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Saturday, August 08, 2020

Without equal access to books

Delhi University’s open book exam proposal ignores the digital divide, does not provide a level-playing field to all students

Updated: July 6, 2020 5:39:14 pm
du, du online exam, delhi university exams, duta exams, university of delhi, education news Students are not only expected to have a laptop or smartphone through which they can access online resources but are also expected to study solely on their device. (Representational image)

Written by Ribhav Pande and Akshay Marathe

The coronavirus pandemic has sent shockwaves through the country’s educational system, forcing rigid systems to adapt overnight. This has unfortunately led to some manifestly arbitrary online assessment mechanisms. Many state and national school boards and higher education administrators have recognised that the pandemic has washed out the semester and holding examinations at this juncture will not serve any purpose. But despite strident student opposition, Delhi University (DU) is scheduled to conduct Open Book Examinations (OBE) for several thousand final semester students. The expectation is that students shall download a question paper, write answers on self-procured A-4 sheets, scan them to make a PDF and upload them using DU’s web facility, all within three hours. DU continues with this proposition despite a UGC Committee Report which recommended the cancellation of exams and suggested that degrees be awarded based on past performance.

DU is one of India’s premier public universities, attracting students from the remotest corners of the country and from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds. It provides a level- playing field whereby a student’s status does not determine his/her access to quality study materials. Due to the pandemic, a large number of students have been forced to return to their hometowns which violently disrupts the homogeneity provided by DU qua access to resources such as libraries, course materials, the internet and even to something as fundamental as a quiet, undisturbed place to study and take tests. The proposed OBE is one without an equitable access to “books”.

Equally, students are not only expected to have a laptop or smartphone through which they can access online resources but are also expected to study solely on their devices — this can well be their small four-inch smartphone screens (assuming they have one) on which they are expected to read hundreds of pages. These attendant issues were glaringly clear when some teachers conducted online classes on Zoom, with many students unable to access the calls due to the lack of a strong internet connection. This also means that the syllabus has been completed only for those students who were able to attend these classes — the divide is too obvious to be missed. Even for test-taking, the provision of “Common Service Centres” not only has limited reach but also runs counter to the idea of isolated exam taking — also one is in-effect risking contracting COVID to meet these absurd deadlines.

The guidelines detailing this entirely new OBE process were provided only on June 28, and mock tests began on July 4 for exams slated to start from July 10. Even the date-sheets for some courses are yet to be released. Furthermore, students are noticing, with anguish, that the belatedly provided mocks have a multitude of issues including frequent site crashes due to gateway timeouts in the middle of test-taking. Many mocks don’t even pertain to their course or the semester’s coursework, leading to a situation where the students genuinely do not understand what DU expects them to be tested on. DU’s response has been to shift the blame on the students, highlighting poor connectivity and data discrepancies, while at the same time declaring the mocks to be a success.

The most compelling argument against online exams is best made by the university itself. The string of errors committed by the administration betrays a complete lack of preparedness on their part. On June 27, DU declared that “in view of the prevailing situation of COVID-19 pandemic”, the exams would be delayed by 10 days. This made no sense, unless they expected the deteriorating situation to somehow stabilise in 10 days. This was noticed by a Division Bench of the Delhi High Court, which in its order dated June 29, in Prateek Sharma & Anr. v. UOI, took a prima facie view that contempt proceedings should be initiated against DU for misleading the court about its preparedness for the OBE. On July 2, many students — including the writers of this piece — raised their voices over a serious privacy breach that took place when DU made personal details such as address, phone number and email ID of students accessible to just about anybody through its portal.

This negligence led to the privacy of thousands of students being compromised. The icing on the cake was the mock exams that began on Saturday. Purportedly aimed at familiarising students with the process of appearing for online exams, they ended up familiarising the world with the DU’s inability to administer even mock exams, with broken hyperlinks and questions unrelated to final-semester coursework.

The alternative to online open book exams is holding no exams at all, as endorsed by the UGC’s expert committee, and to grade students based on the previous semesters’ with an option for students who wish to improve through tests in a physical setting at a later stage. This allows those who wish to graduate to be able to do so, while protecting students’ right to improve on their scores. No conceivable OBE can adequately address all the issues. We have kept the abject ignorance of the acute plight of differently-abled out of the context of this article since the matter is before the Delhi High Court in the Prateek Sharma case.

The unavailability of adequate study materials, wash-out of actual classes, uncertainty surrounding online exams and a lack of familiarity with the process has had a serious impact on the mental health of students as well. With academic rigour being compromised and opportunities of employment looking bleak, students have already borne disproportionate costs in this pandemic. The UGC has still not decided on adopting its own committee’s recommendations in favour of scrapping exams, while the minister for human resources development has stated on record that exams are necessary for final-year students. The pleas of students tweeting #DelhiAgainstOnlineExams, currently trending, are going unheard. This is a cry for help. The students can only take so much.

(Pande is a final-year student at the Faculty of Law, DU, and Marathe is AAP spokesperson and final-year student at Faculty of Law, DU)

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