What We At IITs Are Discovering About Online Classes

There is plenty of hype floating around that "digital" is the future of education. Our experiences related to online teaching during the pandemic show shatter this hype.

The most glaring demonstration of this is the persistent baring of the digital divide in all possible ways, across the education sector. There is a lack of access to proper computers and reliable networks for a very significant fraction of students. This correlates well with the socio-economic divide - disadvantaged sections struggling financially to buy hardware, sharing one single laptop or mobile phone across the family, and access often being limited only to a mobile phone. Select institutions, like IIT Bombay, have have been able ameliorate these problems by providing grants for buying hardware and network data packs.

The digital divide has been further amplified by social factors such as families living in small spaces with no scope for the privacy needed to attend online lectures, taking tests or academic work that needs concentration. For many women students, it has been a double jeopardy because of their participation in house work. This should remind us why schools and universities have physical campuses - to provide dedicated physical and mental spaces for learning and studying.

The effects of students remaining "attached" to digital screens for many hours per day was perhaps underestimated for college-level students. Almost all our students (and many teachers) complain of eye fatigue, headaches, posture-related pains - all of which contribute to a diminishing ability to concentrate. This gets exacerbated for those who depend solely on small mobile screens.

Contrary to the dominant belief, promoted by the votaries of the flipped classroom, that pre-recorded lectures are preferred by students - because they can view these at their convenience - it is actually live lectures that students are finding most convenient. This is because a time-table gives them a schedule to follow and resembles an active classroom. The fact is that most students do not really watch the pre-recorded videos properly, sometimes not at all!

Another unanticipated problem stems from some teachers trying to be doubly careful, leading to what we might call "digital overload". Students first watch pre-recorded videos, then the teacher presents some version of these in the regular time-table, followed by an "extra" discussion. The net result is that students are spending more than the stipulated classroom hours on a course. In addition, pre-recorded lectures are likely to have relatively more material per lecture than an offline classroom version because there are no live discussions as interruptions.

Yet another "overload" is the homework. This has increased compared to the regular offline classroom situation. In the usual course, assignments, largely due to a lot of copying, do not have much credit attached to them. In the online mode, teachers hand out more homework to assess students sine conducting invigilated ("proctored") tests is much more troublesome. Students also complain about the loss of a peer learning environment. Perhaps a genuine loss of opportunities to study together for some, but for many, this may just be a loss of an "ecosystem" that facilitated copying assignments from the few who do it diligently!

The biggest challenge continues to be that of examinations and assessments. Under normal circumstances, a combination of a few major tests, some in-class quizzes, and regular homework is used to evaluate student performance. The examinations and quizzes have the dominant weightage because these are proctored. In times of the pandemic a natural response would have been to move to take-home examinations, projects, and term papers. However, we have allowed an academic culture to evolve in which a take-home examination is largely an oxymoron - you cannot take an exam from home! The drive to score marks is conditioned so intensely that it must be achieved by any means - fair or unfair. Our educational systems suffer from this far more compared to the Western countries we look up to. This is primarily due to the fact that education in our country is viewed as a means and not an end; in the latter case, there is an automatic disincentive for copying and plagiarizing because students want to learn, not just score. There is implicit acceptance of widespread academic malpractices in our institutions and little will to act on it. In many countries, schools and universities impose huge penalties, like rustication and expulsion, for indulging in unethical academic behavior. In our system, how often do we hear about students being expelled for using unfair means?

Interestingly, the online situation has precipitated another anxiety in students about "all others" cheating and hence deriving an unfair advantage. This is not a new concern and has been flagged earlier in pre-pandemic times as well. However, it has suddenly acquired a new intensity now that every individual perceives that "everyone else" will cheat in unmonitored examinations. This has now become a circular argument: "I cheat because everyone else does". There are narratives of students rampantly using WhatsApp for sharing solutions of homeworks and tests. Students are also asserting that there is no foolproof way of online proctoring and that "some students" will always find ways of getting around whatever arrangement is made. Of course, there is always that honorable, small minority of students who work sincerely, for whom this situation will be cause for great unease.

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So how do institutions address this problem of student performance evaluation? Some IITs are in favor of holding in-person examinations once students get back to campus. For now students may be assigned a temporary "Pass" or "Fail" grade in a course, based on homework or test papers. Other IITs are planning to carry on with "normal" grading by holding examinations within the semester which are "monitored". Of course, the degree of "monitoring" varies tremendously. Some use the simple "keep your videos on while you write the exam" through the same video-conferencing software which is used for online classes. Some are recommending a multi-camera option - one device to view the "full body" and another device to read and answer the test paper. These proposals seem somewhat strange given that there are students who have poor connectivity, and sometimes, just one device. Sometimes the students are asked to record their own activities (especially if the network is down) and submit these videos along with their answers. All this is too convoluted and can be rather intimidating. For some, this is too many things to manage - devices, apps (crashes), screens (freezing), files (low space), networks (outages), resulting in the actual exam taking a backseat.

This pinnacle of this kind of technological solutionism is exhibited by the search for that "perfect" software for proctoring which will "solve" this problem. Here, the software literally takes over your devices, your surroundings, tracks body and eye movements, facial expressions, keystrokes, mouse motion, and sends the data - and its analytic conclusions - to a designated human. This is in-your-face surveillance and it has often been dubbed as spyware. Being monitored like this individually, knowing that every twitch, gesture, and keystroke is being recorded is extremely creepy, undignified and anxiety-inducing. As a student in a US college puts it, in the context of manual, individual proctoring, "It's basically like having someone standing over your shoulder staring at your screen the whole time". Some IITs have rejected these systems; some are still hoping to find the holy grail.

In any case, even with the most technologically "advanced" solutions, there is no way to ascertain how many may have beaten the system. I do think that the idea of deferred in-person examinations is the most sensible solution as it reduces student anxiety, the motivation to copy and takes care of the faculty's responsibility to be fair.

These technologies also bring to fore the issues related to invasion of privacy and the security of the captured data - which includes sensitive personal information like personal IDs, facial scans, body movements and other biometrics. Who has access to this data, for how long is it stored, who owns it, how secure is the data, and what control do individuals - whose data it is - have over it? Introducing a third party proctoring vendor - who owns and "operates" the software - makes these issues even more complicated. India still does not have a data protection law. This makes it harder to enforce any kind of accountability on the data-holding entities.

The sad reality is that in a post-pandemic world, some of these technologies may end up becoming a "normal" part of the "routine" academic system, "just because we have already paid for a license" or "it is so convenient".

What all this tells us is that "digital" education is far more complex and demanding than it seems, and is certainly not the future it is made out to be.

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

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