Delhi – Getting to Indira Gandhi National Open University, a series of cinderblock studios and satellite dishes set in a neighborhood where goats and dogs pick at trash piles and cows stroll through traffic, took about 200 honks of the cab horn.
This is arguably the world’s largest university, with 3.2 million students and counting. It has its own satellite in orbit to connect the campus with hundreds of TV stations across the country that broadcast its lectures. In the past few years it has moved online, which has brought the university’s content to an even broader audience – the world.
The university now claims about 45,000 students abroad through its Web-based courses, and last week it held a meeting here for virtual institutions in other countries that serve as partners in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nepal, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and other countries.
I sat down with V.N. Rajasekharan Pillai, vice-chancellor of the university, who said that the institution has built up its foreign student base without even trying, spending no money on advertising and working with virtual universities that approached it seeking help designing their curricula. “We permit them to contextualize our courses to suit the requirements of the learners over there, and of course we arrive at a fee-sharing model,” he said, explaining the partnerships.
For most of its 25 years of operations, IGNOU, as it is known here, has delivered courses mainly via radio and television. About four years ago the university began putting full courses online, in a system called Flexilearn. Though all the course materials are free online, he said, students must pay if they want to take a test on the material and get credit for the course if they pass.
Students are diverse in age as well as nationality. Mr. Pillai showed me a newspaper article about a six-year-old who took a pottery class from the university, and described students in their 90s taking courses as well.
I asked whether he worries that the courses are too easy or are dismissed by potential employers, but he said the goal of the virtual university is to serve those who simply cannot take traditional courses.
“Millions of people work in this country, but only 5 percent have some sort of certification,” he said. “Contrast that to over 90 percent in the so-called developed countries.”