Distance education does not necessarily mean bad education – at least, not in this day and age when you have even Harvard and Oxford offering courses on the MOOC (massive online open courses).
Hence, I agree with the Prime Minister that we need to look at the issue of distance education with a more favourable eyes and mind. The existing policy, which frowns on distance education, could have been formulated at a time when there was no easy way to check the validity of the degree or the accreditation of the degree-granting institutions. These days it just takes a click for anyone to verify the academic transcripts and the institutions – and even send out enquiries.
A free-for-all and blanket approval, though, may not be advisable still, as it might attract a floodgate of dubious cases. A total disregard for qualifications acquired through distance learning is not right either. A more cautious and middle-path approach would be to entrust the Bhutan Accreditation Council (not sure if this office has been constituted but there was an interim council in 2015) under the Department of Higher Education to selectively choose and approve institutions that meet certain benchmark. The idea and intent should be to move gradually but move nevertheless – and not jump from a total ban to a free-for-all situation like we did with television.
Furthermore, not encouraging our people to take advantage of this new modus operandi in education may be shortchanging ourselves of the immense opportunities offered by the MOOC. Every prestigious university from Harvard to Hong Kong and from Stanford to Singapore provide free courses (I have attended 5 so far but completed only 3. It is not easy either) and even full degree programs (these are charged). The future of higher education will be online. Many countries have already integrated distance learning within their educational qualification framework.
Likewise our own colleges under the Royal University of Bhutan should work, and should be allowed to work, towards granting distance education with perhaps a semester or a year of required campus-residency. This would not only allow for more people to access higher education at relatively lower cost to the national exchequer but would open up to a huge untapped international market.
We need to update our rules with the changing times – after all they are not cast in stone, I presume. Not everyone has the means or the opportunity to pursue higher education in a campus. That’s why Australia beckons because it offers both.
With or without government endorsements, our youth need to pursue learning as a lifelong habit. This is because the new era runs at gigabit per second and they will be quickly outsmarted, and made outdated, by the changing circumstances and job market. Have they ever understood why there is no job at the end of your education cycle? It is because the goal post has shifted. No one has lied to them or given them false promises. It is simply that the world has changed while they were studying. So learning new skills or extra skills and acquiring new knowledge are the only way to survive – and thrive.
To conclude, what can the government and the society do to assist our future citizens? We need to remove restrictive rules and policies if we are to prepare them adequately to face this uncertain world. As the educationist, Ken Robinson, says, no one knows what the world will look like in three years time let alone by the time our children finish their education. And so, every opportunity to learn, educate and enhance one’s knowledge should be explored and encouraged – not frowned upon.