Distance Education provides an opportunity to students of any age or level to learn at home or at places of work. There are a number of definitions of distance education or learning. But in fact, the definition that is accepted by all provides for an education system in which a distance exists between teacher and students. So, to this teaching learning process is added an educational organisation, the purpose of which is to ensure an effective two-way communication between teacher and students through the use of multi-media technology. Of all these characteristics two-way communication is greatly emphasised. For example it makes possible such interaction as regular exchange of information between computer and computer users.
Bangladesh Open University (BOU) is the only distance education institution in Bangladesh. In October 1992, the BOU was formally recognized by an Act passed in the National Parliament. Although BOU was established in 1992, the history of distance education in Bangladesh goes back to about fifty years. In 1956 the then Director of Public Instruction had already understood the significance of distance education and, in 1957, the Education Reform Commission recommended that a correspondence school be established on a trial basis for students eager to receive education without attending regular classes.
Since then various distance learning institutions were established. The Directorate of Education distributed 200 radio receivers to different institutions to lay the foundation for distance education. In 1962, the first audio-visual cell, and later, an audio-visual education centre was set up. In 1980, a school-broadcasting programme was launched as a pilot project. In 1983, these two distance learning institutions were merged into an organisation, known as the National Institute of Education Media and Technology (NIEMT). The Bangladesh Institute of Distance Education (BIDE) was set up in 1985. Later, NIEMT was merged with BIDE to conduct teaching programmes.
In addition to developing and distributing audio-visual materials, BIDE launched a BEd programme in the distance mode. The next goal was to set up an Open University on the model of the British Open University at Milton Keynes. In 1987, a project was undertaken with financial support from the British Overseas Development Agency (ODA) to assess the feasibility of setting up of such a university. In October 1988, again with support from ODA, a high-powered team was formed comprising members from the Ministry of Education, the Planning Commission and the university grants commission. This team visited India, Pakistan, Thailand and Britain. In 1989, with the help of experts from Britain, the team drew up a plan for an open university. Simultaneously, at the invitation of the government of Bangladesh, a mission came from the Asian Development Bank. Later, supported by the Asian Development Bank, another feasibility survey was conducted and a contract was signed between the Bank and the government for joint financing of the project. The Bangladesh Open University (BOU) was established by an Act of Parliament in October 1992. BIDE was merged with it. This university is the outcome of 40 years of endeavour. In distance education system the curriculum, syllabus and teaching methodology are completely different from those in the traditional educational system. BOU develops the curricula of its educational programmes itself. Each programme usually has its own Curriculum Committee formed by the experts and practitioners related to that programme or course. The Curriculum Committee develops the curriculum, which was reviewed by the members of the schools (faculties) and finally approved by the Academic council after further review.
A teacher teaches in a traditional educational institution, whereas an organisation does the function of a teacher in distance education. Here technology plays the vital role in setting up relationships between teacher and students. The distance that exists between teacher and students in distance education is eliminated with the help of multi-media technology.
In the traditional system teacher-centered education and learning activities are very important, which are absent in distance education. In the later, teaching-learning activities are made suitable for self-learning by students. Here there is hardly any control of the conventional teaching process. Besides, as traditional education is teacher-centered, distance education is learner-centered. That is why a distance learning student is not dependent on the conventional learning process. Distance learning is effective at any level or stage of education. It brings teachers and students together through printed materials, audio-video productions, computers and other technological media to facilitate learning. All these have limited use in the traditional face to face learning system.
Within a few years of its establishment, BOU introduced 18 formal and 19 non-formal programmes for more than 300 courses. Many more courses are being launched. To run programmes effectively, six schools/faculties and 12 Regional Resource Centres (academic divisions) have been set up. Its educational programmes have been strengthened by setting up 12 regional resource centres, 80 local centres and over 1000 study centres to facilitate its academic activities. The core team of employees of the university in its main establishments at Gazipur near Dhaka includes 101 teachers and 433 support personnel. Although classroom teaching does not come within the purview of distance education, BOU has introduced a tutorial system of teaching at more than 1,000 centres to help enhance learners' applied knowledge. The curriculum based non-formal programmes are aimed at creating awareness among the general people through radio and TV programmes.
Electronic media play an important role in distance education. The world witnessed a revolutionary change in the field of communication. telecommunication has become an important medium in distance education. It reduces the gap between the tutors and the learners. BOU has established a modern electronic media centre. In this system teachers, radio-TV producers, journalists, folk artists, extension workers in the fields of agriculture, health and cooperative services, youth clubs, women's associations, city and village councils and administrators can play vital roles in implementing the political commitment for expansion of education. The use of modern media technology opened wide the doors of life-long education. More than 250,000 learners take part in these programmes. The number is more than the total number of students of all other universities of Bangladesh. The enrolment in BOU was more than 300,000 in 2000.
BOU uses printed and audio-visual materials, radio-TV programmes and tutorial services to conduct its countrywide programmes. BOU established a teleconferencing unit to communicate with learners at regional resource centres and local centres,. Plans are afoot to set up units for computer conferencing and video conferencing. BOU hopes to use the print media and electronic technology in all its programmes in future.
The extent of the demands and need for expanding distance education in Bangladesh, beside BOU all traditional universities must provide ODL (Open Distance Learning) as dual-mode or multi-mode institutions. [M Aminul Islam]