In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the nationwide lockdown has forced educational institutions and universities across the country to suspend academic activities. While the University Grants Commission (UGC) has requested the academic community to make productive use of the lockdown period, Higher Education Councils in various states have directed universities to take up virtual or online education.
Several universities in Telangana, Karnataka and other states have initiated online classes for their students in order to utilise the rest of the academic year. While the move is aimed at continuing education, several students are finding it difficult to cope up with the online module offered by their universities.
Following Jawaharlal Nehru Technological University - Hyderabad (JNTUH), Telanganaâ€™s Osmania University (OU) issued instructions to principals of all affiliated institutes to continue classes online in order to complete the academic year.
Both these universities have since begun online classes using apps such as Zoom, WhatsApp or YouTube. Many universities and colleges are also exploring alternatives like Discord, Slack and Proficonf.
Patchy internet increases woes
For most students, one of the major worries has been erratic network connectivity. Universities in big cities are usually where students from towns and villages come to study as residential scholars. Now, due to the lockdown, students have been asked to go back to their hometowns where the internet connectivity can be bad.
Sreekumar N, an undergraduate student pursuing BSc (Statistics) at AV College, which falls under OU, said that in addition to network issues, there are plenty of technical glitches during online classes. Hailing from Sirikonda in Nizamabad, Sreekumar said, â€śUnless I come out and stand at a specific place, I can't access normal internet. Apps like Zoom will give High Definition (HD) visuals which require good and sound internet which all of us can't afford to have.â€ť
Non-availability of high-speed internet connections through broadband also puts students from remote villages at a disadvantage since they have to depend on data plans on mobile phones, which is simply not the same as having a broadband connection.
James S, a BTech student at a private college in Hyderabad under JNTU said, â€śWhile the classes are useful, the data plans we use are not sufficient. Many of us are facing this problem since we don't use broadband connections.â€ť
Technical glitches add to worry
In addition to the lack of internet access, another major worry for the students and instructors is making online classrooms work.
Sheshu J, another student of AV College said, â€śWhile there are network issues, faculty members also do not have the technical knowledge about how to administer online classes. Attendance is less."
Some students feel amiss in an online learning environment, compared to a traditional classroom setup. â€śI don't feel that online classes are filling up the void of the classroom learning. There is very little scope for interacting with faculty although time is being allocated for that,â€ť Harshitha*, a second year BTech student said. Adding that the login and logout times differ from region to region, she said that universities are concerned with data privacy issues with certain apps.
Abhishek Paul, a student at the National Law School of India University (NLSIU) echoed Harshitha's comment and said, â€śThis is an unprecedented situation for both institutes and students. However, online classes are not a direct substitute for classroom learning. Network issues exist, responsiveness is low, assignments have to be redesigned. Moreover, staring at a screen for prolonged hours sitting in one place is difficult.â€ť The Bengaluru-based law school has opened up virtual learning for its students amid the pandemic.
The way forward
With the nationwide lockdown extended till May 3, colleges and universities will only rely more on technology to compensate for the time lost in classroom lectures. This, while being aimed at helping students complete the syllabus, poses real-world challenges due to problems like inaccessibility and technical inexperience.
Sharan Raichur, the President of the Engineering Students Joint Action Committee, Telangana, said that the careers and lives of students are at stake due to online classes. â€śThough the intention behind setting up online classes is good, there are serious technical lapses in administering it and many don't have access to the internet. Students from villages are more concerned about it,â€ť he explained.
He demanded that universities and institutions offering engineering courses issue a circular assuring that they will only consider the syllabus covered prior to the lockdown for examination purposes.
Apart from not being able to catch up with what is being taught online, students are pushed to worry about attendance, which is mandatory to appear for exams in most higher educational institutions.
â€śWe are uncertain about what the university is going to decide, as there are issues in attending online classes. Colleges should not consider taking condonation fees for lack of attendance,â€ť N Rakesh, an MBA student from Karimnagar, said.
There are also demands from the student community that universities consider providing alternate evaluation methods for those who hail from remote places and are unable to attend online classes due to lack of infrastructure.
Kiran Kumar, a research scholar from the University of Hyderabad and a representative of the Youth for Inclusive and Sustainable Society (YISS), said that the government decided to introduce online education without considering the ground reality. He urged that e-learning programmes provided during the lockdown must only be considered for learning purposes and not for evaluation or grades.
Adding that universities can encourage students to play a role in the countryâ€™s fight against COVID-19 by taking up projects like creating awareness on health, hygiene and healthcare in their local communities and engaging with local bodies and civil society, Kiran Kumar said that these efforts too could be considered for academic evaluation.
Acknowledging the existence of issues arising out of lack of technical know-how among students, S Chandraiah, Assistant Professor in the Telugu Department of AV Post Graduate College (Osmania University), said, â€śWe are seeking less complicated, alternatives and user-friendly platforms to give lectures and engage with students.â€ť
(With inputs from Prajwal Bhat)