While the Covid-19 pandemic has made online classes the order of the day, examinations appear to stand on a different footing. Students and faculty around India are protesting against the proposal to hold exams in person and demanding an online test. Last year, the University Grants Commission had permitted universities to hold exams “offline (pen & paper)/ online/ blended (online + offline) mode”, but there is a reluctance to institutionalise the practice.
Critics point out that an online exam leaves students with patchy internet connections at a huge disadvantage — earlier this year, there were reports about a group of students from Mizoram trekking 10 kilometres through the forests to find an internet connection stable enough to write their exams online. On a closer look, one can see that much of the opposition to online exams is driven by concerns of proctoring. Universities and the UGC are worried about students cheating through their exams, and hence the need for proctoring over a live stream.
This obsession with proctoring essentially emanates from how we evaluate our students. Examinations in India have been notorious for their propensity to reward rote-learning and memorisation. There are cheap guides from which students learn, because they provide questions that one can expect in these exams along with their answers. This system is precisely what necessitates continuous proctoring — as cheating in these exams is about reading from hidden scraps of paper (or an entire guidebook, if one is enterprising enough).
Nearly everyone, including the UGC, agrees that our system of examination needs to move away from testing memory to how well students have understood the concepts. Months before the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, in September 2019, a Committee on Evaluation Reforms constituted by the UGC had submitted a detailed report on the changes needed. The report has called for revamping the evaluation system in line with certain indicators and expected outcomes for each course (such as that a student of commerce should be able to prepare the accounts of a firm) as well as the wide use of technology and automation.
Some of the recommendations, however, leave us wondering whether we are filling old wine in a new bottle? For instance, the committee recommends the creation of a question bank (a top priority) and that 70 per cent of the questions must be from this bank. This would only lead to the existing set of guidebooks being replaced with new ones, bringing us back to square one with the need for more proctoring.
Time for a new model
The compulsion to resort to online examinations can be an opportunity to radically alter how we conduct our exams, to make a complete shift from testing of memory to testing of skills and concepts. Online evaluations are not a novel experiment and universities around the world have developed models to suit the unique challenges of that platform. Since 2015, Australia’s Monash University has been taking incremental steps towards introducing online examinations. By 2017, nearly 10,000 students of the university took their semester examinations online. At Imperial College London, 280 medical students completed final-year exams through an open-book online test early this year. Many other universities and colleges across the UK have opted for online examinations. King’s College London and the London School of Economics (LSE) have planned to stop in-person examinations, and the LSE has moved both teaching and evaluation online. In India, the Calcutta University conducted an open-book examination for the final-year undergraduate and postgraduate students last year, a first in the university’s history.
So what will a successful online evaluation model look like? It would make proctoring irrelevant or at least make its reach limited by altering the examination strategy. Multiple-choice questions that test understanding of concepts can be set and students can answer them even from a mobile device. Another option is to have ‘take-home exams’ — where students are given adequate time (ranging from a few hours to a few days) to find a solution to a complex problem. It is also possible to conduct a viva voce through the phone, even over a WhatsApp video call. If one is sure that their students have access to a computer, even a research paper assignment can be given, instead of an examination. This is apart from a wider range of possibilities such as preparing response papers, journaling, or photo essays — more amenable to the social sciences.
A combination of one or more of these techniques may also be pursued, making evaluation multi-dimensional. Such shifts in evaluation strategies can make the need for proctoring irrelevant and, in the process, take away the need for a stable internet connection throughout the time a student is taking an exam. In the long run, changes in the examination strategies can also have a positive impact on the way courses are taught and learned.
As much as the Covid crisis has caused desperation, it has also fuelled disruption in our teaching-learning systems. Remote teaching has become acceptable and will continue even post-Covid. This presents us with a golden opportunity to reform our outdated approach towards evaluations. The question is, will the government take it?
Mahesh Menon is an Assistant Professor of Law at Sai University and Faculty at Daksha Fellowship. He specialises in Human Rights Law. He tweets @maheshmenon_. Views are personal.
Abhishek Chakravarty is an Assistant Professor of Law at Sai University and Faculty at Daksha Fellowship. His interests lie in Environmental Laws and Tech Law & Policy. He tweets @abhishekporaxar. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)