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A digital divide

As the system of education and examinations starts its slow limp towards functionality, questions remain over the role of online education in the face of a significant divide in access

A digital divide
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As the world at large struggles to find a balance between safety and continuation of education students all over India are bracing themselves for online examinations, where, in some cases, the process has already started. With Joint Entrance Exam (JEE) Main 2020 already underway from September 1, while Delhi University Entrance Test (DUET) and National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) starting from September 6 and September 13 respectively, education, as we know, is facing a massive digital change.

Around 9.53 lakh candidates have registered for JEE Mains, for admission in IITs and 15.97 lakh students have applied for NEET, pre-medical exam, this year. JEE is a computer-based test (online mode), NEET is a pen and paper test (offline mode). Meanwhile, around 2.2 lakh candidates might appear for DUET.

With long withholdings and students knocking on the gates of the court against the examinations in view of COVID-19 pandemic, a panic like chaos was instilled in the minds of the students. In case of JEE and NEET, the Supreme Court had earlier rejected the plea to postpone the entrance examinations. Six ministers of opposition-ruled states had approached the Supreme Court against its order of allowing NEET and JEE Main 2020 exams despite the increasing COVID-19 cases in the country. The plea has been filled by the ministers from West Bengal (Moloy Ghatak), Jharkhand (Rameshwar Oraon), Rajasthan (Raghu Sharma), Chhattisgarh (Amarjeet Bhagat), Punjab (BS Sidhu) and Maharashtra (Uday Ravindra Sawant). On September 4, the SC unambiguously dismissed the petition, stating that the petition did not succeed in making any reasonable case for reconsidering the earlier decision given by the Apex Court.

The National Testing Agency (NTA), an India Government agency that has been approved by the Union Council of Ministers and established in November 2017 to conduct entrance examinations for higher educational institutions, claimed that appropriate measurements have been taken to conduct the entrance examinations safely. The agency further said that over 99 per cent of the candidates have been assigned their "first choice of centre cities."

In all this, the question over whether online examinations are a viable option for the post-COVID education future have been repeatedly raised. One has to realise the dynamics of the country to answer that question.

Deepak has been trying to figure out how he would be able to give the open book examinations that started on August 10. A visually impaired final year student English Honours from St Stephen's College, Deepak, who hails from Bihar was stuck at home battling the virus and the terrible floods that have consumed the State.

Unfortunately for him and many specially-abled students, OBE was difficult mainly due to inaccessibility of a writer and other study material. "For one and a half months we had been requesting the authorities to provide us with a writer, as we are visually impaired students, however, no demand was listened to, which is why we have not been able to give the examinations," he told MillenniumPost over the phone.

"There was no study material provided to us and we require different devices, which we left in our hostel rooms," Deepak said, adding that according to the notice, students can give the exams offline in September, but looking at the scenario, it will be difficult for students like him to travel all the way to Delhi.

According to a UNESCO report, more than 32 crore students in India are affected by the closure of schools and colleges caused by COVID-19. Moreover, students belonging to the marginalised sections of society are at a greater loss.

For a student sitting in a remote village of Chhattisgarh where the network connection is almost nil, giving online examinations would be quite a task. On the other hand, taking an 8 to 12-hour journey to reach an exam centre will likely consume a student with anxiety.

Here are two examples from among lakhs of students who might be facing the same challenge. Anwar (name changed on request) hails from Jammu and Kashmir's Srinagar. He is a final year English Honours student from St Stephens College who has been giving his exams online on 2G network. J&K has been running on 2G internet since the scrapping of Article 370. "My experience of online examinations was near-impossible. I could not upload the answer sheet and due to 2G and heavy files, I couldn't even mail the administration. I had to send my answer scripts via WhatsApp to a friend in Lucknow, who sent it onward from my email id," he said.

Meanwhile, to sit for a Delhi University exam, Shyam (name changed) would have to travel eight hours by train in one of the most COVID infected states. Shyam was going to give his MPhil entrance for DU, which will start from September 6 in the wake of a pandemic situation. More than seven lakh students are expected to sit for undergraduate (UG), postgraduate (PG) and MPhil/ PhD level under various courses.

Shyam, a resident of Malappuram said that he has to travel for eight hours just to reach the centre in Trivandrum. "There is only one centre in Kerala, which is in Trivandrum and more than that the place is at the moment leading with the maximum number of COVID cases. That is my major concern as I will have to obviously travel a day before the exam and have to stay somewhere. I can't even eat food as it would be unsafe," he told Millennium Post.

DU will be conducting entrance examinations from September 6-11. The entrance exams will be held in three slots for different subjects. Various BA, BBA, MA, PhD, MPhil, MCom courses have been divided into these slots across the six days. Shyam said that there is no other option but to conduct the examinations, however, "I feel extending it to one more month, would have been better. Right now, I have no other choice but to travel."

The University of Delhi offers over 62,000 undergraduate seats to eligible candidates. DU seats are offered through merit and entrance test modes. Though most of the UG programmes and DU 2020 seats are offered via the merit channel, however, only 14 programmes (in all streams) are offered through entrance test. DU seats comprise the category-wise, stream-wise and college-wise UG seats that are offered for admission to the affiliated colleges/participating colleges.

For all its woes, the pandemic may also end up injecting relatively stagnant educational systems worldwide with a new lease on life. There is going to be a digital revolution in terms of education, academicians feel. "Online examination would allow authorities to conduct examinations through the internet or a company-wide internet for remote candidates. This would include processing modules for evaluators to finalise results as soon as the candidates finish the test. Unlike the previous pen and paper examination, it is possible to conduct open book examinations on an online examination system. Many companies have resorted to online examination software as their preferred medium of choice for assessing professional capabilities," Professor AK Ghosh associated with Rabindra Bharati University wrote in his article recently.

However, according to a survey by the Ministry of Rural Development in 2017-18, about 33 per cent of India's households received only 9-12 hours of electricity daily. Though a solar chargeable smartphone can be used to watch educational videos, writing lengthy assignments with it is not feasible. Another shortcoming is the internet facility, which is limited to only 24 per cent of Indian households, as per National Statistical Office report.

With the Supreme Court on August 28 stating that the states and universities cannot promote students without holding final-year exams by September 30, the pressure was on. However, the SC in its decision also said that a state has to approach the University Grants Commission if it cannot conduct exams by September 30.

In cities, students were still able to travel through private vehicles and with phase wise 'unlock', they did not face significant issues. But in J&K's Baramulla district, where backlog exams are being conducted offline, the issue is more serious. From August 24 till August 29, Baramulla was in strict lockdown keeping in view the increasing COVID cases, however, the students said that the Central University administration was stubborn about conducting the exams. "I had tested positive myself and was in home-quarantine and could not give the exams, even though they told me they would arrange exams for me. However, there were many students who would have to travel when there is a strict lockdown in place," Nadiya Khan, a student from Central University said.

If one has to talk about the ongoing JEE (Main) exams, as per the reports 40 per cent of JEE Main 2020 registered candidates did not appear on the first day. In Lucknow city, 44 per cent of candidates have skipped JEE Main Paper 2 due to the fear of pandemic. There is a similar response in Ludhiana city as only 178 candidates out of 388 registered candidates have appeared for the exam.

Meanwhile, in Odisha around 3,600 candidates appeared for the exam on JEE Main 2020 on day one, while in Assam state less than 50 per cent of the candidates appeared in the exam.

Despite this, education experts believe technology is a strong tool, which needs to be implemented and adequately spread across the whole country. The huge digital divide among the states may deter students from rural or isolated areas less chance than those who have accessibility. "For those who have proper equipment and internet, this is going to be a cakewalk compared to those who don't have such opportunities. We can't let the students' future go for a toss due to the pandemic. While the Supreme Court's decision was necessary and examinations were the need of the hour, we need to do something to bridge this huge gap that has been created if online education is the only way to see things," Arvind Garg, an IT professional in Bangalore said.

Many parents expressed relief over the conducting of JEE-NEET examinations while others expressed a wish for its postponement. "One year would have been destroyed due to this whole situation, I appreciate the decision of the Supreme Court," Anita, parent of a JEE aspirant in Delhi said.

Meanwhile, Anees feels that a month's postponement would not have been an issue. "I am panicking for my children with the COVID situation out of control. Our demand was to postpone the exam for a month so that our children are safe and there is no risk," Annes, who hails from Hyderabad, said.

With students walking for three kilometres to reach the exam centre in a remote village of Nagaland, to manage exams in limited internet speed, India needs to think about accessibility on a bigger platform. Even though thousands of students raised their voice regarding the online final year and entrance examinations, the decision was finally made to which students yielded. But just like the case with the digital gaps, the views between different students and parents regarding the same tend to vary wildly. There is no strict 'right' or 'wrong' in this situation. The outcome of this decision will only be made apparent in due course of time.

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