On 8 July, the University Grants Commission (UGC) announced revised guidelines stating that colleges and universities are required to conduct final year/final semester examinations. This was followed by a flurry of outrage across social media with students claiming that the governing body seemed to show little concern for the well-being of students. These concerns didn’t remain restricted to the student community as university authorities and faculty members too vocalised their “shock and disappointment” at the measures taken by the UGC.
The concerns go beyond what the government is labelling as merely “populist” given that there are States wherein the rate of COVID-19 cases could make it difficult for institutions to conduct offline examinations while maintaining distancing norms.
While the commission has offered the option of online examinations, the other associated concern is that of digital divide and accessibility. A large number of students from many public and also private institutions might struggle with the process of writing exams online, owing to lack of adequate access to personal gadgets or stable internet connection.
This isn’t just a requirement for people to “write” their exams but also to “prepare” for it. Hence, going completely online might not provide an entirely level playing field to students depending largely on university resources. The question of the digital divide and accessibility has been at the centre of many debates since the pandemic.
Right from April, most colleges and schools started conducting online classes for the ongoing or new semester. Students writing their board examinations were caught in a dilemma with some papers pending for many. Most colleges and universities consequently also had to defer their entrance examinations.
Herein, I’m reminded of one particular instance that a university junior shared with me. An undergraduate student of economics, he had applied for the public policy program at NLSIU, Bangalore. Fortunately, the university authorities devised a method of conducting entrances online with the webcam on the candidates’ computers functioning as “invigilators” which would detect any sudden movement or sound.
Several questions arose for me. Firstly, how could this be foolproof in ensuring a fair process given that even for something as basic as solving a math problem a person might have to look away from their screen for a considerable amount of time. Secondly, I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that such a method would exclude thousands of potential and perhaps deserving candidates. They might not have access to any device with a webcam or even steady internet connection.
Are we then going ahead and assuming that such students wouldn’t be interested in or capable of getting into programs at some of the most premier institutions in the country? If we are, nothing could reek more of classism. This is one of the numerous issues that students are facing across the country. Many schools made it mandatory for students to have their webcams on during classes. I know of a middle school student from a prestigious convent institution in Calcutta who was not allowed to attend classes for a while because she didn’t have access to a webcam on her device.
On 12 July, the Ministry of Human Resource Development released the Pragyata guidelines for digital education. It puts a cap on daily screen time, with the bracket for students of classes 9 to 12 being within four sessions of 1 hour each. The guidelines also put forth suggestions regarding class arrangements, planning and assignments for teachers and administrators in the form of eight steps. The aim is to ensure cybersecurity as well as mental and physical well-being, adequate resources curation and a healthy balance.
The move has been lauded by people from both the teaching and student communities. As well as parents, for whom the sedentary lifestyle and amount of time spent online by children was concerning. Teachers are required to conduct a thorough survey of how many students don’t have access to internet connectivity, a smartphone or laptop, and if they do, for how long. They are supposed to communicate with students through their parents or classmates if necessary, have doubt clearing sessions and maintain a datasheet of all progress.
The use of webcams in most schools isn’t mandatory. In this midst, several state boards, as well as the Council for Indian School Certificate Examination and All India Senior School Certificate Examination have released their 2020 results. While there have been sincere efforts in the direction of optimising the fruits of school education right now, some problems remain.
For one, many of the measures suggested by the HRD might not be thoroughly followed across all schools uniformly throughout the country. Public schools, wherein the likelihood of more number of students having accessibility issues is more significant, might see its teachers struggle to cope. Often children from low-income families might not have the healthiest learning environment at home or their families might be heavily reliant on programs like mid-day meal schemes which stand redundant now.
Also, in a bid to help students cope with academic pressure in these trying times, the Central Board of Secondary Education decided to revise and reduce its syllabi for classes 9 to 12. Topics removed from different subjects include challenges to democracy, caste and religion, citizenship and India’s relations with neighbouring countries.
There has been much discussion on the rationale and potential ideological politics behind such a restructuring of syllabi, which ultimately leads to the question: how can a country work towards building a holistic, fair and inclusive learning structure amid a pandemic? A commonly proposed solution is to defer the entire existing structure by a year, to give the current graduating batches a fairer chance, while also offering more time to all intermediate batches.
The politics of capitalist economy might dictate otherwise, which could be seen as a reason for the HRD Ministry’s concern with the question of employability amid the present crisis as primary in their decision to make final year examinations mandatory. And yet, this might be the time to rethink our entire system of education and what purpose it serves.
For starters, the pandemic has been a period of mental health crisis alongside the physiological aspect of it, which is something that school curriculum could begin to incorporate. Again, there is likely to be a disparity in terms of structure between private and public schools and the government must convene committees to ensure adherence to guidelines regarding safety and inclusivity in the digital learning space.
Term papers or report-based assignments could serve as a viable alternative for final year students in colleges that can’t conduct exams in the regular format, be it online or offline. Governing bodies of education, in consultation with university faculty across the country, should also devise student-friendly guidelines for the upcoming semesters of intermediate batches. Given the disruption of normalcy, the looming uncertainty regarding the future, and for some people just the sheer fact of staying home in environments that aren’t the healthiest can be a massive burden on mental health.
With institutes like NIMHANS offering services via their helplines and several other organisations pitching in to offer free counselling services it is the ideal time for institutions to start including mental health within the scope of their curriculum.
There’s no going back to normalcy because normal as we knew it no more exists. What we can do is adapt to circumstances in ways that might compel us to question how we think of education, employability or academic credibility. And restructure our approach to pedagogy in a way that is more inclusive than divisive and more holistic than being merely about acquiring a degree.