Table of Contents
- How they are affected: Classes and Regular Academics
- Issues with Online Classes
- A Split semester? Considerations to be Made
- The Impact on Honours
- What is getting lost in an off-campus experience
- How they are affected: Grades
- How they are Affected: Exam and Project Evaluations
- What happens to the already Examined but not Evaluated?
- Issues with Offline Exams (in this Scenario)
- Issues with Online Exams
- What happens to the grade distribution?
- Evaluating Honours and BTP
- Beyond this semester
The Institute response to the coronavirus pandemic has been proactive, and by and large, been greeted rather positively. Apart from ensuring that students got off campus the moment the situation got grim, the semester has continued without much of a hitch as the Institute moved to online classes within 6 days of most students being asked to return to their homes – unlike several other reputed Institutions in the country, where the fate of the semester is still up in the air.
However, we do not know yet how the semester will end. The Dean (A) in her initial announcement had stated that “The semester aims to be completed within 3-5 weeks, course assessment plans will be informed in the month of April”. It seemed likely at the time that there may be a chance of returning to campus soon to conclude the remaining portion of the semester (labs and other classes requiring a physical presence), and perhaps the end-sems. This, however, seems rather unlikely at the moment. While the Director has gone on record saying “We expect to conclude the Spring 2020 semester in the online mode mostly”, we want to explore the options that are available at the end of it: in terms of classes held, exams, grades, jobs, and more.
Why this won’t be over quickly: tentative timelines in the Pandemic
This article is written with one consideration: the situation is such that there is no viable timeline where students can return to campus within the next two months to write their finals or finish any lab work.
It is a global pandemic with no signs of letting off. Cities in China are finally returning to normal, over three months after the first reported case in Wuhan. Of course, India is not the literal epicentre of the outbreak. The optimistic approach here would be for us to assume that the 21-day lockdown is sufficient to constrain infection to a point where we can all resume regular life within another fortnight – end of April. In this situation we May choose to show up to campus, a thousand strong, to live in the close proximity of the hostels for a week, to write the exams. This would be rather unwise, and given how the college has handled it so far, they would probably agree.
At the same time, this forgets to consider students living outside India – in the US, the Middle East, or elsewhere. Assuming flights are back on by the time, the moment they enter India they need to go into quarantine for another two weeks. We are now constrained from physical attendance by at least two weeks the date International travel opens up again. We must also consider the practicality of asking people to spend money to fly in from all over the world to campus for two weeks to write an exam.
With this in mind, the earliest date for resuming classes in an optimistic setting is somewhere from mid-May to early-June.
How they are affected: Classes and Regular Academics
While IIIT has begun online classes and is on track to finishing the rest of the semester online, many colleges across the country have taken alternate routes. IIT Indore, for instance, has chosen to start the summer vacation right now, and resume the semester afterwards. Other IITs are as of yet undecided as to the academic route to be taken in the semester.
Online classes have been going rather smoothly and the move ensures the coursework for the semester will at least be completed. That being said, other colleges are not entirely (not) moving without reason: there are multiple concerns with online classes, some that students have personally experienced over the past fortnight. It is worth considering that due to the uncertain nature of the pandemic, this may however turn out to be the best option to take.
Issues with Online Classes
Classes that can’t be taken online
Some classes cannot be conducted effectively online, or conducted at all. Labs, PT, Yoga, HSS classes – all require attendance in a physical manner. ECE/D labs in particular are affected, as they require access to hardware. The Initial mail by Dean (A) had announced that “Most Lab/Project-based courses or labs which are a part of a course (AEC lab, IoT lab, EW2 project, Science 2 lab…) will be conducted when the students return, on campus, at a later date”, which, as discussed earlier, is unlikely to be before late May, if fortunate.
It will be interesting to see what happens with these labs. For example, UG1 students have IoT, in which the theory classes are mostly supplementary and lab accounts for 3 out of 4.5 hours per week. If college can’t open soon enough, skipping labs in this course would essentially kill the point of the course. In this case, do the labs happen next semester? Or is this just skipped completely?
Classes getting cancelled?
While unlikely, it is possible professors (especially for half-semester courses starting after the mid-sems) may want to redo their classes entirely in a ‘proper’ physical classroom environment. Would the Institute acquiesce to such a request? Students would arguably not enjoy such a situation. The same questions as above hold again.
Restricted and Unequal Internet access
A major concern of moving out of campus is unequal internet access. Not everyone has the bandwidth needed for the video component of online classes, and students in Jammu, and Kashmir, especially have to deal with 2G network connectivity. Another issue people might face is reasonable speed but unreliable connections. This may prove to be a major concern if the Institute conducts online exams requiring perpetual connectedness.
It is worth noting that on 31st March the Admin Office sent a mail taking inputs on internet connectivity for students, so it is a consideration that has been made. Also, attendance is not mandatory for courses (from the Institute’s side) due to this reason, as per clarifications to multiple students by the Dean (A). Individual professors have been known to conduct in-class quizzes and the like in order to ensure attendance, assigning portions of the grade to “in-class interaction” at times.
Less material covered per class
Finally, it is worth noting that due to unfamiliarity to the medium, many classes have had less material covered in each. Many classes in the first two weeks have kicked off 10-15 minutes late, and seem to progress slowly. It could be due to network issues, forcing professors to move slower. Reliance on the chat is also a crutch, as time is lost switching to the message tab, reading them out, answering and then confirming that the answer was received. More time is taken per topic, as a result.
A Split semester? Considerations to be Made
With this in mind, and ignoring the question of how exams will be held, we now consider the question of halting the semester once online classes are done, to be resumed after matters stabilise. We will ignore the possibility of online classes being suspended as well as we are already done with two weeks of classes, and the Director’s message indicates that it is unlikely.
This brings us to a situation where we will essentially be halting a semester midway for a period of several months. June, as we discussed, would be an optimistic date, and there are several estimates indicating it may well be time for the Monsoon semester before things return to “normal”. Presumably, end-sems will have to be postponed accordingly if the semester is put on hold to accommodate labs/lab-heavy courses. That makes the entire period in the middle the equivalent of the usual “summer vacation”, only with evaluations for the previous semester at the end of it. This makes for a significant gap between classes being completed and exams; a solution that has obvious problems, related to knowledge retention over a long period. Online exams may just be better.
The Impact on Honours
Second years Entering Honours
The summer is an especially important period for second year Honours students. Being their first foray into the world of research, the summer is the time they learn more about their labs, problem statements and fellow students who they’ll collaborate with over the course of their Honours/Dual Degree. While some of this work can be done online through video conferences and emails, the lack of physically being in a lab inhibits effective collaboration and learning.
Summer schools need to go Online
In the summer soon after joining, many labs hold an introductory ‘crash course’ for their new members. This period is usually seen as a sort of initiation for the second year in particular, as they get familiar with both their tools and the lab as a whole. The students are generally expected to acquaint themselves with their lab advisors, project mentors, equipment, protocols, fellow students and even their chosen field. The summer break is crucial for this as students are able to learn the basics of their respective labs while slowly getting used to the ‘research mindset’, completely free of the distractions of coursework. Without this essential incubation period, students are lost without any guidance before the next semester starts once again. Here, especially in the case of lab interactions, online methods fall woefully short of required.
Access to College Resources
A large portion of research work requires compute resources. IIIT provides access to HPCs like Ada and Abacus, along with several lab-specific compute and storage servers to facilitate this. However, none of these systems were built to be accessed remotely. Currently, students wanting to access these have to resort to using the VPN and manually changing the nameserver to resolve domains. However, the VPN wasn’t designed to handle heavy loads resulting in a lot of frustration and wasted time.
Students working on hardware-based projects in labs such as RRC, AARG, etc. may be unable to access the components and tools that are available on campus. Another consideration is the significant amount of space required to work on some of these projects, which may not be available to most. These students will also have additional difficulty in collaborating due to the nature of their research work.
IIIT also has subscriptions to the ACM Digital Library and other digital knowledge bases which could be accessed via the college internet. However, these are currently inaccessible even via the VPN.
Physical attendance at conferences
The issue with attending conferences is twofold:
- In the early stages of the pandemic, the conferences happened to be hosted in regions which were inaccessible, either due to being on lockdown, or requiring a strict quarantine and checkup beforehand, or even a lack of connectivity between locations.
- After the pandemic escalated, the conferences themselves proceeded to be cancelled. (The most ironic instance of this being the cancellation of the conference held to discuss COVID-19 itself)
What is getting lost in an off-campus experience
Finally, an off-campus learning experience takes away several facilities otherwise available to students. Access to a library that has course books, and most importantly a quiet space unlikely to be found at home. Group study is harder – albeit not impossible, given a reliable internet connection. There is also the added disadvantage of no office hours to personally hit up TAs and Professors with doubts, in the moderately likely scenario that they do not respond to email.
How they are affected: Grades
As far as academics are concerned however, students are far more worried about their grades than their online classes – with good reason. Several concerns have been raised about employing a standard grading scheme during such a global outbreak, with several universities abroad moving to a Pass/Fail system of grading to accommodate the students’ new situations.
Concerns with a Standard grading scheme
Unequal Access to the Internet/System Resources
The earlier concerns over unequal access to the internet hold especially true when grading students. Many are unable to reliably stream classes, or play them back once recorded due to poor connectivity. Those in regions with poor or restricted network coverage may have issues studying from online materials as even something like downloading PDFs may be beyond their powers.
Home is not Hostel, and the Issue of ‘unequal living standards’ at homes
A major concern for students, beyond just access, is the home environment. IIIT being residential ensures that students endure similar living conditions. This acts as an equaliser of sorts for students who otherwise come from diverse home environments. The shift to online classes does away with this, with multiple students now having to deal with daily chores, additional responsibilities, or family feuds, whereas others continue with their academics largely unaffected. This along with the lack of spaces to work undisturbed, and the absence of an academic environment makes most houses non-conducive to effective studying.
Alternative Grading Schemes to Explore
So what approaches can IIIT take in this context? These grades will, in time, affect CGPAs and transcripts, which shall subsequently affect future opportunities; considering that this will directly affect the futures of the students, deliberating the route to take with respect to grading is of prime importance.
Among the more popular options across several US Universities has been to implement a “Pass/Fail” grading scheme instead of letter grades. All passing grades – ranging from D to A(+) – get a ‘Pass’, whereas the failing grade remains F.
How does this affect grades – and the transcript?
For the most part, ‘P’ grades do not affect the GPA, whereas ‘F’s still do. Colleges can choose to assume that a pass means a ‘B’ or an ‘A’ in order to add to the GPA, although this has significant ramifications for any student already getting a higher grade in the course.
Institutes differ in their approach to how this affects a student’s transcript, however. While MIT has opted to mark Fails as ‘No Record’ (wiped from the record with a note on the transcript noting the semester was subject to significant disruption), some others have kept it as it is.
How does this affect students?
While many might be delighted with the prospect of a Pass/Fail scheme that takes the pressure of trying to score a good grade, many others will not be as pleased. Take the situation of considering all passing grades as a ‘B’ – almost everyone with a grade higher than that takes a hit to their GPA. Even those with the same grade as that assigned now have nothing to show for their efforts in the class – an argument that can be extended to the universal ‘Pass’ grade as well.
How does this affect Jobs/Internship/Graduate School Interviews
Due to the extraordinary nature of the global outbreak, it is expected that holistic processes would take such into consideration. However, any automated system of resume screening, or anything such, may instantly discard otherwise valid resumes.
The problem is not as pronounced in a universal “Pass/Fail” scheme, but becomes a bit more complicated when considering Pass/Fail Unmasking.
Some universities have chosen to
- Keep the default grading scheme as a pass-fail one, with the option for students to “unmask” their actual letter grade, or
- Keep the default grading scheme – the letter grading – with an opt-in Pass/Fail option
This alleviates some concerns about grades and transcripts, assuming a “P” here has no defined contribution to the final GPA. On an individual student basis as well.
However, this has its concerns when it comes to potential job interviews. Recruiters seeing a ‘P’ grade in this scenario might assume the student performed poorly in the specific subject(s), even if they had genuine issues such as poor connectivity. This implication can be mitigated partially, however, if the student is given the choice of masking/unmasking the grade before they give their final evaluation – the assumption being, they would know whether or not their connectivity may hamper academic performance and act accordingly.
Universal Pass/Universal ‘A’
Some students have raised the demand for a “universal pass” – passing everyone without consideration for their performance in the subject, due to the nature of the situation. Some of the more audacious students have requested they be given Universal ‘A’s, on the other hand.
This does not mean exams are cancelled – although they may as well be. Interestingly, faculty have in specific cases supported this cause. We are concerned however with the potential positives and negatives of such.
… and there’s not much to say there. It’s a Pass/Fail scheme, mostly unchanged, with the added advantage that nobody fails! The disadvantage is that those people who joined the course purely for the sake of grades are now likely to abandon it entirely.
Discarding Minus Grades
A more lenient option IIIT could explore would be to round-up grades, in a sense – discard ‘minus’ grades (A-, B-, etc) and round them up to the grade above. This seems to be a sort of middle ground: students who performed well receive better grades while those who were affected by the situation do not suffer as much for it.
Another way to do this would be to change the grade cutoffs to fill in for the minus grades, splitting it down the middle. This, of course, is unfair to those who would, for example, have previously earned a ‘B-’ but will now earn a ‘C’.
How they are Affected: Exam and Project Evaluations
What happens to the already Examined but not Evaluated?
Evaluations of the components conducted to date have themselves taken a hit. All graded components with handwritten solution sheets that have not been submitted via moodle – mid-sems, quizzes, and several assignments, for example – remain unevaluated due to the TAs not being on campus, and unable to reach due to the lockdown.
Likewise, paper showings are not feasible right now due to similar reasons. Now here, it is possible for TAs that are on campus/professors who live on campus to scan and upload every single sheet, and conduct an MS Teams meeting for the showings, but there are just some minor logistical issues with the whole process there.
Likewise for assignment evaluations that require a manual eval component: such evaluations shall now have to be carried out online, and should, for the most part, be feasible.
Issues with Offline Exams (in this Scenario)
As noted before, there can be a significant gap between classes being completed and exams, if offline exams are to be considered. Many students are not even carrying notes from the first half of the semester. For students living abroad, travelling will incur significant costs and days of quarantine, and doing so just for exams seems unjustified
Issues with Online Exams
As mentioned before, lab exams which involve specialised equipment cannot be conducted.
Students living in the US/UK will have drastically different time-zones. Colleges with significant international populations have tried to handle this by keeping multiple exam slots. However, the logistics of this may prove infeasible for IIIT if the percentage of students significantly affected by this problem is low.
Exams will have to be designed keeping in mind that curtailing students’ access to resources is not viable. It is notable that exams won’t just be open-book, but will also allow students unrestricted access to the internet. This is indeed interesting as it calls for application-based exams relevant to a real-world setting, where these resources are generally at one’s disposal. However, there is the added possibility of collaboration and/or external assistance. If the grading system isn’t Pass/Fail, even if it allows “Unmasking”, students might be motivated to try and exploit the system. In a relative-grading course, this can have natural consequences on the curve, thereby further motivating such practices. This is similar to what is generally seen in assignments.
One solution may be to have a camera perpetually monitoring the students to ensure there is no foul play. However, this is less doable in a country with poor broadband standards – the claim against attendance holds here; if grade drops cannot be given due to poor internet, neither can potentially failing an exam,
An additional solution is making the exam more speed-oriented, something many IIIT exams fall back upon even for offline exams. This disadvantages students who spend extra time finding answers through collaborative means. Our sources at UC Berkeley described a similar evaluation process. In a 75 minute exam, there were 3 parts, each released every 25 minutes. The last 3 minutes were reserved for uploading their video feed and screen recording, and only 22 minutes could be used for solving. The system is said to have worked well for UCB, with no known cases of exploitation.
However, this system assumes the availability of a conducive exam environment which IIIT students need not necessarily have access to. The extra 3 minutes, meant to accommodate students with poor internet connections, might not be enough. Other possible problems include systems crashing and practical problems at students’ homes. A speed based exam like suggested above would heighten these concerns.
For similar reasons other online exams requiring always-online functionality may not work out. There exist systems that allow students to log in at any time, but they must stay logged in and on the same page throughout, and randomly disconnecting or a computer dying would be seen as attempts at dishonesty. Academic honesty needs to be maintained, but must not inconvenience a potentially large section of its students enough that they fail for no fault of their own.
What happens to the grade distribution?
Courses can – and for some, the faculty already have – allocate a greater weightage to other assignments and projects instead of the end of semester exam, if not cancel the end-sem altogether. Some faculty have already announced replacement projects to substitute for exams, while others have hinted at online end-sems. While all the measures appear to make sense for the most part, there are significant concerns:
Poorly designed course projects/courses where projects do not make sense
The downside to replacing all end-sems with projects is visible if you consider a course with no planned project, that might consider adding one now. A new and perhaps hurriedly designed project could be too easy, too hard, or just all out terrible. By extension, we can consider courses where projects – the way we mostly do them – do not make sense. A theory centric course may not benefit as much from project-based evaluation as a systems one.
Changed weightage to completed components of the course
No end-sem, or lower focus on one may mean earlier course components now carry greater weightage. This includes assignments, the mid-sem, and especially the quizzes, that students have been known to take somewhat lightly, hoping to catch up in the end-sem. While not as catastrophic as cancelling all further evaluations (such as done by the Schools of Economics and Management at NMIMS Mumbai), this will have an adverse impact on several students who may have chosen to focus more on the end-sem over the quizzes.
It is worth noting while raising such concerns that one among these alternatives, howsoever unfair they may seem on an absolute scale, have to be taken due to the unexpected circumstances.
As of now, there has been no communication from the Dean (A) as to how the evaluations for the respective BTPs will proceed, beyond a mail informing the participants that measures are being taken to ensure the same. It is beyond both the ability of the authors to speculate on the matter.
Beyond this semester
In times like these, internships have gone from a point of pride to a topic of despair. As more and more students receive cancellation notices, it becomes prudent to see the reality of the situation, and how both interns and institutions can adapt to better benefit all.
Work-from-home Internships are a thing – and seemingly, the only viable option in this economy. This does imply that any sort of internship requiring a physical presence, or for whom value is added by physical presence, is void. International ones shall be the hardest hit in the pandemic, but the effect may extend to those requiring interstate travel, too.
International research internships such as MITACS, ISTernship, etc. have been cancelled. While some Indian internship programs like the Indian Academy of Sciences have announced the suspension of its Summer Research Fellowship, other universities are yet to announce their decisions. It is safe to assume that several of them will follow suit. Internships with individual professors may still take place but these are difficult to generalise. Needless to say, international internships are unlikely to work out.
In most universities, research positions occur in two sessions – Fall and Spring. Currently, it looks increasingly likely that the Fall session will be delayed. Fortunately for the newly accepted, it is expected for their places to be deferred to the next session rather than be voided from the list. On the other hand, for those who were unable to apply, or failed to get accepted, the possibility of having to wait another year seems to be growing with each day.
Industry Internships are getting cancelled. More so in the US, but India may not be too far behind. While more and more companies are looking towards work-from-home options, many are outright cancelling the internships altogether, and one would assume that even in work-from-home situations the company may not have people free – or able to effectively – mentor the interns.
There is also the matter of the AICTE directive asking colleges not to permit students to go for internships (physically). While internship applications in college are only off-campus, some companies still do require No Objection Certificates (NOCs) from the Institute.
The situation for jobs is a little more straightforward. Graduating students who have placed will (most probably) proceed with the offers they were given; as is the case for the rest of their company, they will operate under the lockdown regulations, or have their joining dates pushed up. This may inconvenience graduates who are still looking to give interviews – coronavirus has brought with it a global recession.
Acknowledgements: Insight, IIT Bombay’s article on a similar topic was an inspiration for writing this one
Authors: Shashwat Goel, Zubair Abid, Shelly Jain, Athreya C