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Online exams? Really?

Students are already suffering due to sudden displacement,  internet unreliability and other piquant situations. DU as an institution is oblivious to their problems

In the beginning of March, I was at home in Lucknow for the mid-semester break when it was announced that educational institutions in Delhi will be closed until March 31 to contain the Covid-19 outbreak. I am a third-year student at Delhi’s Hindu College, living in the college hostel.

In Lucknow, I’d only brought three or four college textbooks with me. At the time, the crisis was not declared a medical emergency, nor was it anticipated to last long enough to adversely impact the normal teaching-learning process. So I returned to Delhi on March 15, traveling by train.

When I reached Delhi, there were murmurs that Hindu College’s hostels may have to be vacated. I took shelter at my sister’s flat in Noida and planned to take the metro in a couple of days to Vishwavidyalaya to get my books and personal items. Soon after, a notice was issued that the hostels will be closed. The 50-60 odd residents who had stayed back for coaching and exam preparation were asked to vacate. Almost immediately after that, the first lockdown was announced.

Since then, I have been stuck in Noida with just the travel bag I brought from home, a few personal belongings, and little to no study material. Online classes began from the first week of April and since internal assessments were incomplete, we had to write our assignments without access to libraries or adequate technical resources for online archives. I am fortunate enough to have a laptop and access to a WiFi connection in my sister’s home, which was not the case at my home in Lucknow.

I attended most online classes and was able to submit my assignments via email. But I have been in touch with classmates and fellow final-year students from other colleges and universities, and my story is one of relative ease and privilege.

I want to highlight some of the issues faced by the student community during this time of crisis. It should also be understood that these are people who have access to regular internet — the ones who are not already disadvantaged from sharing their narratives as effectively.

Asked to vacate hostel

A childhood friend of mine from Ramjas College had stayed back during the mid-semester break to attend coaching classes for a competitive exam and the sudden notice of vacating the hostel posed a challenge with reservations for travel and potent health risks. This prompted him to start a campaign along with a few others against the administration’s decision to clear out the hostel. He has been staying there since then, helped by the HRD ministry’s notice issued on March 21, which recommended that students don’t travel during the lockdown, and continue to stay at their hostels. But the notice came too late for many students who had to seek accommodation with friends or had to travel back home after their hostels closed doors anyway.

Trains, the primary mode of long-distance travel for crores of Indians, were suspended from March 22. Services have only partially resumed since then. However, with the announcement of certain relaxations for Lockdown 5.0 starting from June 1, the Ramjas College administration has resumed its attempts to get students to vacate the hostels.

There are several such stories from Delhi University, including the North Eastern Students House for Women and the Ambedkar-Ganguly Students House for Women, from Jawaharlal Nehru University, from Jamia Millia Islamia, from the IITs, and from several private institutions.

Online exams

Many of my acquaintances, including classmates and students from my college, are currently living in residential areas around North Campus like Old Gupta Colony, infamous for its low internet connectivity and cramped roads. Several students are stranded in and around the university, far from home.

Therefore, it’s come as a shock that instead of reaching out to its students during this time (as any institution that cares about its students should), Delhi University went ahead with its experimental plans for holding online examinations. These exams were later modified to an open-book format. Remember, Delhi University is known for its lazy servers that are prone to crashing.

Deans are reportedly divided over the issue, made clearer by a letter to the university’s vice-chancellor from the dean of the Faculty of Technology.

Since then, multiple petitions have been sent to university officials and government officials alike by the Delhi University Teachers’ Association and several student representatives, but to no avail. The DUTA submitted a letter to vice-chancellor Yogesh Tyagi, saying it had surveyed over 51,000 students and 85 percent voted against online examinations. It also pointed out that 50 percent of students were unable to access study materials during the lockdown.

The situation was made worse when human resource development minister, Ramesh Pokhriyal, said exams for final-year students will definitely take place. While second-year students will be promoted based on other criteria even if no exam takes place, final-year students will need to sit for academic exams even with life-changing concerns on the horizon. They will also have to appear for entrance examinations in whichever form this crisis allows, or sit for job interviews in a precariously placed economy following their graduation.

Either universities will try to follow a hollow and flawed online examination format or they will try to conduct offline examinations, which is ill-advised, since India’s Covid-19 cases are estimated to peak in July, which rules out travelling for most students.

Twitter campaigns in favour of online exams have highlighted how “modern problems require modern solutions”, and conducting exams in such times is an outdated measure — neither modern nor a solution.

An acquaintance of mine from a workshop on disability studies also highlighted how disabled students are unable to access the internet during this time, let alone scribes, braille, audiobooks, etc. Similarly, a distant acquaintance has had to live through the trauma of sexual assault during this time.

These are not exceptional cases. When there are thousands of seats reserved under the PwD quota, and domestic abuse is on the rise, India’s educational apparatus with all of its claims of high digitisation is hollow if it outrightly ignores the concerns of its students.

The call for accelerated evaluation is not without its own set of issues, highlighted in the previous semester’s results. Students of several departments from across Delhi University saw a dip in their grades because of the delayed result being hastily declared before Lockdown 3.0.

But the university’s case seems only microcosmic if we look at the greater impact of such policies.

Other concerns

I was in touch with an aspiring research scholar who shared his worries about the online mode of interviews for IIT Delhi and the lack of digital accessibility. The most recent case that highlighted the failures of digital penetration came from Kerala — a state renowned for its educational apparatus — with the suicide of Devika Balakrishnan. Her case is a sober reminder that India’s socio-economic fabric, with a majority of our population residing in rural areas, and in states with greater issues like Kashmir and recently, cyclone hit areas like West Bengal are not conducive to the digitisation of the educational process.

Another case came from IIT Kharagpur when a research scholar committed suicide. These are not isolated incidents but must be looked at from the lens of mental health alongside physiological health during the pandemic. Mental health concerns are rampant during this time of uncertainty and it is the duty of any organisation to assess its own strategies to reassure the people it serves. And in the case of any educational institute, it is the students.

Maharashtra has moved to cancel all exams for final-year students. Engineering students from Karnataka are lobbying for cancellations, pointing out how some subjects are too technical to be delved into in online classrooms. Four “major” IITs — Kanpur, Kharagpur, Mumbai and Roorkee — have cancelled final-year exams and a few private universities are following suit.

With all of these disadvantages and concerns, it is easy to understand how the need of the hour is not to ask for a centralised assessment when there are several other bigger tests that life, in its most laconic sense, has put forth in front of us — especially to the graduating students. This group of people, still in their early 20s, had anticipated graduation ceremonies, farewells, convocations, jobs, further studies or preparation for competitive exams. Now, all that has been relegated to struggling against anxieties about that very future which seemed so certain and well-placed a few months ago.

It is important to understand how being on the side of the students and the teachers — the people who make any educational institution possible and functional — in this crisis is the only place any administration should seek right now.

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