Exams in times of Coronavirus: India must not let Covid-19 hold careers to ransom
Covid-19 and the requirement for distancing, as well lingering uncertainties about certain modes of transmission of the virus, has made conducting various activities in the usual manner nearly impossible. Nevertheless, as the lockdown pain showed, the need is to work around the threat. The Supreme Court (SC) has, therefore, done well to reject a plea to defer the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) and the Joint Entrance Examination further; the tests are scheduled to be conducted in September. To be sure, the concern of the petitioners—a group of students—is genuine; in-person tests in a business-as-usual fashion are fraught with health-risks, and any linked outbreak would undermine efforts to control spread in the larger community. Online examinations also can’t be a remedy if the limitations on invigilation, lack of uniform digital infrastructure and connectivity across the country, etc, remain. But, a deferral, as the SC has pointed out, could be a setback for many students—some 9 lakh have registered for JEE Main and 16 lakh for NEET. That apart, there is no certainty when the pandemic will abate—indeed, many experts believe that the virus is here to stay for “very many, many years to come”. How long can entrance exams get deferred in such a scenario?
However, the onus of inspiring trust in the fair conduct of exams while minimising risks of transmission is entirely on the authorities, including, in the context of JEE and NEET, the National Testing Agency (NTA). To that end, the NTA and other examination authorities (the Consortium of National Law Universities for CLAT, Rajasthan Central University for CUCET, etc) need to look at a mix of online and in-person testing, tweaking these to overcome both transmission risks and the limitations of technology/digital infrastructure. A host of proctoring software solutions are available, including many that use AI and can operate at low bandwidths—some of these can detect malpractice on screen and off it (via webcams on devices); for instance, if a student opens a browser or a tab on a device, the software will immediately take a screenshot of this. Some AI solutions can determine from a student’s eye movements if she has been looking away from the screen or at a different tab. Apart from these, the exam design can be tweaked to forbid malpractice —the Imperial College, London, conducted unsupervised online examinations for its sixth-year medical students with a time-limit that gave just 72 seconds per question; even though it was an open book test, unless a student knew exactly what to look for and where, using textbooks and other resources was simply inefficient. Similarly, for in-person examinations, the entrance can be conducted over a few days instead of just one day, with the number of candidates allowed per day at the venue decided keeping distancing needs in mind. Test centres can be allotted fairly close to home to avoid transport-linked risks. To avoid leaking of question papers, these can be different every day or simply not allowed out of the hall.
The short point is that there are many innovative solutions that can help exams take place. Online exams, as the popularity of the NTA’s National Test Abhyas app shows, may not be too difficult to implement if the authorities can get the technology part right. Indeed, though the UGC final-year exams are still in the SC, similar solutions can be thought of for university exams also.