Challenges in Online Examination

Dr. Pradeep Kumar Singh
With spread of COVID-19, normal functioning of educational institutions got badly affected. In higher education, the classes were suspended around 16.03.2020 onwards, and the students were asked to vacate the hostels. It was very tough time for students as most of them had just returned from their homes after the Holi holidays, and a few had still not come back.
The medical experts and scientists are working world-wide to develop a vaccine to control the pandemic, but useful results are likely to take longer time. Definitely, the society has to get accustomed to live with the corona virus following the guidelines issued by the Government from time to time. The activities can also be modified, and can even be postponed if possible, to save people from getting infected from the disease.
In Higher Educational Institutions (HEI) the annual or the even semester examinations are conducted in the month of May every year. This year due to COVID-19, the academic activities suffered badly. Efforts were made to conduct online classes for theory subjects. Also, exercises were given to students in lieu of practical classes, seminar, project work etc. Although there have been limitations of resources and poor internet connectivity with the students staying in remote locations, resulting in inadequate delivery of contents, yet many remained connected to academic activities to a larger extent.
This year, it is impossible to follow the usual examination process in examination hall. Thus, the sanctity of academic expectations and integrity of examination process will get compromised. If the students are promoted to next semester/ year, without conducting examination, it will create many complications in academic system and students’ career. Also, the final year students, who have secured placement, may feel depressed for remaining just one examination away from completion of the degree. If the examination is conducted online, those who suffer from poor connectivity or the resources, and thus could not satisfactorily complete the syllabus, may feel depressed for losing the bus.
Fortunately, the UGC has addressed both the issues in its guidelines issued in April. The guidelines offered several optional methods of evaluation considering the inadequate IT infrastructure for conducting online several universities/ institutions. It wisely discarded hiring of private agencies for conducting online examinations by universities considering infeasibility.
The guidelines permitted the universities to adopt alternative and simplified modes and methods of examinations to timely complete the process. These may include MCQ/ OMR based examinations, Open Book Examination, Open Choices, assignment/ presentation-based assessments etc. The guidelines also offered a 50-50/ 100 formula, i.e. grades composite of 50% marks on the basis of internal evaluation, and the remaining 50% marks on the basis of performance in the previous semester, but 100% evaluation on the basis of internal evaluation for the first year of annual pattern.
The MCQ based examination with sufficient number of questions covering the whole syllabus through Google Form would have been better for those who have internet connectivity. The system makes evaluation and awards the marks automatically. The students also find it convenient. However, in online examination many students do not stick to time limit, blaming the poor connectivity. Even if they make false blame, the examiner takes a lenient view for their career. This is where the sanctity of examination is essentially compromised.
For those, who do not have satisfactory internet connectivity, and thus do not opt for online examination, the composite grading based on the 50-50/ 100 formula, suggested by the UGC is more useful. There can further be an option to have the best of the two (a) MCQ based evaluation, and (b) composite grading with the 50-50/ 100 formula, given above. After all, it is just to make a way out for the students to complete the examination formalities.
As the higher education enjoys excessive academic autonomy, different institutions started following their own methodology, making use of the flexibility granted by the UGC. Several institutions implemented various combinations of objective (MCQ), subjective and viva-voce based examinations making use of various online platforms. Institutions posted the subjective question paper on some online platforms for students and/or mailed the question paper directly to them. The students attempted the question paper on a note book, scanned each page, uploaded on the online platform and/or mailed to a specified mail id or the teacher/ examiner. As this process does not involve an invigilator to guide the students, and collect the answer sheets within the specified time limit, it results in several cheotic situations. Many students are not convergent with the putting scanned images together as a file (answer sheet). They appear to be much in tension due to uncertainty. Many students do not stick to the specified time limit, and take hours together as additional time, blaming the poor internet connectivity. A few students forget to attach the answer sheet, and send a plain mail. Several students make repeated submission at intervals. The examiner is helpless, he just takes a lenient view to favour the students, compromising the sanctity of examination.
A very peculiar situation has been noticed in the subjective portion of online examination. A teacher sent a mail to a group of students, advising them to submit the soft copy of the answer sheet on the “specified” mail id. Most of the students followed the instruction, but a few submitted the answer sheet as a “reply mail” to the teacher. Also, they did so with “reply to all”. Thus, their answer sheets reached to all the students of the group. Although, this is just a small error, yet examination process got vitiated, inviting punishment as per university rules. But under exceptional circumstances prevailing these days, the mental stress level of students can be understood, and such issues can be ignored to favour the students.
The evaluation of soft copy of answer sheets is also a serious problem. It is not advisable to take print of the soft copy of huge number of answer sheets, and evaluate the printed version. Normally examiners make necessary comments on the answer sheets using a distinct (red) coloured ink, during evaluation. This enables the students, and others including institute authorities or inspection team members, to know the expectation of examiners, and reasons for deduction of marks. It is impracticable to make such comments on the soft copy during evaluation on the PC/laptop screen. The examiner himself shall not be able to explain his expectation and reasons for deduction of marks, if any, at a later stage. Also, the evaluation of soft copy of answer sheets on the PC/laptop screen is physically difficult as compared to that of the conventional paper-based answer sheet.
Many institutions followed the online examination with partially objective and partially subjective question paper. In general, the objective portion has been handled through google forms, and subjective portion has been provided to students either as google classroom assignment, or through e-mail. The scanned soft copy of answer sheets for subjective evaluation has been received through e-mail. However, a few enthusiastic institutions engaged a private agency, for the purpose. First, the agency platform was trained to conduct the objective and subjective examination, through a set of mock tests. Uploading the question paper on the agency platform itself requires rigorous training. All this has been very troublesome for both the teachers and students. Further to remain on safer side, subjective portion of the question paper was also made available to individual students through e-mail. The response (soft copy of answer sheet) was also additionally sought through e-mail. Thus, the engagement of the private agency could not be fruitful, rather unnecessary created complications in the examination process.
Overall, handling the evaluation process during the ongoing corona crisis, is a unique experience. It needs careful policy decisions at the institute level within the framework of UGC guidelines to have a simplified process, so as to reduce the mental stress level among students. All the constraints cannot be satisfied simultaneously. Definitely, sanctity of academic expectations and integrity of examination process, will have to be compromised, under the ongoing exceptional circumstances.
(The author is Professor & Former Head, Department of Mechanical Engineering, Sant Longowal Institute of Engineering & Technology, Longowal)