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As we stare at the service unavailable window for the nth time, the prospect of an online semester seems bleak. While VPN and registration troubles are not unfamiliar, a supposedly upgraded ASC server and less than usual capacity requirements gave us the hope of a smooth registration, but the hope was short-lived. Only time will tell if this registration process was a prelude to a messy online semester or just a blip in an otherwise smooth journey. This article will discuss the steps taken to prepare for this journey, as highlighted in the Deputy Director’s mail dated 5th August, and discuss aspects of the policy that need further clarifications.

Here’s a summary of the email:

  • Students must prepare themselves for the online semester by installing the SAFE app, MS Teams, Cisco Webex, Moodle and Google Meet apps on their devices.
  • There will be an adjustment in midsem and endsem dates, to be announced shortly (The academic calendar will remain unchanged apart from this)
  • Students must maintain academic integrity during any evaluation, and those found to be using unfair and dishonest means will face strong disciplinary actions (DAC).

The more salient points include:

  • Instructors may conduct quizzes (typically with low marks weightage), but students must be given the option of taking these quizzes later in the day, in case of network issues during the assigned quiz slot.
  • The plan for endsems is to have well-proctored exams at locations across the country. This is to ensure that cheating cannot occur while allowing students to take the exams close to home. However, the details need to be worked out and will be shared once they are finalised, by around mid-September.
  • The week of Aug 10 will be devoted to getting faculty and students familiar with the technology for online education. The student orientation for new PG students will happen (online) on Aug 10. UG courses can start the drive on Aug 10, but PG courses may begin on a subsequent day, and might not follow the exact slot pattern that week. Respective instructors/departments will keep you informed of the precise schedule for that week.
  • There is a plan to stress test the systems on Friday, 14 August, to make sure it is capable of handling peak loads if necessary.

While the administration has attempted to be extensive in the guidelines, few critical things still require further clarification. Some of the aspects that remain unclear are the following:-

Attendance Policy
“Understand the attendance and evaluation policy for your course and be fully prepared to take the exams and tests that will be conducted in the course.” was the statement mentioned in the mail. The administration made clear that there would be pre-recorded lectures to accommodate the possibility that students would be missing classes due to network and power issues. Usually, these aspects are decided by the instructors of each course, but a clear institute-wide policy in such exceptional situations would have been preferable to avoid confusions.

Process for returning students
The administration has allowed students from remote corners to return if they have severe network issues etc. Details aren’t clear regarding the body heading this program, but it seems to be led by SMP in some departments and HoD in other departments. And they would be making decisions on a case-by-case basis. Further, the mail specified that students must willingly take the risk, which can act as a deterrent for people with genuine needs. A policy document regarding steps taken by the institute regarding provisions for student safety like insurance, upgrades in medical facilities should be released. Clarity regarding the logistics and the criteria would have been welcome, as it would calm fears of students who would want to come back to the campus.

Class structure and evaluation
The mail stated that “We have recommended live discussion sessions for all the courses in the regular timetable slots.” So it is at the discretion of the professors to conduct live lectures. Tutorials are often a part of the curriculum, so it remains to be seen how they shall be incorporated here. Evaluation schemes are being deliberated on, with discussions of conducting the end semester examinations at centres across the country to minimize academic malpractices. It is worth pondering whether this is necessary, considering that in the last semester, some professors did conduct their final exams entirely online through vivas and/or day long open book tests and assignments.

Capacity issues
This issue has probably persisted from the moment we stepped on the campus. While doing extensive network analysis is not the point of this article, recent experience with the ASC portal hasn’t helped the student community’s lack of confidence about the ability of the institute servers to handle the load that they could face. The stress test on 14th would give us a better idea about this, and we hope it ends without many bumps.

Academic Honesty
The mail has specified that students found guilty of indulging in unfair means will “face strong disciplinary actions (DAC)”. While the thought behind it makes sense, it is unclear how this is to be implemented. While such rules exist even for a physical semester, it doesn’t seem to deter a non-negligible portion of students from flouting them; the simple ethical argument doesn’t seem to be enough to prevent it. With the chances of getting caught in a remote learning model being significantly lower, there will likely be more instances of cheating, which go unnoticed. While there doesn’t seem to be any foolproof solution for this problem, it is still something that needs to be considered if online evaluations are to hold any meaning.

Minor ( yet major?) Issue
Another issue that has been repeatedly brought up on several student forums is that of inflated CPIs due to the new grading policy. As a result of this policy, everyone who opted for the S grade now has a better CPI than they would have had otherwise. Seeing as credits per semester usually decrease for higher years, the maximum impact of the CPI inflation is seen by the students in lower years (read, freshmen). Subsequently, the cutoffs for minors have risen significantly, leading to problems for people trying to complete their minors. This is felt especially by final year students; for a lot of them, if they do not get their preferred minor course, they will be unable to complete enough credits for a minor degree.
Several possible solutions have been offered by the student community, including the idea of awarding minors based on CPIs before the previous semester, or creation of supernumerary seats for those who urgently need to take the course to complete a minor, which should be easier given the mode of instruction this semester. There have been many such suggestions, and several are feasible, requiring little effort by authorities. Simple solutions exist for this problem, but with the registration period having ended, there has been no response from the authorities on the matter.

 

Closing Remarks

Some departments have already taken fledgling steps to integrate such online methods of teaching in the last semester, employing the SAFE app for mini evaluation and video conferencing for classroom discussion. The institute, specifically the computer center, has done a commendable job of facilitating SSO driven access to online infrastructure such as G Suite and MS Azure, with efforts being made to make these resources ubiquitous. Now that the online semester has kicked off as the first of its kind, we can only wait and watch whether it will be the start of a revolution in our institute’s traditional pedagogy or a failed experiment to be brushed under the carpet once normalcy resumes.

 

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