There is a lot of hype about inclusive education. Education, in its lexicon, automatically appropriates inclusion. In other words, at least as per Indian laws, everyone has a Right to Education.
The polemics of the word “inclusive” coupled with its interpretive nature is precisely because of non-inclusion, non-affordability, and things like capitation fees, earned several times the stricture of the Supreme Court. Inclusive education also means opportunities and access to education, for those who live in seclusion and disadvantaged social and economic conditions.
However, the telling paradox is that education is becoming more and more exclusive. Otherwise, how do we explain the ubiquitous cut-off marks ranging from 97 to 99 to get admission in colleges?
Also, with privatisation of education, the money factor impounds on the quality, and this intersection makes it difficult to draw the distinction as to what the emphasis is on—money or the elusive ‘quality’.
The sad rat race
Apropos to the fact that education must be inherently flexible in terms of access is a point of ambiguity. It cannot because schools and colleges have limited seats. And why is that? Because, they say, the student-teacher ratio must be contained. True. But the ratio is still on the higher side, especially in government schools.
The sad part of it all is that education in our country is systemically flawed. The learning-by-rote andragogy or pedagogy continues unabashedly. Of course, today, we have the internet, but the ‘cut-paste’ formula still works with elan, both among students and teachers! Added to it is the ghost of teacher absenteeism.
If we are to look at the flexibility perspective of education, we are thinking of complexity factors: alternating between work and study, lifelong education, and education for women, working professionals, and those challenged due to reasons beyond their control or their parents, and continuing education—a steady flow of the precepts of learning from childhood to adulthood unimpeded by trauma of failing, getting degrees, and an interested, or even a disinterested, pursuit of learning for its own sake and pleasure.
It is precisely here that distance and open learning can play a pivotal role in shaping education, giving it the much-needed dynamism, flexibility, and continuity in a steady flow. Moreover, it gives a chance to the learner to come back to studies after a break.
It addresses the problem of dropouts and one-time failure by giving maximum time to complete courses and programmes. It introduces flexible concepts like associate degree and credit transfer, opening up dialogue with other universities for inter-student mobility.
The ticket of distance learning
It is no wonder then that distance and open education in India, free of myopic restrictions, has become very popular with its intake of students accounting for almost 25% of the takers in higher education.
It subverts a degree bias and places certification and diplomas on a common platform, not meant to be comparable with higher degrees but standing on their own right as professional or vocational short-term academic programmes.
However, in recent years, the glitches and the stumbling blocks have risen. The University Grants Commission, the apex body for assessing distance education, insists on a review every two to three years, imposes restrictions on introducing new courses, and monitors dual-body institutions, saying these universities cannot introduce courses in distance education other than what they offer in their respective institutions.
This is not only duplication but a gross embargo on innovation.
Also, again under its aegis, the NCTE, AICTE, Nursing Council of India, and the Dental Council are imposing restrictions on open universities to initiate professional programmes by means of partnerships and alliances.
The collaborative nuances of education are undermined and stifled. Access and flexibility are becoming myths, and Indian education is slowly going back to its heydays of backwardness—learning by rote and procuring degrees through the do-or-die maxim.
What is the solution then?
So, in this context, what is inclusive education? It is the rounded appeal of education, which is cardinal. Inclusion would mean accommodation of education for all, related entry norms, extension of the classroom in terms of pedagogy, introducing innovative standards like reflexive technology, internet, and free and open source software through which students can glean information for knowledge transference.
Teachers must use both in the synchronous and asynchronous modes—the mobile phone and the internet to keep in touch with students. E-learning must be appropriately used—Skype, Google/Yahoo groups, and social networking sites will bring traditional effects to education, while reducing distance and breaking barriers of isolation.
There must be vigorous alternative techniques for learning, and open access means must be incorporated in pedagogy. Distance and open learning will be an alternative form of education to reach those who want to learn but live in seclusion, disadvantaged surroundings, remote areas or those who drop out because of social and economic reasons or the approbation of one-time failure.
Distance and open learning can address this one-time failure problem and make education more inclusive. Policymakers should take serious cognisance of the inclusiveness that distance and open learning can bring for dropouts and those who are left out of the ambit of both school and higher education.
The more autonomy and contiguity there is in learning, the more inclusive education will be.