Despite the threat posed by the coronavirus pandemic in India, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE) has decided to go ahead with online examinations, a move that has left many students and parents discontent. Though the students do have the option of taking the exams later when they are back to their colleges, these exams will be held along with their new classes, adding to the academic load. They fear that they will be left behind when compared to classmates who can take the upcoming online examinations.
Writing online examinations also comes with its share of concerns. Apart from the stress of having to prepare for exams during a pandemic, students have also accused the university of forcing them to use a software â€” PEXA Lite â€” which they say poses a malware risk as it is flagged as a trojan by the Windows firewall.
"We were informed about the use of PEXA Lite four days before the start of our sessional examinations. Repeated complaints made by the students have resulted in no relevant action from the authorities," a third year student of the university told TNM.
Paperless Examinations Advantage (PEXA) was introduced in MAHE colleges in 2016. But, this is the first time that the new version called PEXA Lite, a cloud-based software, will be used by students from their homes on their personal computers. PEXA Lite is an online examination tool that was launched in April 2020 by Littlemore Innovation Labs, a Singapore-based education technology company.
However, speaking to TNM, MAHE Registrar Narayana Sabhahit contended that there is no problem with the software (PEXA Lite) and that the sessionals set to begin on Monday will go ahead as planned.
"Students can choose to take the exam now online or later when they are back," Narayana Sabhahit said. "University Grants Commission (UGC) guidelines have given colleges the freedom to conduct exams based on their location and we have decided to go ahead with online exams while giving enough flexibility to the students," he added.
When TNM contacted Srikanth Rao, Director of Manipal Institute of Technology, he declined to comment on the issue.
Earlier this week, MAHE issued a note detailing a plan to hold the second sessional, an internal assessment which could not be completed before the lockdown, in June. It also stated that the end-semester examinations will be held in July. Both the sessionals and end-semester examinations will be held online and students will be asked to download a question paper, solve it and upload it on the portal.
This is despite MAHE's own constituent universities â€” Sikkim Manipal University and Manipal University Jaipur â€” deciding against holding online examinations for its students except for those in their final year.
However, colleges under MAHE which are based in Manipal, a town in Karnataka's Udupi district, are planning to hold online examinations for their students. The university attracts thousands of students from across the country for courses, including engineering, medicine, commerce and arts among others.
The students were forced to return to their homes in March following the nationwide lockdown imposed due to the coronavirus outbreak. But in May, when some restrictions were eased and lockdown 4.0 regulations were in place, the university re-started classes online and asked students to appear for quizzes. It then announced sessionals and said that end-semester exams will be held online in June and July.
While the process appears simple, students have raised multiple concerns over the administration's decision to go ahead with the exams. While some students pointed out the stress of writing examinations during a pandemic, others said that they are grappling with the realities of staying in containment zones.
Manipal plans online exams using PEXA Lite
On Thursday, Manipal Institute of Technology, the engineering institute in Manipal, issued a note which introduced PEXA Lite Examination Tool as the software to be used in the examination. It is for the first time that the university is using the platform to hold examinations.
While the software does not require the student to be connected to the internet throughout the duration of the examination, the internet is required for the student to upload the answer sheets, which at times can contain diagrams and graphs that the student has to upload.
There is also no clarity over whether the software can be used on the Android operating system. While the software's developers stated that it is compatible with both Windows and Android, MAHE has insisted that students download the software on a device with Windows operating system.
"The software is compatible with only the Windows OS and not Android or Mac. The University is asking people to arrange for laptops with Windows OS by asking neighbours or friends," a student told TNM. According to students, they need to arrange for laptops and other stationery and this puts them at risk of contracting the coronavirus since many live in areas with a high number of COVID-19 cases.
The students allege that the software also takes control of the student's system, blocking access to folders and obtaining access to data. "I am not comfortable giving such access to a software which is being flagged as a trojan by the Windows firewall. It is a privacy risk since laptops can contain personal information that could be mined by the software," a student pointed out.
In an instruction manual issued to students, the PEXA Lite team has simply asked students to ignore the alerts flagging the software as a trojan or malware and asked them to turn off the firewall or antivirus software before downloading the examination tool. "Please note that any alerts you may get regarding trojans or malware are false alerts and your system is safe with our software. Please turn off Firewall / antivirus in your device before downloading the PEXA Lite Setup file. You can enable the firewall /antivirus immediately post installation completion," PEXA Lite said.
Lack of dialogue
In addition to the worry over privacy and data risks, students say that there is no constructive debate over the issue with the university unwilling to listen to concerns raised by them. While the university did release helpline numbers for addressing queries, the students were told that the helpline numbers will be active during the examination.
"Attempts to discuss the issue with faculty and administration have received no response so far. For issues related to the exam format, there is a grievance cell but despite writing multiple emails to them, there has been no response or action," says a student.
Responding to this, university officials said that the grievance cell is yet to be fully functional. "There are only mock tests going on right now and it will be functional during the sessionals starting Monday," Narayana Sabhahit, Registrar, MAHE stated.
Students have anonymously compiled their concerns and started a petition online, asking the university administration to look into its examination modes. A Twitter and Instagram page, created anonymously, have also raised similar concerns.
The students' concerns are also shared by parents who reached out to TNM to raise questions about the need for holding examinations at this time.
"A lot of prominent institutes like IITs have adopted other methods to complete the ongoing semester. Online projects, assignments, and grades based on internal marks have been used to evaluate students. These solutions have been proposed to the administration in Manipal but there has been no relevant response or dialogue," a parent of a student studying in Manipal Institute of Technology told TNM.
Meanwhile, university officials have urged students studying in the third year to take the online mode of examination since companies which arrive for placements sometimes ask for the results of the sixth semester.
Colleges yet to issue detailed guidelines
On Friday, Manipal Institute of Technology issued a letter to students and parents stating that students are free to skip the sessionals and that their "internal assessment marks will be prorated". But no details have been shared with students about the pro rata guidelines or how the evaluations will be done even though the sessionals are set to begin in two days.
The letter issued by the college also stated that students who are unable to appear for the end-semester examinations may take the examination in the conventional mode after the institute reopens, alongside their classes.
The officials also stated that there are no plans to postpone or cancel the exams as of now, reiterating that they are conducting online exams within the rules laid down by the UGC.
"If the UGC says that all universities have to cancel examinations, then we will cancel it but till now, only some have cancelled it and others have not," Narayan Sabhahit added.
With inputs from Alithea Mounika