Delhi University’s recent decision to hold open book examination at home for the final semester — in view of the lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic — has invited widespread opposition from students and teachers as well as individual departments.

Stakeholders have argued that the move, pushed through without consultations, would at best be a mockery of examination and at worst exclusionary, and a blow to students who were already disadvantaged.

Several stakeholders also raised questions about the university’s ability to conduct such a large-scale online exercise given the history of the university server overloading during admissions, result days and most recently during the filling up of online examination forms.

Speaking to students from across the country, from Jammu and Kashmir, Kerala, Rajasthan, Assam, to here in the Capital, plagued with poor Internet connections, technological difficulties and a lack of study material as well as those who are visually impaired among a host of other issues said they were going to face severe difficulties attempting these exams.

Sitting at home in Jammu, Manchi Jandial, a final-year BSc Botany student at Hansraj College will have to give theory as well as practical exams online starting next week. Given the communication blockade there, Ms. Jandial only has access to 2G services, which means Internet speed is very slow. “Downloading just one file takes about half an hour,” she said.

She said that two hours would not be enough to download the question paper, search for answers, write and upload them again. “It would be very unfair. And for people in Kashmir, Internet goes on and off any moment,” she said.

Recently, over 100 students from the Union Territory wrote a joint letter to the J&K Lieutenant Governor as well as the Chief Secretary, urging them to intervene in the matter. Highlighting that they were not even able to attend online classes given the Net speed, the letter reads, “We have also written to the Dean of Examination and V-C of university, but they didn’t listen to us.”

Residing in the Edatharingi village in Kerala, final-year MA sociology student at Delhi School of Economics, Rebecca Vargheese has to step out on the road with her laptop just to send an email. With residents in her village having long opposed the setting up of telecom towers, the only service provider she has access to is BSNL which is terribly weak, she said. “I’ve got all the set-up, I bought a modem and everything, but the connection just doesn’t work and customer care also doesn’t respond,” she said. Instead she has to depend on a feeble phone connection that is patchily available.

“If I am forced to take these online examination, I would have to travel to another district, about 40 km, to a friend’s place to take them,” she said. Meanwhile, she hasn’t been able to attend online classes and didn’t bring along any books with her, as she had come home for her sister’s wedding during the mid-semester break.

Naresh Kumar, in his final year at Shivaji College, does not have his textbooks either. He only brought a few novels and magazines to during the break back home. A resident of Morthla near Mount Abu in Rajasthan, Mr. Kumar said that he does not have regular mobile Internet at his village. “Typically, we would go to the city to study at a cyber cafe. Even that’s not an option this time, given the lockdown,” he said.

Not just in remote parts of the country, students here in Delhi are facing connectivity and technology issues. For Sachin Mahawar, final-year BSc Botany student at Ramjas College, who stayed back at his rented room in Delhi to prepare for MSc entrance exams, regular Internet inside the room is unavailable. Which means that every time he has to download or upload any document, he has to step out of his room with his phone and laptop.

Mr. Mahawar is also among those who has to attempt an “online practical exam”. “We’ve been told it will take place over a Zoom class [live telecast], where we will be shown a specimen and we have to identify it in about 30 minutes,” he said. Following this, students will be required to draw diagrams and write identifying details of the same. While students without regular Internet connection would be at a disadvantage, Mr. Mahawar also informed that most students had left their practical record books with teachers and didn’t have material to study from. “Everyone is confused and tensed about what will happen,” he said.

In Uttar Pradesh’s Unnao, Devashish Verma, a third-year BA History student at Ramjas College, had returned home without his laptop and the email id meant for college work which was logged on to that computer. This means that if any assignments have been issued by his professors, he has to ask his friends to forward PDFs on his phone.

Most of the assignments being carried out currently were simply a form of “copy pasting” from articles he said. “But as a graduation student, I’m not studying just to get by am I?” he said, adding that the way classes were being undertaken, studies were taking place merely as a formality.

Questioning the logic behind “open book tests”, he highlighted there would be a need for resources, especially access Internet to answer well and provide bibliographies to answers. “How can they do this? It is a severe injustice taking place,” he said.

Apart from this, the biggest pressure right now were entrance exams, said Deveshresh, distraught that he wasn’t able to apply to the Hyderabad Central University as there were connectivity issues and the last day of applications passed by.

Challenge for the special

Online examination also pose a special challenge to visually impaired students. Keshav Das, a visually impaired student from Mathura in his final year at Shaheed Bhagat Singh College was worried about how he would manage a scribe to help him take the exam.

“I have no facility and I don’t know how I will find a scribe here,” he said. Mr. Das stressed that even if professors send study materials to prepare for the exams, it would be difficult to access them unless they were audio books.

Taking note of this issue, the university has asked all departments to contact physically challenged students, especially those who are visually impaired, to ask them about their Internet accessibility. In a separate letter to HoDs, the Dean of Examinations also wrote that the exams would require minimum Internet connectivity and access to “any latest smartphone” and that mechanisms to address technological constraints would be developed. However, this has not been elaborated on so far. Messages, calls and questionnaires sent to the Dean of Examinations and the University Registrar went unanswered.

Trishita Shandilyia, a final-year MA sociology student at DSE, residing in Guwahati, said that while Internet connectivity was not an issue for her. However, given the “flood season” was starting there, electricity cuts were frequent and posed a major issue.