Classless societyOpen universities allow students to receive education at home through distance learning
Nepali education is in the process of making a grand shift towards innovative technology. Parliament has passed Nepal Open University Bill 2015 to provide mass access to tertiary education. The establishment of open universities allows Nepali students to receive higher education at home. They do not need to travel to cities and foreign countries for further studies. Unlike traditional universities, open universities offer distance education by providing reading materials and guidelines to students who mainly study at home, and most of them award undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. The concept of Open and Distance Learning (ODL) is further nourished by the growing use of internet/web-based tools, audio, video, animated and simulated objects, software tools and other electronic means. However, this does not mean that ODL will replace the traditional on-campus mode of education.
In the past, teachers and students only had a blackboard and textbooks as teaching-learning materials. These days, teaching is not confined within the four walls of a classroom. But the shift does not have a long history. In 1999, Nepal became a signatory to the Saarc Consortium to Open and Distance Learning (SAC-ODL), and that same year, the Education Ministry formed a committee to recommend ways to implement open education. Then the whole thing was forgotten for the next decade. In 2010, the Education Ministry and the Non-Resident Nepali Association signed an agreement to start an open university in Nepal. The Nepal Open University Bill is the result of this collaboration.
Two leading universities—Tribhuvan University (TU) and Kathmandu University (KU)—have started online and distance education. TU established an Open and Distance Education Centre (ODEC) as a constituent independent organisation in 2015 while KU started Open Learning as an integrated part of regular on-campus programmes with the flexibility of mode switching for students in 2011. Likewise, the partner institution of Indira Gandhi National Open University, the International Centre for Academics, College of Distance Education and Online Studies, has been offering various degree programmes under ODL in Nepal since 2002. Lessons can be learnt from the practice of the Open University of Sri Lanka which covers 30 percent of the tertiary enrolment in national universities and provides education to students from diverse profiles and ethnic communities through its 28 learning centres across the country.
ODL would be the best way to expand access to higher education in Nepal considering its geographical and cultural diversities. It can also work as an outreach programme to address the learning needs of potential students. Acculturation of web-based distance learning in the Nepali context demonstrates a promising future for higher education with options for flexibility and quality. It best fits various groups of Nepali learners like the geographically disadvantaged, people unreached by traditional campus systems, jobholders, the unemployed, housewives and people working abroad who still like to upgrade their qualification from home institutions. Even international students looking for degrees or courses from Nepal, like Nepali students from foreign universities, can benefit. Moreover, the support of the Nepali diaspora has been really positive.
Innovative educational technologies allow universities to offer any number of courses for any number of programmes in an asynchronous and self-paced mode of delivery. However, the ambivalent position of scholars with regard to degrees obtained through ODL and problems of internet access for learners are major impediments.
Redesigning student-friendly and educationally flexible course materials are other difficulties. There is a chance ODL may become a mere formality for awarding and getting certificates if the learner has no sense of autonomy and responsibility. An unstable political environment and lack of electricity present further challenges to the implementation of open education. Dissemination of resourceful reading materials may again be problematic. The quality of education being served will be at the very core of an academically competitive market.
Good market value
In order for open universities in Nepal to produce the desired result, the authorities need to be careful in addressing the technological and pedagogical challenges. Tapping the possibilities of integrated and open learning tools, learning environment and student support systems needs to be ameliorated first. It must be ensured that thousands of learners will get knowledge, skills and qualification in the field of their personal interest. In this context, the government of Nepal and other stakeholders should delay addressing the growing educational demand of the new generation that wants the culture of learning online. Thus, endeavours to expand access to higher education with a special focus on acculturation of high-tech ODL are urged.
This situation requires educational planners, developers, providers and receivers to modify their usual practices. They need to adopt a new education culture which values innovation, diversity and multiculturalism in Nepali education. Consequently, the value of open universities will depend much on productive education and the rigorousness of the examinations which the implementers have to be aware of right from now. Professors, lecturers and other staff are likely to be appointed on an as-needed basis only, and their number should be far less than in a traditional university. The appointment of experts and required authorities should be thoroughly apolitical. Therefore, top quality must be ensured so that degrees provided by open universities will have an equal or even better market value than those provided by traditional universities.
Regmi is associated with the Nepal Youth Foundation