Social work education through distance mode in India:  opportunities and challenges 


With the advancement in technology there has been a paradigm shift in the mode of imparting education especially post secondary education.The flexibility of the system  and the rapid advancement of technology has contributed to the recognition  of ODL as an effective means of education. Though the technological availability to impart distance learning varies from place to place still it is commonly being accepted  by a large number of  learners. Globalization, growth in  technology  and information system are some of the factors leading to the popularity of distance education  especially in higher education.  More and more distance education classes are being offered worldwide to meet the needs of students globally, whose needs require flexibility in learning. ODL offers a more convenient and cost effective method of learning to its students. Governments worldwide are promoting the use of open and distance/online learning as a complementary approach to traditional educational structures in order to meet the new and changing demands for education and training in the twenty first   century (Gutierez, 2010). India is one of the countries having largest number of distance education programs (Pardasani et al , 2012).This article gives an overview of the factors favouring social work education through distance mode in India and the challenges faced by it.

Development of social work education in India

The first school of social work in India was established in 1936 named ‘Sir Dorabji Tata Graduate School of Social Work’, later renamed as Tata Institute of Social  Sciences (TISS)  and was recognised as an autonomous institution (Deemed to be University) by Government of India. During  late forties and earlier fifties more social work institutions were established such as Delhi School of Social work, Baroda School of Social Work, Madras School of Social Work, social work departments at Kashi Vidyapeeth in Varanasi, Gujarat  Vidyapeeth in Ahmedabad, University of Lucknow etc. Till the year 1978 there were 35 schools of social work in India (second Review of Social Work Education, 1980). To regulate social work education in India, University Grants Commission (UGC) has set up three review committees. The reports of first and second review committee  were published in the year 1965 and  1980 respectively which elaborates on the existing scenario of social work education in India and have given recommendations and suggestions for curriculum development based on  the changing needs of the Indian society and improvement in the delivery of social work program at various levels. 

Indira Gandhi National Open University started offering social work program in Distance mode for the first time in the country from  2004. The social work program in Open and Distance Learning is a relatively new initiative by IGNOU. Later on a few state open universities have started offering social work program in the open and distance mode.  Before going further it is important to discuss the concept of  Open and Distance Learning (ODL). 

Open and Distance Learning

`Open’ , `distance’ or `flexible’ learning are all terms used to describe alternatives to traditional taught courses -where the teacher and student interact directly through face to face contact (Horwath and Shardlow, 2000). It can be described as an organized educational activity which is based on the use of teaching materials in which constraints on study are minimized either in terms of access, time and pace, methods of study or any combination of these. In ODL mode the learner can select his/her own place of study and gets relaxation in selecting his/her courses. The term “open” in the open and distance learning system incorporates all the measures that encourage widespread access to, and participation in education. In ODL there is no full-time-face to face classroom education. The teachers and learners interact at a distance. Occasionally, the learners meet the teachers in face-to-face counselling sessions. There is an educational organization which takes care of designing, preparation and delivery of learning materials to the learners. These are also called ‘Self Instructional Material’ or ‘Self Learning Material’ (SIM/SLM). ODL provides learner support as and when required. Apart from print, audio and video media are used to deliver the content to the learners. One of the most important aspects of ODL is that two-way communication do take place through print, writing and teleconferencing using telephone, television, computer etc.

online education or distance education

This system of learning has  tried to remove barriers to learning  such as entrance requirements, time constraints, program and course structure, lack of finance, geographical distance, and social and cultural factors such as age, gender, ethnicity and class ;  that have closed off and prevented attendance at the ‘traditional’ system of learning. Open learning improves access to education, as it tends to be in line with the  learning centered philosophies, creating flexible learning opportunities for a broad range of people from a wide range of backgrounds to enable them and empower them to have choice about how, when and where one learns ( Horwath & Shardlow ,2000; and Bourn & Bootle ,2005; Collins, 2007).The most important aim of open and distance learning is to meet the needs and requirements of individual students and can help to facilitate access to learning for disadvantaged groups. Open learning is characterised as being learner-centered because individuals can take responsibility for their own learning and study at their own convenience. It  gives the  learners increased autonomy, choice and control, and introduce components of flexibility into the learning process. The learner is in charge of his/her own learning and have the scope to control the pace of their learning which in the long run proves to be more effective learning (Bourn & Bootle, 2005).


Flexibility : As stated above ODL is synonymous to flexible learning and so it is for social work program. IGNOU is the only central university in India offering social work program in the distance mode from undergraduate to doctorate level. The maximum duration to complete the undergraduate program is six years and post graduate program is five years. Besides, the learners have the freedom to complete the required duration of field practicum as per their convenience  in line with the  guidelines of the program. The Regional centres and Study centres are spread across India and few other countries and the learners can take up the courses from any Regional centre. They even have  the choice to   write their exam from a different place from where they have registered.The learners have freedom to take up the course at their pace and do  field work  in the  area of their choice, with the help of Self Instructional Material. 

Accessibility:   More institutions  of social work came into existence during the later part of the twentieth century but these were not evenly distributed across the country. Majority of them were located in the urban centres and catering to the needs of the urban population and consequently neglecting the needs of the vast rural mass (UGC review committee 1980). IGNOU is offering  social work program in distance mode through its regional and study centres established in every State and Union Territory in  the country. Thus ODL can provide opportunity to learners situated in rural areas or where conventional schools of social work do not exist. IGNOU itself has 56 study centres in remote and rural areas, and 20 study centres in jails; indicating the accessibility of education to the disadvantaged sections of the society (Panda, 2005). Besides, some  state open universities have adopted and translated the study material of IGNOU in the respective regional languages where it is offered.

Need at undergraduate level: Maximum central universities in India  offer social work program at the postgraduate  level and above.  Recommendations were made by the second Review committee for social work education to expand social work program at the undergraduate and secondary  level to create a workforce of paraprofessionals. Very few  institutes offer it  at the undergraduate level (Bhat & Phukan, 2015). Open and Distance Learning has   opened  avenues for imparting  training at the undergraduate across the country uniformly.   

 Large workforce in the welfare sector which needs training: India is a developing country with great  scope of community development. There are many welfare organisations catering to the needs of the vulnerable group. The workforce in these organisations are most of the time not trained professionally. ODL gives  the opportunity to these untrained workforce to gain the professional knowledge and skills to enhance their service delivery.  They also have the freedom to complete the course at their own pace with the help of SLMs which are comprehensive.Some of the salient features of self instructional materials are: 

  • The learning material is comprehensive and incorporates all the essential elements.
  • The teacher is in built in the text. The style of writing has an interactive tone and the learners are addressed as ‘you’.
  • The material is self explanatory so the learners need not seek help from other sources.
  • There are plenty of examples which the learners can relate to their experiences. Illustrations are used where they are found to be  better than words. 
  • Exercises are given for the learners to check their progress before proceeding further in a lesson unit. Space is given for the learners to write down their own ideas.(Goel & Goel, 2009).

  ICT is advanced and  accessible to the common man  which can be utilised for education: 

During the last decade IT has advanced at a rapid pace and eased the accessibility to the common masses.  Government  has spent  much  on ICT especially in the education sector. It has a special  satellite solely for the purpose of education namely, EDUSAT  which is configured to facilitate    digital interaction.  Institutions offering or intending to offer distance program in social work can utilise these features to reach maximum number of learners. 

Increased demand for higher education: Demand for higher education is increasing world-wide. It is  not possible to set up regular institutes at the same pace with the demand. In this situation  ODL is a potential means to meet this demand which is efficient and cost effective (Panda,2005).Social work is still an emerging profession in India and some states are yet to establish schools of social work in their universities. It is not a traditional subject taught in every university or college. Through distance education opens the doors for those learners who would like to take up this program but have the constraints of a regular institute providing it. The  SIM/SLM complimented with IRC/ITC session, audio video programs.  


Quality Assurance:   Social work program in India is  regulated by UGC (University Grants Commission). The documents available related to social work education are UGC model curriculum 2001 and NAAC Manual, 2005. The study material of IGNOU is well recognized for its quality and is even referred by many conventional learners. However,   the absence of a professional council recognising the social work program, gives a scope for gap in the industry-education linkage. In  ODL institutes, if  quality assurance mechanism is not adopted, it can add to this problem. The decentralised system of distance institutes (implying student-teacher distance) also poses a challenge in terms of  situations leading to academia – administration gap leading to students’ dropout (Simpson, 2013).

Lack of uniformity in curriculum:   In recent times  quite a number of state open universities (NSOU, MPBOU etc.) have started offering social work program after it was started by IGNOU. Social work  program structure  may vary in different institutes  as there is no fixed criteria set for the same. Credit system is not followed uniformly  by all the institutes leading to further variation. The field practicum and its supervision can be a challenging task in ODL, since there might not be organizations available for the learners to complete their practicum component,  especially in remote villages. As field practicum is an important  aspect of social work curriculum, designing it according to the need of the learners and the learning opportunities available at the local area is a challenging task. 

Heterogenous Profile of learners:  The ODL students  belong to different regions, speak different languages and come from diverse socio-cultural backgrounds. They belong to different age-groups bringing, therefore, varying levels of maturity. They could be married, with children. A significant number of students are females, requiring special care in arranging field-based learning in rural/remote areas. Several student in ODL are employed and would have to take leave from their work to complete the practicum component therefore their placement needs may differ.  Need of ODL learners are different from regular  students. Designing of the practicum and its supervision at places where very few social workers or welfare organizations exists is a challenging task.

Lack of research base:  Social work program in ODL   is a relatively new initiative in India. Though much research studies have been conducted in the area of social work education in distance mode globally, yet there is dearth of literature in the Indian context.  The effectiveness of the program in ODL, any gaps  to be addressed,  relevance  in the Indian culture; are some of the issues which needs to be studied. In the absence of research studies it would be difficult to determine what skills the learners are gaining and bring about any improvement if required. 

Inadequate utilization of ICT:   India is a country with a diverse population and so is the profile of the ODL learners.  Social work program offered by IGNOU  incorporates the use of ICT for teaching along with the printed SLM and contact classes for counselling.  The learner is expected to be more independent and responsible for his/her learning. The use of technology for learning may vary from learner to learner as some may be reluctant to use it or for some it might not be accessible especially in remote rural areas (Aslam,2000). As the ICT component is additional to the SLMs many students may only depend on the printed study material which are self explanatory. Also , independent learning can benefit those learners belonging to cultures where it is  promoted whereas learners from those sections where learning in group in the traditional classroom environment has been the norm  might not be able to take full advantage of the technology based education (Askland & Pyne, 2007).    


Though this system of education  has proved to be a boon for many yet it cannot replace the conventional  system of education. For example, ODL can be  more effective in higher education and with mature students as it allows some degree of independence therefore self motivated students are best suited to this system of education. According to Horwath and Shardlow (2000) open and distance learning can provide a valuable approach to learning for such students  who :

  • “have a reflective style of learning and are not dependent on inter-action and group-based learning;
  • are self-motivated and able to organize their own study strategy;
  • recognize that open learning is not a quick route to a qualification;
  • are able to be open and honest about their learning needs; and
  • have the ability to be proactive in terms of using support systems”.

Also its effectiveness is associated with the advancement or availability of technology. As a result, areas lagging behind in technical advancement especially the rural areas might not be able to take full advantage of ODL. Similarly there can be other constraints in ODL which may vary from one region to another. Social work education through distance mode has certain opportunities but at the same time it faces certain pedagogical challenges which needs to be addressed. More research base to strengthen the program is recommended.  


Aslam,M.(2000). Education and Training For Millions: Pedagogical challenges for distance education. Open learning: The journal of open, distance and e-learning, 15 (3),309-315.

Bhatt, S., & Phukan, D.(2015). Social Work Education in India : A Resource Book. Alternote Press: New Delhi.

Bourn, D., & Bootle, K. (2005). Evaluation of a Distance Learning, Post Graduate Advanced Award in Social Work Programme for Child and Family Social Work Supervisors and Mentors. Social Work Education, 24 (3), 343 — 362.                  DOI: 10.1080/02615470500050644

Collins, S. (2007). Open and Distance Learning in Qualifying Social Work Education in Britain and the USA: Celebrating Diversity and Difference?. Social Work Education, 27(4), 422 — 439.      DOI: 10.1080/02615470701379792

Goel, A., and Goel, S. L. (2009). Distance Education: Principles, Potentialities and Perspectives. New Delhi: Deep and Deep publication. 

Gutierrez, I. P. (2010). Global Perspectives in Open and Distance Learning and Open Learning Resources. Distance Learning, 7(1), 16-21.                Retrieved    from

Gurid, A. A., & Malcolm P. (2007). Distance education and international social work education, European Journal of Social Work, 10:2, 161-174, DOI: 10.1080/13691450701317814 

Horwath, J., and  Shardlow, S. M. (2000). Empowering learners through open (distance) programs:  an evaluation of a practice teaching program. Social Work Education, 19 (2), 111- 123.            DOI: 10.1080/02615470050003502.

Pardasani,M., Goldkind, L., Heyman, J. C &  Cross-Denny, B.(2012). How Much Does the Distance in Distance Education Matter? Our Students Speak, Social Work Education, 31:4, 406-421.                                 DOI: 10.1080/02615479.2011.573547 

Panda, S.(2005). Higher Education at a Distance and National Development: Reflections on the Indian experience, Distance Education, 26:2, 205-225 

Simpson, O. (2013). Student retention in distance education: are we failing  our students?, Open Learning: The Journal of Open, Distance and e-Learning, 28:2, 105-119, 

  DOI: 10.1080/02680513.2013.847363

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