Digital strategy to make education accessible for persons with disabilities
Asia-Pacific, December 30 2012
NEW DELHI, INDIA: The National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS) provides an opportunity to students to continue education that has been put on hold for various reasons. It is an open school that caters to the need of a heterogeneous group of learners up to the high-school level.
Students who can’t go to school on a regular basis can join the many courses and programmes available with NIOS through the open and distance-learning modes. Established in 1979 as an autonomous body by the ministry of human resource development, the institute launched its website in 2009, which has since then become a one-stop source of information and support to learners. The organization is also vested with the authority to register, examine and certify students.
The NIOS has its own website at nios.ac.in for disseminating information and providing online citizen-centric services as a major initiative of e-governance. The website provides complete information about NIOS and has been designed by following official guidelines. It also complies with the World Wide Web Consortium’s content-accessibility guidelines. This enables people with vision disabilities access the website using assistive technologies such as screen readers. The website is available in English and Hindi. A student can register with a valid email and password.
The standardization to these norms guarantees that it can be accessed by people with disability. It is also one of the most important features of the website. The organization has more than 55,000 learners with disabilities on its rolls out of 2.02 million registered students. NIOS offers academic, vocational and life-enrichment program.
“The learner is at the centre of the information and communication technologies (ICT) strategy adopted for reaching the unreached through the NIOS online project. It also introduced overhauling changes in the way our other functions work like admissions, examinations and accreditations,” said Sitansu S. Jena, chairman, NIOS. Quality, efficiency, access and transparency are the motivations behind making these services online, he said.
The site is on the short list of this year’s Manthan awards.
Before the website was introduced, NIOS was unable to deliver its services uniformly. First, there was a problem of inadequate access because of uneven distribution of study centres. Secondly, the study centres were not able to deliver results and services on time. All the filled forms were sent to the regional study centres, increasing the scope of human error.
Thirdly, in the offline mode, the window for examination registration was limited. It was usually once a year in the months of July and August. Fourthly, there was no control over the administration of the study centres and, hence, in the majority of cases, these centres were unable to provide required academic and non-academic support to students. Lastly, due to manual intervention in handling and preparing data, the scope of error was large.
The website allows online admissions anytime, anywhere for different streams with cut-off dates of forthcoming examinations.
The online admissions also give students the freedom to choose their study centres. Further, each study centre is allocated learners depending on their designated capacity so as to maintain the right student-teacher ratio. The admission data is the basic information on which all other transactions are based.
“With online admission, the data is largely error-free and is easily available online,” Jena said. “This ensures delivery of student-support services on time and faster.”
When students register, they are issued a unique reference number, with which they can track the status of their applications online. Also, text alerts are sent to the learners’ mobile phones, informing them about various stages of application such as submission, confirmation and dispatch of identity cards and course material up to the payment of examination fees.
“Students can make payments through the online payment getaway through all credit cards,” Jena said. “Also, they can seek help of our online counsellors through the ‘Ask Your Teacher’ section.”
The website started as a pilot project in 2007 with 30,000 students and by 2011, the facility of online admissions was available all over India. Till date from 2007-12, 934,480 students have benefited from this service. Anyone from anywhere within the country or learners from Middle East, Nepal, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Qatar can apply on NIOS. Priority is given to girl dropouts, women from the scheduled castes and tribes, and unemployed and students with disabilities.
Besides the timely completion of the admission process and delivery of course material, it is also cost-effective for students to use the NIOS site. For instance, earlier the prospectus was available for Rs.50, but now students can simply download it for free from the website. All they have to pay is Rs.30 for the application form. Not only this, students can also download the course material for free.
To help students, a learner support centre has also been established, consisting of eight support executives backed by recorded information through an interactive voice response system. It can be reached at a toll free number 1800 180 9393. About 900 calls are handled every day at the call centre. NIOS is also available on email firstname.lastname@example.org and 100-150 emails are responded to each day.
“One of the limitations was of connectivity. The areas which don’t have Internet connectivity are deprived of this facility but for those areas NIOS has taken a step of providing offline admissions,” Jena said. “Many NIOS learners are at a disadvantage as they have been pushed out of the formal school system. In today’s time of technology, NIOS learners would be doubly disadvantaged if they were deprived of the new mode of learning. So, NIOS cannot afford to make its learners the victims of the digital divide.”