College-ing with Corona: Options and Questions Ahead

When health organisations and leaders are asking people to learn to live with coronavirus, universities and colleges cannot claim exclusivity: they have to find ways to start functioning with the pandemic still lurking.

What are the options that lie before universities and higher education regulatory bodies?

A lot of contemporary discussions on college re-opening are obsessed around the ‘when’ and ‘how’ of semester exams. The University Grants Commission has suggested dates in July.

Much is forgotten here: firstly, with the number of coronavirus patients increasing everyday in the thousands, and the total number of coronavirus-affected nearly hitting 1 lakh, we are still in the COVID-19-phase and not a post-COVID phase – a thing to account for.

Secondly, in many universities, only 60% of the teaching was done when the lockdown was announced. What about the remaining portions? What happens to them if there were no online lessons or if students couldn’t participate in them?

Third, all these discussions seem to present universities as spaces of certificate distribution, with qualification being the only concern – a school hangover. At the Plus Two level, marks get you admission into undergraduate courses but after that, making it to courses elsewhere is based on entrances (unless you want to stay in your university in the same subject) and getting jobs is a matter of the skills and exposure you have.

Lastly, where are students going to find admissions or jobs after hurriedly finishing the third year exams when everything is hanging in this eerie uncertainty? Why the hurry to eject them?

Emotionally, academically and practically, it makes no sense to keep harping on about exams.

If exams have to be held in July in universities where there is no pan-national student presence, public transport has to restart for students to attend classes. In central universities and institutes, largely situated in and around metropolitan cities, as students from literally all over India have to come, they need to be quarantined for a minimum of 14 days.

Also read: Why Online Examinations Make For Unfair Testing

I don’t know how many students want to come into these raging hotspots of the virus and how many universities are in any position to make such arrangements. If such things cannot be guaranteed, why look schematically sorted by announcing an arbitrary time period mindlessly and put students under stress?

Online open book examination is another idea being floated. If universities are serious about it, they should make sure that every single student has digital gadgets, internet connectivity and uninterrupted power supply.

Asking students to go online without any checking or taking any responsibility for online infrastructure is like giving admission without a classroom, benches, tables and white board. Universities will have to look into internet providers, local realities and ensure resource availability online before they go ahead with such “decisions”.

With India’s digital divide – an extension of our socio-economic divide – universities would have the moral right to start talking about these only after bridging the gaps. Only once they get into such nitty-gritties would they know the difficulty of staying online without interruptions for an hour with participants from across the vast and unequal India of ours – after two months of engaging students online, I can say that geographical, climatic and technical glitches are the norm.

I am not against online teaching but there need to be more discussions. Coronavirus exposes the anachronism of the idea of a city-based outlook on education. It is important we begin to undo this unequal distribution of knowledge capital in big cities and technology can serve a democratising purpose in alleviating the city-country divide, if implemented thoughtfully. But willingness to do so without the necessary capacity building is to just to start off on a project filled with both ineffectiveness and exclusivity.

As for online classes, there is another issue: this semester, teachers were dealing with students we had taught in classrooms for months. Any involved teacher had a sense of the student and students knew about the methodology, attitude and ways of the teacher. All these contribute to the conversation and communication in the class room. When new admissions come in, how would this happen? How do we transplant ourselves from class room teaching to online teaching, accounting for the collective conversation, personal attention, visual and spatial communication and so on. Will a learning management system mediate us?

A university does look like a huge entity where such thinking and steps look unwieldy and impractical but that is only when we think of the whole university top down. When we break this down, the teacher-student ratio is around 1:15. So if for every 15 student there is a teacher, through a detailed conversation between them they can find out these issues, consolidate the data first at the departmental level and then take it to college and university levels, which finally gets assimilated at the ministry level.

Instead of beginning to think from the administrator’s point of view and impose it later on students and teachers, it could start from a personalised engagement later converted into data for the administrator’s use. It is nobody’s fault that we don’t know how to deal with a pandemic because there is no one way to do it. But the inability/unwillingness to engage with students and teachers is dereliction of duty.

If we are ready to think away from exams, and if online exams or a bit delayed physical starting don’t look like meaningful solutions but just convenient putting away for damage control, there is something that can work: convert teachers into mentors for the students who are already in colleges.

Also read: CBSE Called Lockdown ‘a Golden Opportunity For Education’: But For Whom?

These mentors could work on student skills, give exposure to new developments in the field, initiate them into internship projects, work together on writing/reading/innovation projects, imagine new artistic/cultural tasks together and conceptualise community work projects including teaching school students in a highly localised manner.

If we treat this period as a freeze, where conversations between the student and the mentor continue  around the frame of the subject-training in class but not to be terminated with scoring marks in exams, it would be more rewarding, enabling and helpful in creating a new way – which we badly need as a society.

What if the COVID-19 pandemic goes on for a year? Won’t students in their final year lose a year? No. If everyone loses a year, no one loses a year (also it will, in the worst case scenario, become a four year programme, one such was around in Delhi University, albeit with huge issues, some years ago). How about students who have got admission outside of India? For that micro-minority going to take classes online, a system can be created in consultation with foreign universities and funding agencies.

If the freeze continues, how do we handle the Plus Two students? Where will they go? An online system of learning can be devised with both senior secondary and undergraduate teachers for this purpose in giving them a sense of different subjects. If we can recognise the problems well, and if we genuinely want to solve the problems, this world and its academic practices made at some point can be unmade and remade accordingly.

Whatever option we chose, the mentoring, the constant personalised conversation online or on the phone between students and their mentors to me is not just optional but mandatory given college is after all a community and a community has much to do in a period of gloom. With all of us feeling like we are aboard a train to abyss, we do need the warmth of the presence, the care of the fellow human being and the assurance that we are all in this together. Understanding, kindness and wisdom of giving are things that can never go wrong. It is time they become the pillars of our education system.

N.P. Ashley teaches English at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi.

Featured image credit: Valentino Mazarraeillo/Unsplash