Rethinking UGC’s Directive to Stop Online Tests: Going Back or Moving Forward?

Following the trajectory of global structures of inequality, the death and mayhem the pandemic has brought in its wake has locked down humans in their countries, cities, and homes. As the novel Coronavirus has spread rapidly, governments all over the world have closed schools and universities and led millions of students into online learning systems. These new shifts in our familiar education techniques and approaches have certainly caused a degree of difficulty, but they have also initiated new educational innovation. While academic institutions, and education professionals across the world have prompted innovative teaching strategies and methods, the University Grants Commission (UGC) in Bangladesh has allowed online teaching but held the private universities back from continuing their online evaluation procedure.

On 4 April the University Grants Commission (UGC) asked all private universities to halt examinations and their evaluation until further notice amid the coronavirus pandemic. The direction came less than two weeks after the commission urged universities on March 23 to continue classes online. The incredible inconsistency in the commission’s positions has exposed the crisis of leadership and adequate strategic planning in our education sector. However, we agree with the commission’s concern, which is expressed in a press release “Some private universities have taken decision to give grade without semester final, evaluating students and admitting students without any test which is not right morally” (New Age, 9 April).  There is no doubt that we should condemn such unethical actions. Moreover, we also would like to make sure that we do not compromise on standards of learning and evaluating. But then to ensure these standards shouldn’t we go online not only for the classes but also for examinations and evaluation? Why do we need to cancel online examinations/tests, when we know that they are imperative for ensuring fair evaluation? Maybe the answer lies in the fact that the commission does not consider online format of examination as a reliable evaluation method. This is evident in the UGC chairman professor Kazi Shahidullah’s statement “How they would monitor students during tests … when everything is locked up” (New Age, 9 April). His frustration in this prevailing situation is understandable, but hopelessness is not. We cannot afford to let hopelessness overwhelm us.

Moving toward online teaching has never been easy for us. But teaching is not meant to be easy, rather challenging and innovative. Main step for ensuring a reasonable learning and teaching process at the moment of crisis is to establish a relationship between faculties and students based on trust and caring, which is mostly absent from our academic world. We do not know our students, what they like, what their strengths or vulnerabilities, what resources they have and what support they need. On the other hand, students are not aware of the limitations and capabilities of their faculties and universities. Therefore, many of us have started work with our students to develop workable teaching and learning plans.

We have noticed that most of the private universities in Bangladesh cannot afford proper distance learning apps, tools, programs, or software, and many faculties even do not have strong network bandwidth in their homes to arrange large video conferences for classes of 30-40 students. On the other hand, not all students may have personal computers or laptops, but they all have smartphones and limited internet connections (at least that is the case for my students). By using our limited resources, we have tried constantly to figure out what works and what does not. When hangouts, messenger, skype did not work, we chose you-tube live. When we noticed that you-tube live was consuming more data and students were having difficulty watching live lectures, we started preparing PowerPoint presentations, adding our recorded lecture in every slide and sharing that with our students through email. For continuing class discussion, we created a group in a messaging app, so that students can share their concerns, and questions with their teachers and classmates while reading slides and listening to lectures.

Similarly, we have come up with different methods for evaluating students. But, without assessing the effectiveness of different evaluation techniques, the UGC has denounced all evaluation procedures. The UGC chairman claimed that the main problem for taking online exams is the lack of a proper monitoring system during tests. His assumption indicates that he considers supervised written exams (in English) with structured questions in a controlled setting as the only reliable exam method. However, while the written exam is the most prevalent method, its effectiveness in assessing students’ expertise over the learning-content needs to be questioned. This exam method favors students who are good in memorizing study contents and fast in writing, over students who are slow writers and have difficulty with memory. However, assessment for the purpose of grading, can also be made based on students’ online presentation, team works, viva and/or assignments, all of which are considered as very common and reliable evaluation methods in top notch universities across the world. For the class presentation, students can shoot and send over their 3-4 minutes video presentations to the class and faculty so that they can watch the presentation and ask questions and give feedback. Introvert students can prepare their audio presentation if they do not want to be seen by their peers. In the absence of any proper educational tool or app, group or teamwork can simply be ensured if every student gives feedback to their group member’s assignment or presentation through email or messaging app. While students are independently working on their assignment, we can call and quietly work with those who need extra support. All of these can be done only with smartphones and limited internet connection. Students do not need to have a computer or laptop and internet connection with strong bandwidth. Those who do not have a proper typing device can write in a Microsoft doc file by using their smartphone. If typing on a smartphone seems difficult, students can write by their hand, take a photo of their papers and send it to the instructor. Few of us have already applied these methods successfully. There are tons of other options too that we can try.

Tests or assignments can be stressful as the commission claimed. However, canceling online exams is not an acceptable way to reduce students’ anxiety over coursework and grades. Rather, it can create more confusion, fear, and hopelessness. For students coming from middle class backgrounds the real fear is session jam which can make them fall behind and increase their education expenses for an extra semester. Therefore, rather than cancelling we need to continue the online evaluation process in the best possible way so that we can mitigate the pressure on students. In addition to this, to ensure students’ emotional well being all private universities should have online counseling and phone therapy services for students who are susceptible to feeling anxious in unusual situations. Students also should be able to reach their faculties whom they can trust in the moment of emotional distress.

I admit that this is not the best thing we can do. More importantly, here I have presented some online teaching and learning methods, which were convenient for me and my students, but may not be viable options for all other universities. The pandemic has cast a bright light on deep inequality in our education system. Going online is not possible for the millions of students and hundreds of thousand teachers to whom the internet, computers, laptops are luxuries. Considering public universities’ scarcity of resources, it can be said that online education may not be a possible option for them unless the government and the commission takes proper initiatives regarding this matter. Even some private universities may not have the capabilities, skills or management system to even experiment with e-learning. That is the exact reason why we should not look for a uniform teaching or grading policy. Every university has different capability, every department has a different teaching approach and every class has students with different strengths and vulnerabilities. Therefore, universities should consult with their program coordinators, faculties, and students and the UGC should discuss with the universities before taking any decision. Whatever decision the commission takes on the online evaluation procedure should include several feasible options so that depending on the resources, competence, expertise each university can choose their own method.

Online education is a new teaching approach and of course has several limitations. But, isn’t the aim of the commission is implementing effective strategic plans regarding higher education? If so, then rather than just discarding new possibilities the commission needs to build coalitions with diverse stakeholders – including governments, public-private universities, education professionals, librarians, technology providers, and telecom network operators -to create cost-effective, interactive, competent, and scientific learning platforms in this unprecedented time. We should not just focus on solving problems faced by private universities. All the public universities were bound to close their academic procedure for the lack of resources. There are hundreds of thousands less affluent students and faculty members in public universities who cannot go online because of the cost of digital devices and data plans. The commission should form coalitions with the ministry of education and ministry of information and communication technology to decrease the access cost while increasing the quality of access. Only then we will be able to reduce the gap in education quality and the socioeconomic inequality between students.

Online education is not a substitute for face-to-face teaching yet. Technology cannot create the magic that happens in a classroom. We are eagerly looking forward to social interaction with our students. But we need to face the crisis. It is easy to remain stuck in a rut and avoid risks that could lead to live-changing experiences. But we have to take risks to initiate change. Our new experiment will reshape our institutions, the idea of education, and what learning looks like in the moment of crisis. Although it is too early to decide whether these changes would make things better or worse in the long run, we should not refrain ourselves from taking much needed actions. We have a choice to make. We can be the slaves of our old habits, ideas, and actions or we can be adventurous, willing to experiment new methods, implement new ideas, create new teaching and learning environments. Let us not allow the limits of our knowledge shape our imagination. Let our imagination create new knowledge.

Photo credit:”Young Men in Park – Old City – Dhaka – Bangladesh” by Adam Jones under CC BY-SA 2.0 license