Education sector along with manufacturing and service sectors is among the prominent casualties of the Covid19 pandemic as examinations either postponed or ad-hoc methods were adopted and admission delayed.
By Laishram Ladusingh
The outbreak of Covid19 originating from Wuhan City in China in December 2019 and its escalation to pandemic proportion has jeopardized all public and social support systems for health, education and livelihood of many countries across the globe. As the corona virus causing Covid19 is contiguous, has short incubation period and its modus operandi is unfamiliar, the whole world is caught unprepared to meet the devastating challenges posed by the virus. The high transmission and fatality rates of Covid19 as compared to other influenza and Sars viruses has subjected public health system to respond in no time with development of new vaccines, establishment of Covid19 care hospital wards, strengthening and orientation of health manpower and upgradation of pathological, clinical and surgical capacity. The best practices adopted for curing infected individuals and curtailment of further spread to uninfected are quarantine/self-isolation of infected individuals, masking, social distance and hand sanitization. In a country of the magnitude of India in terms of population size, geographical area, and regions at different levels of socio-economic development the aforesaid best practices could only be partially followed leading to further surge of positive cases. As such the country relied on complete and partial lockdowns, containment and micro-containment zones management to break the chain of transmission of corona virus. The master stroke of nationwide lockdown was declared by Hon’ble Prime Minister on March 24, 2020 and it lasted till May 17, 2020. From then on from time to time with frequent interactions and directives on various aspects of Covid19 care it is left to the wisdom of state governments to adopt preventative and curative strategies.
Education sector along with manufacturing and service sectors is among the prominent casualties of the Covid19 pandemic as examinations either postponed or ad-hoc methods were adopted and admission delayed. Moreover, students were to abstain from attending physical classes and had to vacate hostel. In order to sustain the education system specially during the lockdown and imposition of restricted inter and intra district movements and movements in containment zones government issued Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) for shifting to online classes. The pitfall of conducting online classes is that it missed out important features and motives of face to face classes. It goes without reiteration that there is no better option to education system than the face to face class as it provides an interactive environment for enhancing enthusiasm and concentration on the subjects among the students, besides interactive class is the most effective means of communication. Teachers can read the face of the students and moderate the intensity and pace of lecture so as to communicate to all students considering their interests, besides the feasibility to identify students who needs attention and special care. Despite the aforesaid limitations it is agreed unanimously that in the present Covid19 pandemic online mode of education is the only to sustain academic session. As such is the circumstances the SOPs for virtual quality education should have been ideal with enabling packages for the academic institutions and students. The SOPs assumed that all academic institutions and all students are at the same level playing field and overlooked the ground reality of the fact that many institutions do not have adequate ICT facilities and students from the lowest socio-economic strata do not have access to smart phones. This is coupled with poor mobile network in remote rural areas and inability of parents from poor households to pay for recharge. Not being able to afford and access to online class has induced another tension to the students underprivileged socio-economic groups in addition to the tension of uncertainty of the pandemic. This has also resulted in anxiety and depression among students in general and school students in particular. As a consequence, maintaining equity and providing quality education during the pandemic through online mode is a far cry.
Experts are presently of the opinion that Covid19 pandemic is likely to last till the end of the year or the first quarter of 2022 coinciding with the target of complete vaccination of all eligible population of India. It is therefore high time to support and strengthen ICT infrastructure and capacity of all academic institutions which lack facilities for digital classroom facilities or EMRC (Educational Multimedia Research Centre) for recording and transmission/uploading of lectures. Subjects which involved intensive mathematics and illustrations can be more effectively communicated via recorded lectures. Thus strengthening of ICT infrastructure would make the virtual classes more effective and contribute in improving the quality of education.
Managing online classes at the school particularly for primary and upper primary level is very challenging both for the children and teachers. All of us know that children are to be taught in special way more in the form of learning through play and practice, and also required more interaction and care in imparting formative knowledge of each subjects. There is also the issue of putting children from different socio-economic strata and children studying in private and public schools at the same level playing field despite the fact that children from poor households and rural areas are yet to see for themselves smartphones. For disadvantage children to be able to attend online class in smartphones need assistance of parents and it is also true that all parents from poor and rural households may not have much familiarity in the handling of smartphones, which is also true even for school teachers. As such the notion of equity in online school education take back seat in the pandemic time. In the present online school education none is made accountable and no system of reporting of school wise number of classes conducted for each standard has been involved, so children in public schools are more likely to be deprived of minimum schooling during the pandemic. There seems to be no immediate better solution to the ongoing online school education, however it is important to note that divide in terms of accessibility to school education increases between the rich and the poor students, the public and the private schools, the urban and the rural and the hill and the plain have increased. Therefore, stakeholders of school education have to put together their attention to evolve better and feasible online school education support and implementation plans to be issued as SOP for school education. One wild thought to provide solution to online school education during the Covid19 pandemic is to prepare a common syllabus for all levels which should be followed by all schools in the same state and distribute the responsibilities of recording class for 45-60 minutes, school wise, subject wise and lesson wise in their respective schools during the days and time permitted for attending duties by the government authorities. Government further can take up initiatives to telecast the recorded lessons class wise, subject wise and lesson wise in public and private channels in designated time slots. The same can also done in collaboration with EMRC and ICT centers in the state. The recorded lessons can also be available in the website of Directorate of Education.
Assessment and conduct of examinations during the period of lockdown or restriction to travel during the Covid19 pandemic is also challenging and except that examinations were ad-hoc in nature, the mode of examinations conducted till date varies considerably across the states and institutions. It was mid-way to complete even semesters in most universities in the country when the first nationwide lockdown was declared in March 24, 2020 and then after more than two months of complete lockdown came UGC notification to complete the semesters through online classes followed by another notification to promote intermediate semesters students taking weightage of internal assessments and previous semester examinations grades and conduct online examination for the end semesters. Depending on the ICT capacity of the universities/institutions online examinations for even semesters including last semester were conducted following not so refined procedures. One of the most common methods of online examinations adopted was upload questions in the website of the universities/institutions and ask students to write answers, then scan answer scripts and upload in the universities/institutions website when a stipulated time period. There were no systems to monitor students not even their identity except their mobile numbers, who has written the examinations, from where it was written and whether the answers were copied from books/lecture notes. Lessons learnt from the experience of first ever online examinations conducted by universities/institutions suggest that no proper assessment of students can be made from the online examinations, rather it is disadvantaged to serious and studious students. Notably open book online examinations are better option provided teachers have orientation for preparation of questions suitable for open book examinations and students were equally oriented in their classes, otherwise students would be trap off guard. The methods of promotion of intermediate semesters students and ad-hoc online examinations for last semester students adopted by universities/institutions are evidently not among the best practices which can be replicated for assessments and examinations in the event of continuance of closing down of academic institutions and lockdown. For graduate, post-graduate and other technical courses assessment and examinations only by online modes even during the pandemic situation shall lead to poor quality of graduates who may find it difficult to get takers for them in the job market. Blended mode of assessment for intermediate and end semesters students with equal weightage for online continuous assessment during the time of online classes and examinations which can either online or offline depending on situations and circumstances. Internal assessments by teachers can distribute equal grades/marks for attendance in online classes, assignments and self-study reports, multiple choice questions (MCQ) and group discussions/interactions all in online mode. Questions for written examinations can be at the level of open book tests comprising of problems solving, MCQ and short answers to be completed in one hour with additional fifteen minutes’ time for scanning and uploading answer scripts. For written examinations in online mode at the time of online form fill-up for examinations students mobile number can be registered and OTP for assessing questions five minutes before examinations can be sent to the registered mobile numbers. Softwares can be develop to see the students through their mobile camera and monitor the students and also to send acknowledgement of successful submission of answer scripts. Special arrangement for offline written examinations for students who could not appear in the online examinations in institutions nearest to their place of residence can arrange as and when situation permits. For lower classes at the school students can be promoted and graded on the basis of periodic home based engagements following the online classes. Completed assignments can be put in the drop box of the schools by parents.
The foregoing oration is intended to open up discussions among the stack holders, intellectuals, teachers, parents, students and civil societies for finding a feasible means of sustaining education during the time of the Covid19 pandemic.
(Prof Laishram Ladusingh is the Vice-Chancellor of Bodoland University, Kokrajhar, Assam. The views express are personal)