With Covid-19 changing the way of life for students and teachers, the next few months will be all about adjusting to the reality that all education now happens online, but when it comes to examinations, the situation may not be as crystal clear. With this in mind, the Indian government has announced a forward-looking National Education Policy, which updates the 1986 policy and brings in some much-needed changes to back remote or digital learning.
The National Education Policy (NEP), approved by the union cabinet on Wednesday (July 29), has a special focus on digital education and remote learning along with the question of equitable access to education given the digital divide in India.
India’s National Education Policy 2020
The primary objective of the NEP 2020 is to create standards of learning in public and private schools. This includes major reforms in school education, where board exams will be low stakes and would test actual knowledge instead of rote learning. Schools will also have 360-degree holistic progress cards, track learning outcomes through a national assessment center called PARAKH and more. The policy also seeks to overhaul edtech in public colleges and schools to increase access for disadvantaged groups, while online learning content will be available in regional languages.
It also proposes virtual labs, a National Educational Technology Forum (NETF) which should help bring up more technological interventions in primary and higher education. The government will also set up a ‘Gender-Inclusion Fund’ to solve the problem of equitable access to education to all girls and transgender students.
The NEP 2020 comes at a time when the Delhi University (DU) is planning to conduct online exams for its 2.5 Lakh final year students in August. There’s a cloud of uncertainty on whether this is the most inclusive way of enabling online learning. The feasibility of the DU online exams has been questioned by the students and professors alike and after two months of student protests, the matter is now being discussed in the Delhi High Court.
The disparity in access to the internet, electricity, and devices like computers or smartphones has emerged as the major reasons for students unable to access online classes. Earlier, the Jawaharlal Nehru University had already faced the ire of students over its plans to conduct exams on WhatsApp earlier this year.
A survey of DU students conducted by DU Express showed that 53.8% of 12,214 survey respondents were not able to attend university’s ongoing online classes. Further, 75.6% of survey respondents said they don’t have a laptop to attend classes or to appear for online exams. A whopping 79.5% of respondents said they don’t have a broadband connection at their home, and a majority 64.3% of respondents noted that they don’t have stable mobile internet connectivity either.
Access To Connectivity: Can Startups Solve The Gap?
Even after such skewed participation in online classes, the university has announced online exams wherein students will receive the question papers on their email id and will then be required to send the answers over a cloud platform provided by Motherson Sumi.
“When we introduce technology, we must ensure that no child is left behind,” said Higher Education Secretary Amit Khare. A dedicated unit to coordinate digital infrastructure, content and capacity building will be created within the newly-named education ministry to look after the online learning needs of both school and higher education. Further, teachers would be trained for online education delivery and learning methods in a bid to bridge the digital divide.
But beyond this too there are other issues currently that students are facing with the way technology has been used to conduct exams. “This time there is an added issue because we have to scan pages and then send (as it has been mentioned in the guidelines). It takes a lot more time than submitting answers online, there are also cases where students find an error in their answer sheets after scanning and has to rescan the answer sheets.
I was not able to upload my answer. Stuck at this loading. It took 2-3 attempts to upload it and what if this happens in the final exam? #SayNoToUGCGuidelines #DuAgainstOnlineExam #ugc_cancel_exams pic.twitter.com/lUebZboggL
— Rochelle (@RochelleRayan) July 27, 2020
As students moved back to their native towns and started studying from the confines of their homes, the country’s digital divide became much more apparent. Acknowledging the problem, DU has partnered with CSCs or common service centres, run by the central government to help students access the internet to download question papers and upload answer sheets.
However, the court noted that 12K CSCs are closed in the country because of Covid-19 lockdown in the state. Commenting on the CSCs, Collective’s Ankan Barman said these centres are not a viable solution currently because sporadically there has been lockdown throughout the country.
Dinesh Tyagi of CSC Academy told the court that there are 3.6 Lakh common service centres in the country with facilities like computer, scanner, internet etc. The number of computer systems in these centres range from 2 to 15. However, the university has not yet created any list of students that will be accessing these CSCs and also did not have clarity if all the 59K students living outside Delhi have access to an open CSC.
In addition to access inequality, open book exams have also raised concerns around bias in examination of the answer sheets, as all answer sheets will have student names in online exams and there’s a high risk of impersonation as one student ID can be used to log into numerous devices.
Private and public universities have thus far neglected to look at private sector solutions to solve the challenges. For example, startups could be engaged to come up with solutions. So far, the debate has been around whether exams should be held at all, not about how the exams can be held in a fair and free manner where every student can participate without any hurdles.
Under the NEP 2020, a dedicated unit for digital and online learning will be set up to build the digital infrastructure, content and capacity-building in colleges. Given the government’s recent track record in using healthtech startups as partners for recent policies, could this be the opportunity for edtech startups to enter public-private partnerships for edtech?
The policy also envisions a comprehensive set of recommendations for promoting online education given the pandemic and future lockdowns. This will ensure preparedness to deal with situations where students are enrolling remotely. The big need of the hour is the promotion of alternative modes of quality education and cutting down the reliance on traditional exam-based approach whenever and wherever possible. The National Education Policy opens the doors for this edtech future, but it does need to address the issue of digital divide more clearly and enable seamless education and learning for even the most remote villages in India.
With inputs from Nikhil Subramaniam.