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Usha Chandar

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Fifty-six-year-old Dr. Usha Chandar has evolved in the past three decades of her professional life and is a blend of the following: educationist, academician, research scholar, mentor, ICT expert, development professional….. as she pursued her twin passions of Distance Education and Development Communication both rapidly developing fields. Her mission in life is to contribute towards building India as a great nation in the 21st century through its cultured and skilled human resource. Dr. Usha Chandar has chosen the R & D approach having served as a focal person in developing models of people-oriented, technology facilitated education & training involving multidisciplinary, multi-sectoral, participatory teamwork.

 

Born as Usha Narayanamurthy at Mannargudi village in the erstwhile Thanjavur [presently Tiruvaruru] district of Tamilnadu in 1960 was born at Mannargudi village in the erstwhile Thanjavur [presently Tiruvaruru] district of Tamilnadu in 1960. Her father hailed from Palghat in Kerala, his ancestors included educated professionals, an eminent lawyer, English professor, etc. who had contributed to the welfare of the society at large by setting up many educational institutions and through philanthropy. Her maternal side relatives were from Tamilnadu mostly artists and creative professionals of their time.

 

Usha, the eldest and the only daughter of four children of her parents, however, grew up in a cantonment type atmosphere as her father worked for the Ministry of Home Affairs with a transferable job. Her unique childhood and in many ways rare schooling experience, travelling  and living in different parts of the country  studying in nearly eleven types of schools- Kendriya Vidyalaya to Convents, from Punjabi medium to Kannada to Tamil medium Schools gave her opportunity to make many friends, learn many languages and imbibe the spirit of various cultures and religions and helped to shape her personality. Along with many Indian languages, she also learned a few foreign languages.

 

For higher studies, she went to five universities and had the opportunity to pursue tertiary education across three disciplines and in two modes – conventional and distance mode. Even as she was inspired by the writings of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, the brave stories of Indian history, the national freedom movement and so on. She had witnessed and experienced war (Indo-Pak 1965, Amritsar) at the age of five, both its ugly side of bombings and the beautiful part of bringing people together as her family fled the war scene as refugees. This had left a deep impression in her mind and she grew up wanting peace and harmony off all kinds - in nature and among people living in all communities. As she grew older she constantly felt an inner calling to reach out and serve the less fortunate and bring about a  change in their lives especially those  disadvantaged due to gender, caste, class, geographic and other reasons.

Usha married Chandar, a  finance professional working in an Indian MNC in 1982. Realizing that it was difficult to pursue the career of her  childhood dream – the Civil Services, she dabbled initially into editing children’s books, studying science journalism, learning foreign languages etc. She started her formal career as a CSIR Research Associate under the visionary educationist Late Sh.A.J.Kidwai who founded the Mass Communication Research Centre (MCRC) at Jamia Millia Islamia. 

Since her college days, she has been a student leader and an articulate youngster. She was fairly consistent in her academic achievements and was quite active in extracurricular pursuits. She was deeply concerned with the phenomenon of ‘brain drain’ in the late ‘70s and the beginning of private tutorials for school children in the early ‘80s. She contributed to the New Education Policy of MHRD, GOI in 1986 by penning her suggestions frequently to the then Education Advisor, Planning Commission.  At an early impressionable age, she was also fortunate to be spotted and mentored by eminent personalities and educationists who became her mentors. Sh.J.Veeraraghavan, former HRD, Secretary and  Late Prof.Ram Reddy, founder Vice Chancellor of IGNOU at that time who were installing the future of distance education (DE) in the country and globally.

After completing the project assignment at MCRC, Jamia and  after a brief stint at the State Resource Centre, JMI, under Dr.Nishat Farooq (handling the Chauraha project based on television broadcasting support for adult education), Usha Chandra heeding  her mentor Dr.Abdul Waheed Khan’s (retired ADG (CI) at UNESCO, Paris) advice joined IGNOU as an educational media researcher in 1991. At that time, the ODL system was just taking off in the country with the broadcasts of IGNOU audio and video programs on AIR and Doordarshan. The  Open University System was also taking roots in the country and trying to establish its credibility  through the launch of some prestigious high-quality PG courses in management based on the UKOU model. Even though the new mode of delivery of education was to depend on educational technology, this was predominantly print based initially.

Being within the system, she got an opportunity to witness the growth of the new Open & Distance Learning (ODL) system with IGNOU at the apex. It was a period coinciding with the growth of communication technologies including the public broadcast media. Her research activities have kept pace with them (refer annexure of her exposure to a  wide range of innovations in ODL system).  She also furthered her academic achievements in the field to cope with the demands of her career by pursuing a fresh Master’s in Distance Education and later  Ph.D. in Education. The choice of her topic for Ph.D. study “SITE to EDUSAT: Study of Application of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in Higher Education & Training in India” from Vardhaman Mahaveer Open University (VMOU) at Kota, is also reflective of deep inner commitment to serve the  cause of  HRD in the country through R & D.

Being in the isolated role of media researcher at IGNOU, Usha was able to track and participate in all the ICT applications of IGNOU ranging from broadcast/ telecast on AIR/DD, IGNOU-ISRO teleconferencing TDCC, launch of Gyan Darshan channels, the Gyan Vani FM Radio Network, and so on. And gradually over the years, Usha Chandra emerged as both a product and an in-house expert of the system. While the absence of an R & D environment and a  multidisciplinary work culture at workplace did frustrate her, she sought to overcome it by staying in touch with her mentors, like-minded peers and involving herself in many special  studies supported by UNESCO, CEMCA, and ISRO. She utilized every such opportunity that came her way and was able to be part of the team that tested the potential of new technologies such as Satellite Radio (Worldspace Radio), the capacity building of ODL academics with  authoring tools software (in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh & India), impact assessment of  community television broadcasting etc.. 

Simultaneously, she also nurtured the NGO platform Development Communication India (DCI) she had founded nearly two decades earlier along with a close circle of  her mentors, teachers, and peers. This like-minded and committed team of professionals attempted to reach out to the development sector through quality professional inputs and many development communication techniques and new ICT ‘tools’ were tested. It provided unlimited uninhibited opportunities to work with various types of stakeholders – UN agencies, the policy makers of GOI, the functionaries at the State/District/ Block/ Gram Panchayat levels, elected representatives, youth and women groups, who were, in turn, motivated to participate proactively in the development process.  Over the years, the DCI  carved out its own ‘niche’ and aims to develop into a capacity building organization in the emerging knowledge society by augmenting facilities and networking with experts and institutions.

Usha Chandar conceptualized and guided numerous path-breaking multidisciplinary and multi-stakeholder in- house DCI micro action research projects, besides sponsored assignments for UNICEF, UNFPA, UNESCO, WHO, etc. She has coordinated and guided numerous monitoring and evaluation studies  undertaken by  DCI  for various  ministries of the GOI such as the Ministry of Rural Development (MoRD), Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF), Ministry of Health & Family affairs (MoHFW), Ministry of Youth Affairs (MoYAS), and so on. She has laid emphasis on innovations in methodologies and participatory processes, and process documentation for sharing experiences which have distinguished DCI team from the others.  

Presently as  a research faculty member in the School of Journalism & New Media Studies at IGNOU, Dr. Usha Chandar is developing a diploma program in ‘Media Research’ to be offered through ODL mode for upgrading the skills of working professionals.

Into all the project activities initiated by her, she has tried to instill value systems. From the beginning, she has diligently promoted an inclusive multidisciplinary work culture. At DCI, a lot of emphases was placed on drawing the best from individuals and strengthening their commitment to the group.  Usha feels that she owes a lot to the personal grooming and mentoring she was very fortunate to receive in the tradition of the ancient Indian ‘guru-shisha’ param para. So, in tribute, she has evolved a deliberate strategy at DCI to promote the same in a modern day setting by creating a work environment where three generations – Interns, mid-career professionals, and  senior advisors always worked together with a deep sense of commitment to one another and the society.  The wisdom gained by the elders is sought to be transferred to the youth and the energy and new ideas of the youth are sought to motivate and sustain the spirit of the elders.

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