Open Education at Virtual University Pakistan

Naveed Malik

Interview with Prof. Naveed Malik, former Rector/Vice Chancellor of the Virtual University of Pakistan.

Interview conducted by: Robert Schuwer, Open Universiteit (the Netherlands)

Prof. Malik, can you give a brief overview of the scope of open initiatives at your institution?

The Virtual University of Pakistan (VUP) is an institution for HE in the public sector. We have no face 2 face teaching, but deliver through television (although this channel is phasing out), and the internet. See www.vu.edu.pk.

Our materials consist of video lectures and course notes. Pakistan is bilingual (English and Urdu), and our lectures use a mixture of both languages. All written materials are in English. We do not reuse other materials, but develop everything by ourselves. We are using guest authors for this. They transfer all property rights to the VUP, so we are free to use the materials for all purposes. Our learners are an equal mixture of regular students and life long learners (currently more than 100,000 learners, and increasing). Pakistan has a severe shortage of capacity at regular universities. Examinations are taken in a proctored environment at designated centres (100 cities with >200 resource centres). Students are allowed to create their own exam schedule. All exams are IT supported, which guarantees the safety of the system (e.g. no two exams are identical).

Our open initiative started in 2002 when we wanted to put out video lectures on broadcast television. Television was free to air. Protecting this from recording was not possible and the effort and expenses in trying to protect the content would not be commensurate with the benefits. Then the eureka moment appeared: why not make the content open for all learners? Why restrict the content from someone who wishes to learn? Those learners who want to get an academic credential can register with our university. So from the first moment we knew our content would be open. In 2008 we went on to Youtube. Prior to that, we sent out copies of videos on DVD that people could buy for the cost of duplication. These DVD’s are still sold today, because some people have difficulties going online (lack of bandwidth). Also the course notes can be bought there. All open courseware is on ocw.vu.edu.pk.

What motivates you to continue?

As I said, initially we figured it was not worth the trouble to protect the materials, so we opened it. But then we found that we gained a lot of goodwill. People looked at the content, saw the videos (for which we hired the best professors in the country), and all was available for free. That helped the institution’s reputation. Distance education or e-learning is a hard sell, even today. Quality is questioned. So we could use all the momentum we could get and openness certainly helps. Now, the policy is that each and every course we produce ends up on our open courseware site.

People who have contributed to the open content have benefitted themselves by being visible on an international platform.

Institutional goodwill is the main factor to continue the open policy. That has many forms. One is that other institutions reuse our courses. Some institutions even demand from their faculty members that they first look at the course from the VUP before they decide to develop and teach their own course. Designing a distance course is much more meticulous than designing an in-class course. These courses therefore benefit also the regular students getting face to face education. Also the Higher Education Commission recommends that, in case of shortage of qualified manpower, institutions should use the VUP courses to supplement their offerings. For example, there is one institution that uses 14 VUP courses in their Bachelor program.

Apart from gaining goodwill, do you also see tangible benefits like attracting more students?

It is hard to say that the openness is the only reason. There is a mixture of factors. Openness is certainly a factor, but the general quality of the courses and the performance of our graduates in the market are also contributing to our success. Acceptability of our credentials is very much established. There are certain companies who exclusively hire students from the VUP, because they are considered independent workers.

How would you describe the level of commitment from faculty, students, and administration?

Normally, a small course team designs a course. Primarily, the courses are developed by external faculty members. Member from the VUP do the management of delivery of the courses. They create assignments, grade assignments, create questions for the question bank and create the examinations.

What are the most positive outcomes from your institution’s involvement with open initiatives?

If you take the statement that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, we have many imitators coming along. They have seen that the VUP model works. Other senior well-established institutions are coming in with very similar models, although they are not quite that open with their content. In a way, we have become a role model for others to follow. The arena is still very large. The population is more than 180 million people. We have 150 universities. So there is too little capacity, because 93% of the college-age population has no access to higher education. When we started in 2002, 96.5% had no access.

What were some of the most significant challenges your institution had to overcome regarding your involvement with open education?

The first and foremost challenge was trying to sell the concept of distance education being as good if not better than face 2 face education. This was not the view of the public when we started. The issue was that traditionally, degrees offered through distance learning relied to a great extent on the weight given to homework assignments (sometimes as large as 55%). This raised the question of validity (you do not know who is doing the homework). We decided that a maximum of 15% of the grade was determined by homework and the rest by proctored exams, offline. In hindsight, 2002-2005 were slow years. Then our graduates hit the market and proved their credentials, with a resultant exponential increase in our enrollment.

Internal challenges had to do with the way we set up the institution. To achieve the benefits of economy of scale, I decided that we would use IT extensively, both in the process of offering the courses as well as in our management of the university. A major challenge was that when we hired staff, they were IT literate, but they were not used in working with an IT system. Everyone was used to using pencil and paper. There were significant training challenges and we had to make a cultural shift happen. Now, this is really established. For example, senior management is not asking for a report, but they can create their own report with a click on a button and the information in that report is up-to-date. Similar change management in other institutions will be very difficult, because of the built-in inertia.

How do you see the future of open education at your institution in the next 3-5 years?

There are a couple of things that we have not yet done. We did not do science courses that require using a practical lab. We have been involved in the development of a B.Ed honours program for teacher training. There has to be practice built-in into that program. Because the students are dispersed over a large geographical area, we have to rethink the curriculum and the structure of the program. One of the possibilities is to concentrate all the practice in one year. These are things that are best left to the domain experts. What we will learn from these courses, we can use in starting physics courses or chemistry courses with practical labs, unless we come up with fancy solutions in cyberspace. Once we have established that, we have a model that can easily contribute to continuous development of teachers, without them going to institutions. Blended learning can than be used for initial training.

If you had to describe open education at your institution in 5 words, what would they be?

Affordable, world-class, at your doorstep!