May is usually the busiest month in the arts and science colleges of Chennai as applications start pouring in, entrance exams are held and the admissions process gets going in full steam. Not this year.
Thousands of Class 12 students are still awaiting exam results, while some are even waiting to complete the examinations. Students studying for their Bachelors or Masters degrees are yet to write semester exams and the near future looks uncertain as COVID-19 cases continue to rise and the lockdown gets extended. What are colleges in Chennai planning to do in this situation?
While government colleges and those affiliated to the universities are waiting for the instructions from the higher education department, private colleges have started making preparations for the admissions.
Authorities from the reputed arts and science colleges including Madras Christian College, Chellammal College, Queen Mary’s College and others affiliated to the government universities said that they cannot start the admission procedure before the orders from the government. Yet college admissions and incidental activities predictably do not feature among the top priorities of the state government that is fighting a tough battle against a deadly contagion.
“There has been no discussion on the subject from the higher authorities,” Jothi Venkateswaran, Directorate of Collegiate Education told Citizen Matters.
The central Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) had cancelled the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE)-Main Main keeping in mind the safety of the students. IIT Madras aspirants will now write the JEE-Main exam in the latter half of July according to Human Resource Development Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank. The IIT-Advanced examination will be held in August.
City colleges go online
Under the circumstances, private institutions are relying largely on educational technologies to complete the admission procedure. While a lot of colleges already took their application process online some years ago, students still had to write an entrance examination on paper. However, in the COVID-era that looks set to change too.
The Asian College of Journalism (ACJ), which offers a ten-month post-graduation diploma course, is for the first time conducting online entrance examinations. “Considering the COVID-19 crisis, it will be challenging, if not impossible, for the students to go to the centres and thus, they can take a test from home,” said Kalyan Arun, Professor of New Media, ACJ.
The college has also specified that undergraduate and postgraduate students can still apply for the college, even if they have not completed their final exams. The college will give ample time (at least four months after the academic year starts) for students to submit the provisional certificates and retake the final (Bachelors or Masters) exam if the student fails to clear it. If the student is unable to pass at the second attempt, he/she will have to drop out, clear the exams and rejoin in the next academic year.
One question that has been doing the rounds is how the colleges can stop students from cheating in take-home entrance exams. “We are trying to devise the test in such a way that even by sitting at home, the probability of cheating would be reduced. There are options of using a web camera and other technologies, but a lot of students across the country have no access,” explained Kalyan Arun.
SRM University conducts in-house entrance for a few courses. The Vice-Chancellor of the University, Professor Sandeep Sancheti, says that they are yet to explore the possibilities of conducting entrance exams from home. “There are ways to do it. We could fix the camera and devise the system in such a way that the student can take the exam online and the chances of malpractice remain at a minimum. However, it is too early to take a call on the matter,” he says.
Colleges that had not made the admission procedure online are forced to do it this year. “Many colleges still ask students to visit the institutions for the admission procedure — be it for the entrance exam, group discussion, interview or paperwork such as verification of certificates, form submission etc. The change has to be immediate now, considering the crisis,” said Sujana C, an educationalist.
A stressful year ahead
But what after admissions have been completed as above?
The University Grants Commission (UGC) has confirmed the closure of colleges till the end of June and the commencement of semester exams from July. “Admission procedures for the upcoming academic year will start in August,” UGC stated. Based on the announcement, colleges are mulling over the idea of starting the academic year from September.
As the upcoming academic year will be short (ending in April 2021, as usual), students will have to forgo normal holidays, say educationalists. “The number of working days will be increased from five to six and we will have to cut short summer and winter vacations,” says Vice-Chancellor Sancheti of SRM University.
A majority of colleges have turned to tools such as Zoom and Google classroom for teaching and conducting examinations for existing students. If the situation remains fluid in September, they would continue with the same. “Our professors send us PDFs and voice notes online. They take the attendance at 9 am and most of the classes happen through Google Classroom,” says Rohith Kumar R D, a fourth-year student at the Balaji College of Physiotherapy.
Rohit also admits that taking classes online is not really as effective as attending classroom sessions. “Those who like to bunk can do so easily. The feel is just not the same as sitting in a classroom,” he added.
So while technology use in admission and class delivery can help educational institutions tide over the immediate crisis, can it really help learning in the long run? “While we are determined to overcome the challenges, the fact is that the alternative technological solutions are still at an experimental stage,” says Sancheti.