By Oeendrila Lahiri, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, 4Humanities International Correspondent
To a lot of people in many countries open learning was a great idea. It would provide opportunities to get the education or the degree they wanted to those who could not manage the time, energy or the money. When I was growing up I remember long distance learning was heavily advertised to a large cross section of society such as blue collared workers, housewives, overworked executives, etc. In a country like India, where the disadvantaged outnumber the privileged by more than fifty per cent, open learning was a blessing for many.
Although open schooling is not anyone’s first choice, it continues to reach those who must fend for themselves and their families with no time to attend classes; it reaches people across age groups; and with a dependable dedicated institution like the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), open learning so far has added value to the future of many people.
India is a land of graduates. As the rest of the world probably knows by now, Indian families value education. It’s a matter of pride if you win the Olympics but it is even more reassuring if you are a gold medal winner with a graduate certificate.
This being the culture, I found myself home schooling my friend’s brother who could not do regular college as he is training to be a professional tennis player. He withdrew his application in English Literature (Hons) from a well-known college of the city and enrolled with the School of Open Learning under the University of Delhi.
The School provided him with the university’s syllabi for three years and a list of books. That’s all. He had to appear for an exam annually and there was no correspondence with the school whatsoever. Over the three years, he faired moderately to low on the whole. But this article is not about his calibre or aptitude.
The troubling part of this association with SOL was that his marks in individual papers were consistently erratic. This is an institution shrouded in mystery and intellectual fog. SOL’s website does not reveal the names of its board members, its paper evaluators, the criteria for their appointment, or their credentials.
My student did abysmally in papers that he actually completed or was confident about, and scored in those he could not even finish. That has happened to all of us at some point, I suppose. The marking scene is a shoddy business in India anyway. For centralised or university exams the answer sheets are corrected by examiners from other universities or cities. Most of these college teachers who correct papers are not equally qualified: one may have a master’s degree, the other may have an MPhil, yet another could be a doctorate; neither are they are selected on the basis of performance and teaching aptitude. Answer checkers are recruited with very little accountability. This makes the affair a bit shaky in general and a lot shakier for things like open learning.
So when they gave this student of mine a middling 45 and then after revaluations gave him a high 58 (two marks short of a first class) and then proceeded to fail him with a 35 in the same paper, it looked very suspect. How can a student do so very differently and widely in the same paper? Who are the people checking and making these decisions? Answer sheets once written seem to get lost in the black hole of a complicated network.
The thing is that it doesn’t make a big difference to the boy. It was disappointing and demoralising as with each year he steadily improved, started to think, and worked harder. He didn’t deserve to be marked so lackadaisically. But he is luckily not part of that India which sweats to make it in life.
The majority of those who sign up with open universities need a degree to somehow make a difference in their lives in spite of knowing that open universities are helpful but not at the same level as regular universities. And this fact of carelessness and shoddiness on the part of institutions like the SOL contributes to the hierarchy between the two. So it threatens to be a serious problem of transparency and accountability for those who put their trust in a system that is their only option. Secondly, these universities offer both technical and mainstream courses. However, a course in technical or vocational disciplines carries hope of employment. In the humanities/academics, degrees from open universities in India are considered rubbish.
Here, it is a problem of the attitude towards such degrees. What is the value of a paid degree if one cannot pursue the career of her choice with it? What are the ways to bolster the system and bring it up to par? It is crucial that before we have more campuses offering distance learning programs we figure out a way in which quality education is imparted, and that examiners and overseers both respect and seriously do their jobs. And most significantly, if the marking system remains arbitrary and wild it reduces these degrees to a gamble. And it is sad that an esteemed university like DU, which can boast of some of the finest colleges in the country, would do so little for long distance learning programs and contribute to the misery of those who gamble and lose.