posts but some of which are different. According to this clause, academic posts would be in the area of preparing educational material or conducting other academic activities including guidance, designing, and delivery of course and evaluation of the work done by the students. The application of this clause should allow us to identify academic posts; which may be different from teaching posts." The basis for academic posts, which were different from teaching posts as per Rais Ahmed Committee Report are "many other activities which the University requires to implement its educational programmes." Obviously, these activities do not include the teaching component although their nature is academic. The Takwale Committee constituted in 1991 explained the difference between conventional teacher and distance teacher. Its report says, "In distance education, the role of an academic cannot be conceived only in the context of the methodology and technique associated with classroom teaching. A distance education teacher is not just a scholar or specialist in his discipline. He has to be a distance educator in the first place, while also, being a subject specialist or an experienced professional. This change in the role should get reflected progressively in the qualifications, methods of recruitment and the professional development of the academic in the distance education system." This analysis does not explain the real difference. It just says what "cannot be conceived" but maintains silence on what can be conceived as academic work in distance education system.

Takwale Committee declared many technical or administrative posts as academic posts without analysing their nature of work. It diluted the functions of the academics in the University. With this utter confusion, the University established a cadre of other academic staff. Some time later, the word "other" was dropped and now two types of teachers/academics exist in the University: The teachers designated as Professors, Readers and Lecturers working mostly in the Schools of Study and the Academics designated as Director, Joint Director, Assistant Director, Deputy Director, Assistant Regional Director, Deputy Regional Director, Regional Director, Producers, etc. working with Regional Services Divisions, Electronic Media Production Centre and other divisions.

The time has now come, when we may analyse the effect of this major policy decision taken by IGNOU. IGNOU is not simply a University but also an apex body "to encourage the Open University and distance education systems in the educational pattern of the country and to coordinate and determine the standards in such activities."(IGNOU Act, Section 4). Therefore, any decision taken by IGNOU will influence all distance education and open learning systems of the country. The first indicator is the numerical strength of teachers vis-ŕ-vis students. At present, the total student population in all open universities including IGNOU is about three million and the total strength of teachers/academic staff is 644. This means that on an average 4000 students have only one regular teacher. IGNOU had 383 teaching and academic staff for more than 1.3 million students on rolls in 2004-05. Thus, 3400 students have only one regular teacher/academic. If we take only the state open universities into account, per teacher student population goes up to 4600. Netaji Subhas Open University has only four regular teachers for more than 200,000 students. In 2004-05, IGNOU had only 217 sanctioned posts of teachers and of them only 161 teachers were in position. They developed 12 new academic programmes, 80 new courses and maintained 89 academic programmes and 820 courses alone in 2004-05. IGNOU normally has 4 to 8 credit courses (One Credit=30 Study hours). On an average we can say that these 80 new courses are equal to 400 credit courses. Thus, each teacher has developed 2.5 credits of courses and maintained 25 credits of courses in a year. If a teacher develops 2.5 credit courses in a year, it means that s/he would write 10 to 12 units of about 5000 words each. As per Distance Education Council norms, writing a unit is equivalent to a teacher workload of 100 to 150 hours. As per DEC norms a teacher should spend 1200 working hours on an average in a year. Thus, after developing a 2.5 credit course a teacher need not do any other work. But we know that s/he also maintains 25 credits of courses equivalent to 240-400 hours of work. At the same time s/he participates in the planning and designing of the curriculum and programmes, editing of courses, coordination of programmes/courses and also in the Radio counselling and tele-conferencing, which have become a regular feature due to the Edusat, a satellite exclusively devoted for education in India. We know that the maximum academic inputs are needed in unit writing and minimum in coordination and maintenance work. And we know that in IGNOU, teachers are spending maximum time in maintenance and coordination work and minimum in writing the unit. For speedily completing the development work, the University provides every facility to the core faculty. S/he can hire outside course writers, content and language editors and even proofreaders. It gives the opportunity to faculty members that without writing a single unit they can produce not only a course but also a full-fledged academic programme. Thus, a distance teacher is gradually morphing into an academic manager, whose primary function is to produce and launch the academic programme in a given time frame and maintain it successfully afterwards. Her/his expertise in a specific field of study has no relevance and s/he can even produce, launch and maintain academic programmes/courses any area without even the basic knowledge about the subject.

For 1.3 million students, IGNOU has 30 regional centres, six sub-regional centres and more than 1200 study centres all over India. For monitoring the counselling and assignments, IGNOU has 166 academic staff at Regional and Sub-regional centres. Thus, on an average, 5 academic staff including one regional director, 40 study centres and more than 40,000 students come under one regional centre. This implies that one assistant regional director posted at a regional centre should be responsible for 10 study centres and 10,000 students. Even after excluding the certificate programmes, the monitoring of counselling and assignments of 70 programmes and 750 courses is not an easy task for a regional centre with 5 academic staff. It is just impossible for them to monitor the academic tasks at study centres. They are busy with the administrative work related to admission and evaluation throughout the year. IGNOU has two sessions for admission and examinations; for admission, January and July sessions and for examination, June and December. IGNOU also organises two entrance tests every year in February and August respectively. Obviously, there is no scope for academic staff to do academic work at regional centres in the present scenario.

The three most important institutions of the University, Schools of Study, Regional Services Division and the Electronic Media Production Centre are now overburdened with administrative and managerial work. There is very little scope for teachers to devote time to any serious research in their discipline or even in distance education. However, It cannot be denied that the University's growth in terms of student enrolment, academic programmes, courses, regional centres, study centres has been phenomenal. The following table shows the growth since 2000 but when we compare the growth in term of teachers/academics we find stagnation and in real terms a decline.









































































































*The above data is based on the Annual Report of IGNOU, since 2000-01 to2005-06.

The above table* shows that in respect of programmes, courses, student enrolment, regional centres and study centres, the growth of teachers and academics is almost nil. The table also shows that the ratio between Programmes, courses, academic counsellors, study centres and student enrolment are almost the same. But in the case of regular staff, academic or non-academic we can see the sharp decline in academic staff. For example, in 2000-01, 765 students registered per regular academic/teacher but in 2004-05, 1270 students registered per regular academic/teacher and in 2005-06, 1370 students registered per regular academic/teacher. It shows 76% growth in student strength per teacher/academic in 6 years duration.

As we said earlier, this anomalous situation has arisen due to the wrong interpretation of the IGNOU Act, which is reflected in Takwale committee Report as, "The Role of a teacher in distance education system is considerably different from that of a teacher in the conventional system." Due to this approach, the Eighth Plan document of the University suggested that the faculty member of IGNOU will work as Course Director/Coordinator/Manager and will interact with course team for orientation and finalisation of the course material. This approach could not differentiate between academic aspects and operational aspects of the academic work. The teaching community of IGNOU has always protested this understanding, which is "the product of bureaucratic minds trying to marginalise teachers in every conceivable manner". The collective wisdom of teachers of IGNOU commented on the approach of TCR and Eighth Plan document and says: ".... University's experience proves that we cannot fulfill our responsibility of course preparation with the help of external Course Writers and experts alone. It is our own core faculty, which can successfully carry out the responsibility of the development and delivery of useful educational materials to the students and such a task cannot be fulfilled only by a Course Coordinator or Course Manager or Course Director as suggested in the Eighth Plan document and as implied in the TCR. Admittedly, the role of such Coordinator is essential in an Open University system like ours. But a good Coordinator should first and foremost be a subject-specialist; otherwise he/she cannot successfully coordinate the courses, or direct the course team. Therefore, in the Distance Education system, to carry out such tasks effectively one must be a "teacher" and a "teacher" only".

It does not mean that the official approach has always denied the teachers' concern about bureaucratisation of the distance education system. The Distance Education Council's (DEC) document on Work Norms for teachers and academics for open learning system and approved by the Board of Management of IGNOU clearly accepted that "The nature of teaching work in Open Universities is, in its essence, similar to other institutions of higher learning." The document also accepted that "The specific job requirements of teachers in the Open University System however have relatively larger operational components." We think that this is the right way to define the distance teaching in respect of conventional teaching. The core function of the distance teacher is teaching, not mere coordination and delivery of the course material. The DEC document also accepted this approach. It defines one of the important tasks of teachers/academics as follows: "Every teacher shall perform the core function pertaining to the discipline i.e., dissemination and advancement of knowledge as decided collectively by all the members of the discipline/unit/division etc. as the case may be."

This teaching task is elaborated again in the document when the work plan of the discipline is discussed. As per the document, "In preparing the work plan of the discipline it would be desirable to integrate a core component of teaching (e.g., unit writing or such other work) in the work plan of each individual member of the discipline." As per this document, teachers shall annually spend 1200 working hours (on an average), out of which 200 to 300 hours, i.e., 20% of total working hours should be spent on research and self-development. A teacher has to spend about 1000 working hours on course development and maintenance as suggested in DEC document. Then every Open University in India would need many more regular teaching/academic staff at Schools of Study as well as at the Regional Services and media production centres for fulfillment of their commitment to education as well as society as a whole. This would go a long way in helping the distance teacher to earnestly meet his/her academic commitments. This would also restore the central function of teaching to the distance teachers, a function that has been relegated to the background due to the policies pursued in the past few years.


Annual Reports of IGNOU from 2000-01 to 2004-05.

DEC(1999). Work Norms for teachers of Open Universities. Distance Education Council, IGNOU.

DEC-Database (2003-04). Information Base on Distance Higher Education in India. IGNOU.

Extract from the minutes of 19th meeting of the Board of Management, IGNOU including Prof. Rais Ahmed Committee Report.

Extracts from the minutes of 28th meeting of the Board of Management, IGNOU including Prof. Takwale Committee Report.

Development Proposal for the Eighth Plan (1990and 1995): A draft outline prepared by C.R. Pillai, Director, Planning, IGNOU, April 1990.

Response to Takwale Committee Report prepared by the IGNOU Teachers Association (1992-93).


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