Dr. Pramod Dhakal with Hom Raj Acharya
The Initiative for Open University of Nepal jointly being advanced by Ministry of Education, Government of Nepal, Non-Resident Nepali Association (NRNA), Canada Foundation for Nepal (CFFN) and Athabasca University, has been a matter much interest to many Nepal enthusiasts. Here is an interview with Dr. Pramod Dhakal, Member-Secretary of the Steering Committee -Initiative for OUN, taken by Hom Raj Acharya, Executive Director of NRNA Secretariat on December 2010.
Q: How did this concept of Open University come about and what it is?
A: The philosophical concept of Open University emerged from Britain in the 1960s. That time British economy was in stagnation and the government was facing budget shortfall. Meanwhile, the USA had surpassed Britain in scientific and innovative outputs. Increasing the research and innovation strength of Britain required that ever more people receive higher education. To serve a larger student population in an affordable way, a new kind of university, Open University of United Kingdom, was established in 1969. It introduced open admission criteria and offered programs through distance education. It worked on removing academic-performance related, geographical, financial, social, cultural and other barriers from the success path of learners. Canada and other countries also independently established similar institutions. This gave rise to a global open university movement that promoted open access to knowledge and education. This idea also quickly spread from developed countries to developing countries.
Q: Why is it called open?
A: Open University removes barriers of time, geography, distance, and lack of past opportunities. Today, students of remote Humla and the best schools of Kathmandu cannot obtain the same marks in high school exams but we use those marks as the basis to estimate their future performance. Consequently, even the most talented and motivated students from remote regions are deprived of getting through the iron gate of university admission. At an open university, learners start with an open entrance and prove their learning potential by actually taking the courses in a supportive environment. Well performers can then move onto streams of advanced studies that require stringent academic prerequisites. This open admission system is the cardinal characteristics of an open university. Here, the students move forward on the basis of what they achieve on each step of their academic ladder on their own pace. They are not judged based on their missed opportunities of the past.
Q: What are the main missions of Open University of Nepal?
A: Main missions of Open University of Nepal (OUN) are (1) to take university to people’s homes and communities instead of forcing learners to come to universities located in big cities, based on the principles of universal access to higher education, (2) to bring industrious and intellectual people who are left out of opportunities to the mainstream of higher education and learning, (3) to connect learners and their learning needs with sources of knowledge that may be found anywhere in the world, utilizing the vast academic wealth of Nepalese Diaspora.
Q: How can I get admission into the OUN and progress academically?
A: If you are entering into an undergraduate certificate, diploma or degree programs, you would apply for admission into a specific stream of study. Combination of academic and life experiences will be used to determine the criteria for admission on an individual basis. You can prove your potentials through challenge exams as well. Upon admission, you will be presented with a series of courses that you have to pass to complete the program. You take a set of required entry level courses and slowly move on to higher levels of courses as in other universities. Usually students with proven academic track records directly go into academic programs. Others start with shorter and skill oriented remedial and/or prerequisite programs. Once you gain confidence in doing well, you move onto more theoretically challenging academic streams to complete a four year Bachelors’ Degree. Once learning is nurtured through first one or two years, industrious and talented students get into more rigorous programs. The entries into advanced years of Bachelors’ programs and into Masters’ and Ph.D. programs require rigorous proof of prior qualifications and competencies.
How does it serve the poor and the disadvantage?
The birth of the open university movement occurred due to a motivation to bring vulnerable and marginalized populations into mainstream of university education. OUN is also inspired by the very same principles. The existing program resources such as scholarships to women, dalits and the people of Karnali zone, that support in reaching out to disadvantaged populations will also be mobilized and expanded to higher education. Best practices developed around the world will be incorporated and our own practices will be established. Academic programs will be tailored to their unique learning environment and needs.
How does it serve the vulnerable people who do not have access to technology?
The development and acquisition of necessary network infrastructure, tools, technologies, and best practices, and making them accessible to all population is part of OUN plans and principles. The broader infrastructure will be institutionally managed. At the same time we would like to promote personal-ownership of personalized resources and computers. Our mission is to give the highest utility to the devices people own. We also believe that personal computing devices will be cheap to such an extent that even the poor would be able to own one. They have already started to own telephone sets. Therefore, our concentration is in giving unlimited access to knowledge through the personal computing devices that the people would own. However, it would be necessary in the formative years of the university to collaborate with the government and the world to either vastly subsidize computers or to solicit help in building computing laboratories in community schools. We are open to all possibilities to make the access possible.
How are its courses and programs delivered?
OUN will use various principle and practices of learning including on-line and on-site learning. The majority of its programs will be delivered using distance learning principles, practices, tools and technologies. In addition their knowledge and skills will be strengthened in laboratories, farms, on-the-job applications, cooperative-student-placements, and so on. The learning objectives and modes of deliveries will be separately decided for each subject and discipline.
Generally learning materials and instructions will be delivered to students using a combination of information technologies like online and off-line interactive multi-media, telephone, text-messages, websites, e-books, printed materials, e-mail, software, audio-video conferencing, television and radio. Online courses require access to a computer with an Internet connection and off-line courses require access to a computer. On-site learning arrangements are made in classrooms, laboratories, farms, hospitals, offices, businesses and industries. Studies are largely individualized to students who work independently at their own pace with the help of instructors and specifically assigned tutors. Some courses require group study at a fixed time and place where a number of students receive simultaneous instruction like in other universities. Students are supported with one-on-one support from faculty members, academic advisors, counsellors, tutors, help-desk personnel and other support staff who provide information, advice, and services. Student achievement is further promoted through scholarships, awards, bursaries, and research funding. Students can contact OUN headquarter any time for their concerns.
Q: How does OUN ensure quality in its programs?
A: Our programs will be fully accredited by other independent national and international accreditation bodies and freely exchangeable with other great universities. We believe that the quality of an academic program is reflected by the quality of knowledge and service its graduates can offer to the society. The student performance is a product of diligence, intellect, quality of program, and the quality of learning environment and learning support they receive. Students of OUN will receive much higher level of learner support and stimulating learning environment than they are accustomed to today. The learning outcomes of students are so rigorously measured that, when they come out with their diplomas and degrees, they would be at par with the students of other best institutions.
Q: Am I required to complete an entire degree?
No. You can also take just a course if you like. As a learner, if you would like to take specific courses for gaining specific knowledge to meet certain requirement for job, or to complete a larger program in other universities, or purely for satisfying your own curiosity, you are most welcome in the OUN. You will obtain the certificate of completion of your courses and the marks you secured in your examinations.
A: Who are the target population groups of OUN?
They are a broad range of non-traditional students who are seeking university-level education to transform their lives and to enrich their families and communities. Nepal is full of talented women who are home-bound due to motherhood and other family responsibilities; a large number of talented youth are working in farms and other employments in Nepal and countries around the world. All people of industry and talent who are otherwise unable to go to regular universities or who would like to pursue the programs at their own convenient time and pace from where they live now are our target students.
Q: How would the university go to people’s homes and communities?
A: This will be done through the building of massive telecommunication and other technological infrastructure in every part of Nepal. We will build such network access in collaboration with the Government of Nepal, international agencies, and private sector. This will be an impressive digital highway infrastructure especially dedicated to ensure a free flow of digitized knowledge to all communities in Nepal. If situations so dictate, this could be a special network outside commercial spectrum, solely dedicated to scholarly communication and collaborative knowledge production.
Q: Why did you chose to build OUN, when the need to improve elementary and secondary education is so great?
A: We understand the importance of improving all level of schooling. However, we believe that the government has already been investing significant amount of resources and it has reached to even the remotest places of Nepal. Demographic evidences have shown that regional, area and community level differences in the access to higher education are too high to ignore. The OUN plans to address this issue at its core. Besides, there also are other reasons for our decision. Firstly, the distance education tools, technologies, methodologies and practices are much more developed and have proven track-records of success at college and university level. Secondly, a university can be a better catalyst to translate the internationally available open knowledge and to transfer Diaspora knowledge and experiences to meet Nepal’s unique needs. Most of the academic NRNs are engaged in higher education sector while their presence at the elementary school level is negligible. Therefore, most of NRN strength is on higher education. We felt that we should get engaged in areas where we are naturally strong. Thirdly, OUN can intellectually engage and serve both Nepali population and the NRN population at the same time. Fourthly, we believe that OUN will also help strengthen the education in elementary and secondary level. Once we reach out to the rural and remote region, it will stimulate and energize the schooling system to improve their quality standards. Therefore, OUN’s unique potential was recognized.
Q: What subjects will be offered and will this fit with the national priority areas of Nepal?
A: Where there is gap in disciplinary and inter-disciplinary areas of academics, we will give priority to enter those areas in our programming so that OUN outcome will have a strong focus on areas relevant to rural and remote population. We will be conducting thorough studies for various spectres of academic modules soon.
Q: What is your timeline in terms of enrolling the first students?
A: We are looking for having an early launch of the pilot academic programs within a year from now.
Q: Do you have any message to readers?
A: We expect strong and massive monetary and intellectual contributions both from the Diaspora and the people in Nepal. If all of us Diaspora get together to raise $1 million and Nepalese inside Nepal raised $4 million, we are confident that the world will come to our rescue. Together with international collaboration, we will accomplish all of OUN missions with resounding success. Therefore, we appeal all Nepalese to open up the hearts and minds to make this transformative project an example of how people of a small and poor country can triumph on highest endeavours of knowledge. We also urgently appeal intellectual friends who are beyond the problem of hand-to-mouth to come forward to be full-time staff of OUN initiative for a token remuneration. We are in lookout for people who would “eat monk’s ration and do the work of a king”. We assure you all that your dream to build a great institution of higher learning with international stature will come true.