IIT-Bombay's Adaptation To The Lockdown - What Works And Doesn't

In just a few days the world changed drastically with the arrival of the novel Coronavirus in our midst. IIT Bombay (IITB) was reasonably proactive in its response and a flurry of soft advisories appeared as early as March 12 recommending that non-essential gatherings (including conferences, workshops, etc) and travel were to be avoided, and that we should not invite people into campus (including examiners and colleagues from other institutions). A task force was formed, attendance for classes was made non-mandatory, and no examinations and tests were to be taken till the month-end. The campus hospital was readied for any appearance of infection. And then, on March 14, after obtaining inputs from the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, classes were suspended and undergraduate students were asked to go home (postgraduate or PhD students were given an option to continue with their research).

Some of the other IITs which were in the middle of the mid-semester break asked their students to remain at home and not return to campus. Work-from-home for staff and “online teaching” were suggested. Entry to the campus was tightened and suddenly, masks and gloves became ubiquitous. As the crisis deepened, in the next two days, even research students were asked to go home, There was some heartburn over this amongst the postgraduate students across many IITs as travel reservations were not available, some did not have the money to travel, and above all, many did not want to go back home to old parents (who were more vulnerable to the disease) and risk infecting them.

On March 18, the Human Resources Ministry (HRD) issued orders suspending classes till March 31, and on March 23, it issued further instructions that wherever possible employees should work from home. The HRD also recommended, in a somewhat pedantic fashion, that while in lockdown mode, faculty should not only do online teaching and evaluation but also carry on research, write articles and papers, prepare innovative questions for “Question Bank” and innovative projects for “Ek Bharat Shrestha Bharat”. Finally, on March 25, the campus, like the rest of the country, was locked down.

A general desire that many teachers have is that to keep students “engaged” and “connected” to academic activities and ensure that the academic schedule should not go haywire. To this end, many of us conducted online classes in the last two weeks of March through various modes, such as live video conferencing, uploading videos of recorded lectures, or simply putting up written notes and reading material on the course website. I experimented with live video lectures and it turned out to be quite disappointing. It is a disconcerting experience to talk to a device instead of real people in a lecture room. “Attendance” was thin and most students switched off their audio and video feed to save bandwidth data and were simply listening like one would to a radio broadcast. It was impossible to ascertain the “pulse of the class” as well as make out individual reactions of students. There was no opportunity to check if something needed to be repeated. While some faculty have been satisfied with their online teaching, there are others who have found it difficult to teach students who are disinterested even at the best of times.

Switching to online teaching also brings forth the question whether every student has “proper” access to the internet which will allow her to participate equitably in e-learning. Some students expressed an inability to join online lectures because they were situated in areas where internet access and speeds were very erratic. Many students never replied to queries on they would be able to participate in online classes, and did not “attend” the lectures. While the objective of keeping student engagement alive during a lockdown is a laudable one, it is unlikely to work for a significant number of students, not just because of possible poor access to online resources, but also because mindspace is dominated by the concerns and anxieties relating to the viral disease as well as having to take care of family responsibilities and household chores. Under these circumstances, such teaching cannot be treated as being official, simply because it does not include all students. This experience also tells us that if the lockdown were to persist, online teaching will not be able to “substitute” for the classroom. Using online teaching to set up a facade which engenders an illusion of “business as usual” will only damage student learning.

IITB has declared a revised academic calendar. In the new schedule, the summer vacation has been pre-poned to April and May. It is proposed to complete the current semester over the entire month of June, take a break, and start the next semester in July end, when it usually commences. While this revised schedule has brought some peace to anxious students it may be too optimistic to assume that the Institute can be reopened in June. No other IIT has yet declared a revised academic calendar.

An important question is how handle the closing of this semester if classes cannot be resumed even after a few more months. What should be done about the syllabus not yet covered - ignore it or upload whatever possible on the course websites, but conduct no examinations related to it? Then, there is the question about how we evaluate students and give grades based on just about half the course that was completed prior to the lockdown. It does not look like there would be opportunities to hold examinations, and online tests as substitutes will not work in a situation where “use of unfair means” may be rampant. There are no answers yet.

The two great issues that will surely be impacted by the lockdown are admissions into the IITs and the employment of students from the graduating batch.

Already, the Joint Entrance Examinations - JEE (Main) and JEE (Advanced) - stand postponed to unknown dates. Even if the latter examination is somehow conducted in June, counselling and admissions will be delayed to August. Another likely scenario is that these examinations may get pushed to much later dates, thus rendering quite short the first semester of the entering students. This is a critical issue and we may end up with much worse situations - for example, having no admissions at all.

The placement issue has been on the mind of many IIT administrators, and is also the one that is uppermost in the minds of students. This also includes anxiety over the availability of internship opportunities which are often a path to pre-placement job offers. A few news reports (1, 2) mention some companies who have rescinded job offers because of the pandemic but much has not yet happened formally on this as companies themselves are waiting to see what their fate and balance sheet will look like. There is too much larger economic uncertainty tied up with this and it should be obvious that larger, more established companies, those with deeper pockets, will not cancel as many appointments as others who will face financial difficulties and may cut deeply on hiring. Only some will be willing, or even be in a position to hire, people who can work online. Whether companies just defer job offers or whether IITs will need to organize more placement drives later will have to be decided later - and it is not even clear how much later.

Already internships - where students work as trainees in organizations outside - have gone the online way. Companies are not taking any interns that require physical presence at company premises and also because it is hard to prioritize student training at this point of time. Many students are turning to doing internships within the Institute, under faculty supervision, this too in online mode.

Therefore, appealing to corporates to “keep their promises” to not withdraw job offers - because IIT students are bright and deserving or because they get only one shot at finding a job (or even because they are clever which will help companies recover quickly!) - are unlikely to have much impact on companies themselves suffering from the negative economic effects of the closure.

On the other front - of research - there has been a severe curtailment of all activity. The only exceptions are things that must be kept alive like servers, special equipment and biological entities like cell lines and special reagents. There will a be labor and resources going waste, like long experiments which are stopped, reagents that expire and experimental samples that degenerate. Meanwhile, there have been innovation challenges thrown to the IITs to devise means to defeat the coronavirus, and so far we have been able to offer only masks, sanitizers, tracking apps that can be used on quarantined persons, and some ventilator designs. With the establishment of the new CAWACH center on the IITB campus, we now hope to be able to produce a deluge of innovations.

As we continue to grapple with the routine vagaries of negotiating life during a lockdown, there are harsher realities in the immediate environs that must be confronted, like the precarious lives of construction workers on campus and quarantined buildings that engender dread and empathy in the same breath. Of course we have also had the thaali and tali bajao” as well as the “light the diya for 9 minutes” episodes to beguile us.

(Anurag Mehra is a Professor of Chemical Engineering and Associate Faculty at the Center for Policy Studies, at IIT Bombay.)

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