OPINION | Education Conundrum: How COVID-19 affected India's education sector and what steps are needed to revive it

The connoisseurs are despondent and rue this distance learning digital format. Ideal, it of course is not, yet under the circumstances, online education seems the most suitable substitute.

OPINION | Education Conundrum: How COVID-19 affected India's education sector and what steps are needed to revive it

New Delhi | Tarun Gupta: In the last year and a half, few spheres of life have been as drastically impacted as education. The Covid pandemic disrupted school and college life to render them almost unrecognisable from their earlier form. The severity and unpredictability of the virus has forced continued shutdowns and cancellation of conventional examinations.

The connoisseurs are despondent and rue this distance learning digital format. Ideal, it of course is not, yet under the circumstances, online education seems the most suitable substitute. The evolution of online techniques of teaching and evaluating remain a work in progress. There have been confabulations at various levels of our education ecosystem to devise a robust mechanism. The suggested responses allay some concerns, although raise few questions too, and still worse, it seems that chronic issues remain unaddressed.

The most important examination for an Indian school student has been the class 12th board. Without getting into the merits of excessive emphasis on this school passing out exam, it is the most universally accepted basis of admission to higher education courses. In the covid aftermath, 12th board exams for 2021 have been dispensed with, and for 2022 considerably tweaked. The scheme of marking has been changed to factor in internal assessment and past exams but the relevance of 12th result to open gates of graduate learning remains undiluted.

This leads us to the veritable problem of admission to graduate courses in India. It's a rather elementary case of demand supply mismatch. There is disproportionate pressure on select colleges and universities who simply do not have sufficient seats to accommodate the deluge of applications. The result is spike in cut offs. Every year there are reports of coveted colleges closing their admission lists at ridiculous levels of 98 per cent plus or thereabouts. To study say English honors from a leading Delhi university college, a 12th standard student may be required to score a 99 per cent not just in his English final exam but also in Mathematics, physics etc. if those are his subjects so as to make the cut. Coerced by system, the privileged lot travels overseas for graduation. The bane of brain drain commences from towards the end of school.

What we need are more quality institutes of higher education where even mediocre students with average passing marks have an option to study. The present scenario where our higher education admits one and denies one hundred cannot satiate the aspirations of our students. We need more colleges and we need them in tier 2, tier 3 cities to mitigate the current status where there is exodus from the entire country into select metros. This is also where digital distance learning can be ameliorative. Despite issues of connectivity and efficacy, online education has the potential to be transformational.

Indian school system operates with multiple boards. There are individual state boards in every state and one pan nation central board CBSE. Students passing out of different boards tested on divergent metrics of curriculum and examination and evaluated by varied marking yardstick, compete for seats in same courses. Some state boards apply a far more stringent assessment criteria where even top students struggle to secure say beyond 90 per cent as against CBSE where it is no longer surprising to see toppers achieve a perfect 100 per cent result. A percentile system at individual board will provide a level playing field. It tells the percentage of students who have fared worse so you know the relative standing of every student. Under this system, quite aptly, an 80 per cent in a strict state board might be valued more than a 90 per cent in the more liberal CBSE. It's widely used in most developed countries and factors in variances on account of syllabus, difficulty level, marking criteria etc. Unfortunately the much needed standardization or equalization is yet to be tried out in India.

In the absence of conventional board exams due to the pandemic, CBSE has formulated new ideas for assessing students. The proposed internal assessment and past exam performance as the basis of deciding 12th board result do not seem fair and equitable. Students often work harder and fare better in their 12th boards as against any past test. Individual school biases are likely to pervade and besmirch internal assessments.

CBSE is offering to change the format of question papers and dilute the syllabus. Examinations are designed to test a student's knowledge and understanding and assess his expression. The proposed new scheme with an abundance of multiple-choice questions will certainly not test articulation skills. An agonizing reality is that most reputed foreign universities do not hold CBSE in high esteem. Easing of curriculum will further erode its reputation.

We may concede that 2021 was an aberration but shouldn't our system be better equipped to conduct 12th board examinations in 2022? Even if physical exams are derailed by the pandemic, the possibility of an online assessment might serve better than the suggested arrangement. Around 12 lac students write the CBSE 12th board each year and even if we assume 50 per cent of those require hardware support for online education and assessment, at Rs 10000 per student the outflow will be around 500-600 crores. It will be money well spent by the state. The question papers will have to set creatively for it will be akin to an open book exam. To restrain unfair practices, there are plagiarism software and other monitoring tools again quite routinely in practice in overseas exams.

The fundamental idea behind radical proposals was to ensure a stress free environment for students. Lets be mindful that the biggest source of anxiety is uncertainty. Those clouds are yet not dispelled as their remains ambiguity over every nuance of the academic year. If we do not act swiftly and effectively, learning outcomes are sure to be compromised. In our zeal to simplify, are we missing the wood for the trees?

(The article is an opinion piece by Tarun Gupta. The views expressed in the article are of the author and Jagran English does not take the responsibility of the views expressed here)

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