Our education system fails many tests

By Ishan Chauhan

Accidents happen. They are accidents because they are unforeseeable. When a friend fell off his bike after an auto rickshaw rammed into him, he said, “I could not have imagined that my fractured legs and wounds would be the least of my concerns.” His inability to write his exams unleashed a series of permanent consequences. His scholarship was revoked, and he dropped out, unable to bear the exorbitant fees. There wasn’t much he could have done. With both legs in casts and in unbearable pain from his multiple wounds, he couldn’t attend classes, or even exams.

There was no provision for an appropriately just and simplified means of evaluation, as recommended by the R.C Kuhad Committee, in the wake of this pandemic, which has been devastating for more reasons than one.

We must use the opportunity offered by the lockdown to set nobler benchmarks for innovation, inclusivity and preparedness, in the face of an unprecedentedly uncertain future.

The oft repeated saying that every crisis presents an opportunity stands true. So does the fact that if we fail to harness that opportunity, we not only fail at overcoming the crisis, we compound it. The crisis consists of thousands dead and infected, millions jobless, overworked medical staff and essential service workers. Opportunities are many. Here I speak of educational reform.

From adaptive inertia, an institution should not be sent back to square one, if and when a second wave of COVID returns.  This is not the time to be stuck in the unreasonable rigidity of well-worn methods. In the long term, this crisis also presents an opportunity to make education inclusive of those who are unfortunate or physically challenged - that young mother or father who is not able to attend class because their child is sick; that person (like my friend) who had an accident and cannot sit for hours to write an exam; and so many more.

In the current context, there is ample evidence that alternative and simplified means of assessment are feasible and practical. Keeping in mind the unprecedented times, judging a student on an assignment submitted online or in person when the college reconvenes is not something that should be considered an improper means for evaluation to be frowned upon. If it is, then the traditional alternative of pen and paper presents a number of hurdles - such as travel, to and fro from all parts of the country; social distancing in exam halls, and hostels; and online classes not being a digitally egalitarian reality.

The ‘one size fits all’ approach of Indian education puts at a disadvantage those who are academically weaker, if they may be expected to comprehend teaching material (circulation of which is once again not a uniform reality). There are many issues that this approach has, and over time cracks and crevices have become clear. However, change to a customised model of education, aimed at bringing out the best in a student as per their skills, is a step in the right direction.

Educational institutions in the UK have suspended face to face teaching, and are making “the maximum use of alternative assessments”. The policy adopted is “Help, not Hinder.”  In the US, Professors Victor Asal (University at Albany) and Carliss Chatman (Washington and Lee University) have told us that exams have been shifted to ‘take home’, or are online, and in some cases have been made non-credit. Prof. Ankur Gupta from Temasek Polytechnic, Singapore says “we've done away with exams and tests for this entire semester and replaced them with project work, coursework components (weekly unsupervised quizzes, presentations by students etc)”.

Some Indian Universities, such as the National Law University Jodhpur, NALSAR, Hyderabad and Jindal Global Law School have also adapted - increasing the number of research assignments, cancelling end semester exams, and giving online tests.

I myself am a patient of Spastic Cerebral Palsy; there are days when I can’t even set foot on the ground, because of aches and pains. It would be so much better if I did not have to attend class physically that day or have to write a three-hour exam by hand.

I am reminded of a post on a professional network, where a student who is quadraplegic graduated law school just a few days ago, attending a large portion of his classes virtually and doing adapted assignments. Josh Besile, a malpractice law trial Attorney says that when he graduated law school in 2013, he became a member of the group of lawyers who didn’t have to turn a single page throughout law school.

For my unfortunate friend hit by the auto-rickshaw, had alternative and simplified means been adopted earlier, he would still be in college, and would be able to provide a way out from the poverty-ridden life of his family.

As a matter of fact, I myself am a patient of Spastic Cerebral Palsy; there are days when I can’t even set foot on the ground, because of aches and pains. It would be so much better if I did not have to attend class physically that day or have to write a three-hour exam by hand.

In the current context, there is ample evidence that alternative and simplified means of assessment are feasible and practical. Keeping in mind the unprecedented times, judging a student on an assignment submitted online or in person when the college reconvenes is not something that should be considered an improper means for evaluation to be frowned upon.

The recent report that Madhya Pradesh has decided to hold exams has put me in a state of considerable anxiety, because a future defining opportunity is slipping through our hands.

The world will never be as it was before the pandemic came upon us. We must use this opportunity to set nobler benchmarks for innovation, inclusivity and preparedness, in the face of an unprecedentedly uncertain future.

(Ishan Chauhan is a fourth-year student at National Law Institute University, Bhopal. He is the author of Short Stories - Misgivings of My Fraternity and co-author of Secrets- A Collection of Stories)