By: Pragya Raidas* |
Due to COVID-19 outbreak and the contingency measures of lockdown etc. taken by the Government, universities in India are embarking on a course of online teaching and online examinations. It has become mandatory for students and teachers to take online classes as well as online examinations. However, there are some ground realities and pitfalls in doing so. This online mode is an elite option. It does not cater to diverse socio-economic backgrounds and therefore leads to creation of a divide; it tends to expand the gap between privileged and disadvantaged. Although both online learning and online evaluations are not equitable and are discriminatory, this article particularly focuses on the discrimination created by online examinations and specifically on university examinations. The pandemic has affected lives of different groups of students in different ways. The system of online education is not accommodative of disadvantaged groups like poor, Dalits, women, and specially abled persons. Further, it has made them victims of unfair evaluation system as they suffer from distress of not being able to access the same level of education as their privileged peers. Online exams are a tool for exacerbating the divide and inequalities.
Online system of evaluation is not an equitable and fair option for assessing learning and performance. There is no level-playing field and entire process is vitiated by structural inequalities which exist in our country. Teachers are also suffering because of this system. For many of them this kind of technology is totally new they are not able to gain the expertise in order to teach. Many of the teachers do not have mastery over software applications and therefore, are not able to teach. Many of these are then forced to risk their lives, travel to the university to conduct the classes.
It is delusional to assert normality in the times when situations are beyond normal. Why is this academic ritual of evaluation through examination marks so important to be strictly adhered? During a pandemic, creating an atmosphere of cut-throat competition is the opposite of what we need.
What issues are being faced by different groups of students and teachers?
Internet connectivity issues and other infrastructural issues
A survey to elicit information about access to internet conducted by University of Hyderabad (UoH) Herald, suggests that a more cautious approach is needed with respect to online education. About 18% of students said that they cannot access online classes at all. The concerns involved reliable internet connectivity, cost of data connection and unreliable electricity supply in rural residences. Online classes consume massive amount of data and many students have limited-size data pack. Many middle-class families are not able to afford unlimited Wi-Fi. Some homes have more than one student or teacher and this implies more data usage per house. This also requires creating space for all students or teachers in one home, simultaneously. It also creates extra financial burden to purchase more gadgets in the times when income is uncertain. It is a well-known fact that a significant number of areas do not have stable internet connection or do not have connection at all. India ranks very low with respect to digital infrastructure; the country suffers from a digital divide.
Many students do not have laptops. It becomes difficult for them to read online materials, concentrate on lectures and write assignments through mobile. Watching in a small screen also hampers their eyesight. Many universities have made provision for laptops and pen drives consisting of recorded lectures but appearing for online exams is still impossible for them. Moreover, in some of the cases, these resources have not reached the students on time; even if they want, these disadvantaged students cannot give exams along with their peers.
Even if laptops are provided, a significant group of students live in areas where electricity supply is highly erratic, they are not able to charge their laptops and cannot use them for a long time and therefore it becomes difficult to study regularly and keep up with the syllabus.
Domestic environment not conducive for concentrating on studies
Many houses do not get network connection and even if they get, most of the times it is not stable or is strong only in some corners of the home.
In the grip of the fear of COVID-19, both students as well as the teachers are not in mental space to appear for exams or check the answer papers. Recent statistics have shown an increase in Domestic violence due to COVID-19 lockdown. How can a student study in such toxic environment? Many students have family members who are battling COVID-19 and therefore they are forced to manage household and consequently withdraw from studies.
Mental health issues
Students and teachers have close family members, relatives or friends who are infected with the virus. Some of them have themselves tested positive. Majority are living in area with high exposure to virus. Anxiety faced by such people cannot be described.
Students and teachers are suffering from depression and mental anxiety. Many live with families who don’t even believe in mental health and disorders. In such case it becomes difficult for them to deal with anxiety as they do not have anyone to share their problem with and they cannot find anyone who empathises with them. Many students earlier used to live in hostels or PGs. They have completed their whole education by staying in the hostels. These students are now finding it hard to peacefully live with a joint family in a small house and simultaneously maintaining their academic grades. In such a situation it is becoming hard for them to balance.
Accommodations made but did not address the issue
For all the students who are left out from online exams, universities have stated that 2nd phase of examinations would be conducted. These students will be given opportunity to take exams sometime later during the year. This is an illusory option as there is no certainty as to when it would be possible to open the colleges given continuously rising number of COVID cases. These students have to pin their hopes on some nebulous date which might be during next year. These 2 phases of exams would not be equitable for university students as it would hamper their internship months. Such delay will make them lag behind their colleagues and will put them in competitively disadvantaged position in an already cut-throat atmosphere where everyone is competing to get job or seat for higher studies. Additionally, in the 2nd phase, students would be taking exams under direct supervision of an invigilator whereas online exams are Open Book Examinations (OBEs). How can the university ensure equitability in such scenario? Even if the option of conducting open-book physical exams is considered, still it would not be at par with online exams because in online exams students have option of using internet as there is no supervision.
Problem with CSCs
Common Service Centres (CSCs) have been set up by Delhi University for students without infrastructural facilities. Delhi High Court has directed to provide scribes in CSCs for visually impaired students. These CSCs do make the process easier for students who are appearing for online exams, but it does not fix the inequality in the entire process given that all the students do not have equal access to lectures and materials in the first place. Also, these students have to additionally risk their life for the sake of examinations in order to go to nearby CSC. Moreover, CSC operators and District Managers in charge of CSCs from different parts in Haryana, Punjab and Assam have stated that they have not received any notification regarding the exams and that they have no idea about DU examinations. In the Delhi High Court case of Anupam and ors. v. University of Delhi, several complaints were listed by the university students with regard to functioning of CSCs. Complaints were made with regard to non-availability of computers and internet connection at CSCs.
Most of the complaints made by students were from states of Assam and Jammu & Kashmir. In these areas, CSCs are either not ready to provide facilities, or are shut because of lockdown. Another issue pointed out by students is the problem of locating CSCs. CSC locator website given in the DU circular does not provide any phone numbers, it only provides list of addresses of CSCs. Students have to physically locate them and find out which of the CSCs are operational.
Which other groups are particularly facing discrimination due to online exams?
Visually-impaired PwD category includes students with blindness as well as low-vision. Increased exposure to screen is a burden for them as these students are asked by doctors to avoid long hours on the screen. They are now forced to compromise with their eyesight for the sake of examinations. Final year students of Delhi University who have to appear for the exams as directed by Delhi High Court, have alleged the university for not providing scribes or notes and have accused the university for being ‘exclusionary’ and ‘discriminatory’.
Previously it was up to the students to find scribes. Although now Delhi HC has ordered DU to provide scribes at CSCs, miseries faced by these students have still not decreased. Earlier when college was open, students used to take help from their peers regarding notes and study materials, but because college is shut, they are not able to take help and are left totally on their own.
Due to lockdown, house helpers are not working and therefore students and teachers who are now staying at home have to take up additional domestic responsibilities. Majority times female members are particularly expected to look after household chores. Female students are not able to attend online classes due the inflexible domestic tasks, which takes up majority of their time in a day.
Similarly, female teachers have to balance their work and domestic responsibilities. The feminine world of domestic work always has to adjust to the “impersonal” world of “productive” work; that world of work does not adjust to the needs of domesticity. Moreover, crimes against women like domestic violence, other sexual crimes have increased in lockdown because of the pandemic.
States with greater issues
Some states like Jammu and Kashmir, Assam, Kerala, parts of West Bengal are currently not capable of embarking onto the process of digitisation of education. In J&K, high-speed internet has been suspended since August 5, 2019. Students there are not even able to attend online classes due to 2G network connection. In Kerala, students are facing extreme internet issues along with electricity cuts due to constant heavy rains. Assam has been hit by floods. Assam education minister himself said that conducting online examinations for university students would not be feasible as many students are from poor economic background and lack basic requirements of online examinations. In all these states students have to come out of their homes on to the roads to find network connection.
A survey by Delhi University Teacher’s Association has revealed that only 15.3% students possess laptops. Online exams should not be made the new normal mode of evaluation. This kind of system will lead to “creation of a new class of urban gizmo landlords who will subject all others to new forms of exploitation in the newly emerging digitalised capitalist system.” It is baffling to see administrators refusing to acknowledge deep inequality in this process.
Solutions to the online examinations could be scaling up of marks of previous semester and internal assessments. As authorities have been saying that some students would be given opportunity of attempting physical examinations later during the year, then it is entirely reasonable to conduct physical examinations for every student at the same time. This would ensure parity as regard to the system of evaluation. Authorities need to be more sensitive and considerate. They need to understand that results of online evaluation will not effectively reflect the true capabilities of students. They should adopt lenient method of evaluation.
The entire situation comes down to one basic question: are these online exams worth the distress and trauma faced by disadvantaged and the exclusion being created? Existence of disadvantaged students has become vulnerable to accommodations of equality by denying equity. In these circumstances creating a false sense of normalcy causes nothing but anxiety.
* The author is a student at NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad.
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