With schools closed, exams suspended, big e-learning push for teachers and students

COVID BLOW TO EDUCATION

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Ordering the summary closure of all colleges and schools till May 3rd was easy enough. As was converting government schools, like the ones in Najafgarh zone of Delhi or in Agra district of Uttar Pradesh, into COVID quarantine wards or shelters for migrant workers.

A govt school in Gazipur, Delhi, being used as a containment centre. Pic: Pramod Pushkarna

What will not be easy, though, is to dispel the uncertainties plaguing the minds of parents and students on what the new academic year will hold for them when it starts. Especially students whose 12th class board exams were abruptly interrupted, with no indication of whether and when they will resume; how the college admissions process will be done and whether they will get the courses of their choice. Rajiv Kumar Gupta, a Noida-based businessman confesses that while he has been able to come to terms with the times being what they are, his son Yash, who has two 12th board exam papers to go, is “upset and stressed out”.

Safety of students and teachers was no doubt the main concern for the decision to postpone the crucial Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) board exams. The CBSE exams, for the approximately 12 lakh 12th class students had started on February 5th and were to conclude on March 30th. The answer sheets of the papers they have done are under lockdown too, awaiting evaluation. Another approximately 18 lakh students were slated to take the 10th class board exams. It needs to be noted that for students living in north-east Delhi, the exams had been postponed much before the pandemic, when communal riots broke out in these areas in early March.

Other key professional tests, like the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) conducted by the National Testing Agency (NTA) for admission to MBBS and BDS, for which 16 lakh students had registered, normally held on May 3rd with results on June 4th are also on hold. The NTA had announced on March 27th that the “examination is proposed to be held in the last week of May.”

Similarly, 9,34,000 students too are hoping that the JEE main examinations for engineering colleges that were to be held from April 5th to April 11th too can be held in May last week.

For parents and students, a lot hinges on these examinations. Many parents invest all they have in nudging their wards to crack these tough entrance exams that will open the gates of the IITs and other prestigious engineering and medical colleges besides the best arts and science colleges, law and design schools.

No alternative to exams

But so far, there has not even been a whisper about the remaining 12th class papers. Ramesh Pokhriyal, Union Minister for Human Resources Development, said the CBSE would give 10-days’ notice to all stakeholders before the examinations are resumed. “The decision on the conduct of examinations will be taken after extensive consultations with various education authorities and keeping all aspects related to entrance exams, admission dates etc in mind,” said Pokhriyal.

For students like Shayant Bhandari, a plus two student in a government school in Ghaziabad, the problem, is that he will have to study once again all the lessons he had already spent a lot of time over. “The stress of the board exams is such that I will have to prepare all over again,” said Shayani.

Varad Dhodapkar, also a plus two student, says the “disruption does make it difficult for us, but we are coping”. He believes that most of  his class mates at St Francis School in Indirapuram, Ghaziabad, will continue to study till whenever the examinations are held. “Very few will be content with relaxing now, and making up with last minute revision again,” said Varad.

Manasvini, whose 12th Board Geography paper was slated for March 23, had completed her syllabus and done a third revision when the exams were postponed. The student of DPS, Noida, says now she will have to keep preparing until the exams are held.

Aspiring to pursue a course in design, Manasvini had applied to a number of design schools. But the presigious NID main entrance exams slated for early April is now postponed until further notice, while advising students that it will put out its next communication on its website on May 4th. The United World Institute of Design in Gandhinagar, however conducted the tests and interviewed students online, and in lieu of the studio test, UID got them to upload their portfolios, and has also declared the results. Manasvini has made it and is relaxed about her immediate future.

But she is a rare exception. Among the CBSE exams not held so far are the 10th class board exams in Hindi, English, Science and Social sciences and the 12th class exams in Business Studies, Geography, Hindi, Home Science, Sociology, Computer Science, Information Practice, Information Technology and Biotechnology, leaving many students in limbo over what to apply for next. While the CBSE could consider conducting online examinations, practical exams in the science subjects remain an area of concern. For now, the CBSE is not considering other ways of assessing the students.

With students stuck at home, Delhi Deputy Chief Minister and Education Minister Manish Sisodia is now focussing on keeping students occupied with online classes. Sisodia interacted with teachers and parents via YouTube on April 11th, while launching a programme with hashtag #parentinginquarantine, promoting the theme “Every Home a School, Every Parent a Teacher”.

File pic of a MCD school in Noida, before the lockdown. Pic: B B Yadav

Typically, schools in Delhi and other northern states close for summer around May 10th and remain off till the first week of July. But students have now been at home since early March. While some private schools are teaching students online, Sisodia is not treating the lockdown as summer vacation. Some state school boards, like in Uttar Pradesh, have promoted students up to class 9 without exams while the Punjab government has directed all government and private schools to close for summer vacation from April 11th to May 10th. Rajasthan Higher Education Minister Bhanwar Singh Bhati announced summer vacation for all schools and colleges from April 16th to May 31st, with the next academic session now slated to start on June 1st. Bhati seemed to give away the government’s thinking that the 12th class exams will be declared only in June when the state government directed that “school admission process will begin on June 15th.”

Big e-learning push

The Centre is using the lockdown to give e-learning and online classes a big push. Two weeks into the lockdown, the HRD ministry launched a week long “Bharat Padhe Online” campaign to crowd source ideas for improving the online education ecosystem. The ministry received over 3700 suggestions in the first three days.

On April 16th, Pokhriyal released an “Alternative Academic Calendar” developed by the NCERT, specifically to “engage students meaningfully during their stay at home due to COVID 19” through educational activities with the help of parents and teachers. The calendar provides guidelines for teachers to use technology and social media, and also includes classes over radio and television besides the internet. While this is no quick fix for the board exams, Pokhriyal said all subjects for classes from one to 12 will be covered under this calendar that has week-wise plans that includes experiential learning, pre-vocational skills etc.

This calendar is also being disseminated through DTH Channels and officials are conducting video conferencing with SCERTs, Directorates of Education, Kendriya Vidyalay Sangathan, Navodaya Vidyalaya Samiti, CBSE, State School Education Boards, etc. “The aim is to empower students, teachers, school principals and parents to find out positive ways to deal with Covid-19 using on-line teaching-learning resources and also improving their learning outcomes getting school education at home,” the HRD Ministry press release said.

For teachers, however, online classes are a new experience, and very few are able to hold what is called “Zoom classes”. A few teachers of DPS Noida do so for classes 7, 8 and 9. But even as they learn online teaching skills, teachers are mailing the home work and lesson notes to students, two or three times a week. In St Francis School, Indirapuram, the lessons, homework and assignments are uploaded on the school’s website, and also the school’s app. “Now the homework given by the subject teacher is just a click away on your mobile with a due date, description and download option” says the app dashboard.

Innovation is supposedly the name of the game. Lessons in Powerpoint or similar software and use of WhatsApp have replaced the blackboard or white board of classrooms. Students can share a single smart phone with each of them saving what they want in screenshots. It may not be the best alternative, but it is a huge step in preventing education from buckling under the corona threat. Till now, many kids have grown up with parents controlling their online time and telephone use. But mindsets are slowly changing, both at school and home.

One innovation being tried out is Pokhriyal and Prakash Javadekar, Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting, persuading Tata Sky and Airtel DTH operators to air three “Swayam Prabha channels” on their platform. The SWAYAM PRABHA is a group of 32 DTH channels telecasting high-quality educational programmes on 24X7 basis using the GSAT-15 satellite. According to a ministry release, every day, there will be new content for at least four hours which would be repeated five times a day, allowing students to choose the time of their convenience. The contents are provided by NPTEL, IITs, UGC, CEC, IGNOU, NCERT and NIOS, which hopefully will benefit students preparing for the JEE and NEET.

Long haul ahead

Does all this mean it will be a long haul even after May 3rd? Pokhriyal was non-commital. But in a video conference, the CBSE has informed teachers that they were working to reduce the syllabus for the upcoming academic year. Teachers have been told to ensure that students at home don’t get bored and have been advised to assign meaningful and creative activities to engage students.

But principals, parents and students are haunted by the question of whether their children will lose a year, despite all assurances to the contrary. “There is so much of uncertainty nobody can give a definite answer,” said Goldy Malhotra, former principal of Modern School, Vasant Vihar, New Delhi. Once the government decides to declare results, teachers and examiners will have to do the assessment and evaluation in about half the time they are normally given. “In that process, my big worry would be that the assessment does not get too lenient, that the undeserving get into the merit list, and the deserving are left out. The accuracy of the assessment has to be ensured”.

Goldy is equally concerned about the focus on online teaching. Students, in her view, need the classroom interaction with teachers. Besides, in most schools, teachers are not trained to give online lessons. “Teachers and students will just search it all online and upload it. It will not be a virtual class. Unlike in colleges, in schools you need one-on-one tutoring that happens in a classroom environment. And then there are the practicals,” Goldy points out.

But between now and when the exams are eventually held, many logistical issues will have to be sorted out. Board exams always come with “social distancing” of some sort—students are seated far apart. But this time around, that distance will be increased –when the quarantine centres return to being schools once more.

Higher education is also facing the corona turbulence. Delhi University, which had put the registration and admission process on hold even before the MHA guidelines, are working towards making the admission process online, so that students will not have to visit the colleges or the university whenever the lockdown is lifted. One of Delhi University’s better known colleges, Shriram College of Commerce, for instance, has started holding classes on Zoom, but is getting little attendance.

University authorities are working on the assumption that there will be very little time left between the end of the lockdown and the beginning of classes. Hence the emphasis to minimise footfalls in the campus. In a letter to principals of all DU colleges on April 9th, Professor Shobha Bagai, Dean (Admissions) has said: “There has been a conscious effort to minimise visits of the students for physical verification of mandatory documents during the admission process.”

About Vijaya Pushkarna 16 Articles
Vijaya Pushkarna is a journalist based in New Delhi. She was formerly Deputy Bureau Chief, Delhi at The Week.