Article121.pngWith conventional higher education the world over continuing to be beset by access, cost and productivity challenges, Open and Distance Learning (ODL) institutions should speak of their founding ideals and more explicitly evaluate their progress. “”There has never been a greater need for innovative institutions. Immense benefit would come from constructive tracking and disclosure of key student and institutional performance metrics. The tide is turning in favour of niche ODL solutions,”” says a report on “”The State of Open Universities in the Commonwealth: A Perspective on Performance, Competition and Innovation”” authored by Richard Garrett of The Observatory on Borderless Higher Education.
Commissioned by the Commonwealth of Learning (COL), the report says specialist ODL universities, in the Commonwealth and worldwide, are one of the marvels of modern higher education, challenging long-held assumptions and offering a ladder of opportunity to millions. In 2015, as mature providers and amid new competition from both conventional universities and start-ups, specialist ODL universities offer many lessons but need to speak more directly to their strengths and the new reality.
On enrollment patterns, the study says while all the mature ODL institutions embody great achievement over time and are unique in scale and scope in local settings, the recent enrollment picture is very mixed. Although about half of the sample institutions have continued to grow strongly in recent years, the other half have suffered recent enrollment decline or loss of market share, along with financial difficulty in some cases. Each institution is different, but these trajectories speak to the mainstreaming of forms of ODL, particularly online learning, across conventional universities.
Regarding limitations and potential of ODL, the report argues that there is a tension between the typical ODL student experience and the capabilities, situations and preferences of many ODL students. ODL institutions either serve non-traditional students for whom the conventional university is impractical or address a traditional campus capacity gap for traditional-age students. “By definition, the typical ODL student experience â€” wherein the student ultimately has limited contact with faculty and other students â€” requires greater dedication and self discipline than what is expected from a conventional student, and it is certainly less familiar.â€™â€™
“”The model works well for some students, who come to prefer it, but is an often vexing challenge for many others. The circumstances and backgrounds of many ODL students, particularly at the undergraduate level, can render the delivery mode as much a hurdle as an enabler unless expertly handled. In any large, decentralised institution with significant faculty autonomy, the gap between the theory of ODL pedagogy and the reality at the individual course level can be large and uneven. Of course, the conventional university experience is a struggle for many students,”” the study says while pointing out that legacy ODL â€” conventional online learning included â€” succeeds in accessibility and convenience much more than in experience and outcomes. This reality constrains the power and potential of specialist ODL institutions. These institutions also have yet to make a convincing case for the pedagogical merits of scale.
The Commonwealth of Learning (COL) is an intergovernmental organisation created by Commonwealth Heads of Government to promote the development and sharing of open learning and distance education knowledge, resources and technologies. The goal of this report is to critically examine one of the marvels of modern higher education: specialist open and distance learning (ODL) universities. These institutions, such as The Open University (UKOU), Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) and the University of South Africa (UNISA), have pioneered radically innovative instructional and support methods, opening pathways for vast numbers of non-traditional students.
Today, there are dedicated ODL higher education institutions in many Commonwealth countries, but in most cases, ODL is no longer first and foremost the domain of specialists. In the 1990s, the rise of online learning promised a range of enhancements to legacy forms of ODL, in terms of interaction, engagement and simulation, and attracted the attention of both conventional universities and the private sector. New models were characterised as means to advance the perennial goals of ODL â€” to widen access to higher education and lower cost whilst maintaining quality â€” but also as tools to address the issues of affordability and productivity in mainstream higher education. The online learning explosion paralleled the massification of higher education worldwide, creating new capacity, cost and quality pressures at the system level.
This project relied on secondary data. Institutional and organisational websites and specialist literature were the main sources. This report aims to evaluate specialist ODL institutions in the Commonwealth in an environment of competition and scrutiny, where clarity of purpose and transparency of value are essential. The institutions which were evaluated were: Athabasca University (AU, Canada), Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU, India), National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN), Open Universities Australia (OUA), The Open University (UKOU, United Kingdom) ,Open University Malaysia (OUM), Open University of Sri Lanka (OUSL), University of South Africa (UNISA), University of the South Pacific (USP),and University of the West Indies (UWI).
All of the sample institutions were large by some measure, ranging from the giant IGNOU â€” one of the largest universities in the world, with over 700,000 students â€” to USP, with about 25,000, comparable to a mid-sized conventional university in many countries. All the institutions offer undergraduate and post-graduate programming, but undergraduate students dominate, constituting 80â€“90 per cent of the population in most cases.
“”All of the sample institutions have grown strongly since foundation, and many have exhibited strong or steady growth in recent years. Some have suffered fluctuation or even marked decline. The biggest case of decline is IGNOU, which scaled back a large â€œcommunity collegeâ€ and international alliances initiative, citing quality concerns, thereby relinquishing hundreds of thousands of students in the process. UKOU has seen enrollment fall by a quarter since 2010/11, following the introduction of higher tuition fees for all UK undergraduates. Whilst full-time undergraduate enrollment nationally recovered after an initial blip following the introduction of higher fees, part-time student enrollments, on which UKOU depends, have fallen sharply â€” there were 30 per cent fewer new part-time undergraduates in the UK in 2013/14 than in 2010/11. This is despite government funding that offers part-time undergraduates a means-tested loan with no repayments until three years after the start of their studies, and only after a certain income threshold has been reached. Prior to the introduction of higher fees, part-time students were not eligible for financial support. The theory behind the enrollment decline is that prospective part time students may be debt averse and particularly concerned about higher fees,â€™â€™ the study points out.
All sample institutions were founded to broaden access to higher education, but few publish much detail on student characteristics. For example, the IGNOU website states: Specific efforts shall be made for providing access to education and equity in opportunities to women, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, the rural population, the remote areas, tribal regions, differently-abled, and the socially and economically weaker sections of society.
“”However, the site appears to offer no data to permit a clearer understanding of how enrollment breaks down across such groupings, or comparisons with figures for the general population or higher education overall,”” the report says.
“”IGNOU notes alliances with 29 international institutions, mostly in the Middle East and Africa, and a desire to serve the Indian diaspora, but few details appear to be in the public domain. As previously noted, IGNOU announced a freeze on international activity, following concerns about Quality Assurance.””
The term â€œopen and distance institutionâ€ covered a wide range of models and arrangements in the sample. Some institutions are wholly distance based, whilst others run substantial numbers of in-person classes. Some operate multiple regional centres. Some operate largely online but all also deploy other forms of distance learning, with online delivery as one component. Here, the study examined each sample institution in turn. IGNOU employs multiple delivery modes. Most students use print-based self-study materials, with the option of in-person or telephone/video conferencing for interaction with â€œcounsellorsâ€ (i.e., non-faculty support staff). IGNOU runs 56 regional centres, each of which oversees often many more study centres, numbering over 3,000 in total. There is a regional centre in most parts of India. Regional centres offer library and audio-visual facilities as well as Internet access. Regional centre staff train local counsellors, conduct certain examinations and liaise with local authorities. For students in highly practice-based programmes, some regional and study centres offer specialised equipment. IGNOU runs its own radio and television channels, often satellite-based, offering another way for learners to study. The television programmes are now archived on YouTube. The university also runs about 20 online degree and sub-degree programmes, primarily at the post-graduate level. There appear to be no IGNOU data showing enrollment distribution by delivery mode, and no doubt many students use multiple modes. Clear enrollment distribution by delivery mode is missing at most sample institutions.
The study concludes that despite often decades of experience, many mature ODL institutions sustain a mixed reputation for academic quality, and none in the sample squarely reports on student performance. No sample institution provides a graduation rate or makes detailed comparisons with conventional universities. Whilst the implication is not explicit, this absence suggests that student attrition is typically quite high. Of course, there are good reasons why ODL institutions do not report â€œsimpleâ€ student performance data, such as a graduation rate.
The â€œopenâ€ nature of these institutions means that some students may enroll quite casually, may be interested in completing just a course or two rather than a degree, or may transfer to a conventional institution. Another issue is that some ODL institutions encourage significant credit transfer, which complicates graduation rates. If one student enters with half the credits towards a degree but another enters with none, hence, making it difficult to compare the two in terms of time to completion, or attrition.”