Impact on students

Students in limbo

Print edition : May 08, 2020

A teacher takes an online class in Ahmedabad during the lockdown. Photo: AMIT DAVE/REUTERS

Prof C.B. Sharma, Chairman NIOS. Photo: By Special Arrangement

High school students on the threshold of their careers stare at an uncertain future because board exams and the entrance exams for various professional and other courses have been postponed indefinitely.

Ever since the COVID-19 outbreak, much has been written about the plight of daily-wage workers, migrant labourers or those employed in medium or small-scale enterprises, but nothing about the plight of lakhs of school students who are on the threshold of joining various professional colleges after finishing school. And these are impressionable young minds, easily distractable, prone to anxiety pangs, especially when they start preparing for their careers, sometimes as early as in Class VII or VIII. Today, they find themselves staring at an uncertain future, not knowing when their derailed career plans will get back on track.

Over 31 lakh students taking the Class X and XII board examinations conducted by the CBSE have got stuck midway because of the pandemic. Another 2.5 lakh students of who take the exams conducted by the Council for Indian School Certificate Examination (CISCE) find themselves in a similar predicament. In addition, over 15 lakh students who were to appear for their Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) Advanced test and another 14 lakh who were to appear for the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) for admission to medical colleges across India suddenly find themselves grounded. Lakhs of students who take the school board exams conducted by the State education boards are in the same boat.

North East Delhi, too, which witnessed riots in the last week of February, students could not appear for their board exams. The CBSE had announced that these exams would be held after the regular board exams are over. But now, their exams are also indefinitely delayed.

The plight of these youngsters is unimaginable: holed up inside their homes, they have no outlet for their frustrations. “My son has retreated into a shell, does not eat properly or pay attention to what I tell him. He becomes easily irritable and snaps at people without provocation. I have no idea how to deal with this,” lamented the mother of a 17-year-old who still has to complete four papers of Class XII CBSE and was to appear for his JEE Mains. With everything on hold, this teenager has lost interest in everything. And this correspondent came across similar complaints from many parents whose children’s academic plans have gone awry.

A senior official of the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) told this correspondent that even if the board examinations get over by the second week of May, evaluation and tabulation of the results will take another three to four weeks. The admission process for professional courses will take another three months, so the new academic session can only begin in September. And this is the best case scenario. “The MHRD will revise the academic calendar for schools, colleges and professional institutions as soon as we have a clear idea. But, frankly speaking, we don’t know ourselves,” said this official. According to him, the Prime Minister has been discussing this with heads of educational institutions and bodies like the CBSE, the University Grants Commission (UGC), the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), the National Council of Educational, Research and Training (NCERT) and the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC). “But no clear picture has emerged so far,” he said. Another round of high-level meetings with the Prime Minister is slated to take place on April 17.

Academic activity went into a tailspin on March 19, when the Prime Minister gave the call for Janata Curfew followed by the nationwide lockdown. Since all schools, colleges and universities were shut down, all school boards and universities postponed their exams and entrance exams like the JEE, NEET, the Common Law Admission Test (CLAT), the Bar Council exam and the entrance exams for business schools. The Services Selection Board (SSB), which recruits personnel for the Army, Navy and Indian Airforce, postponed its course which was to start from March 20.

Students who were about to complete their professional education and had placement offers through campus recruitment have been the worst hit because their job offers are now stuck in limbo. “The MHRD has been talking to various industry leaders, advising them that they should honour the placement offers whenever the situation normalises, but that is easier said than done. By the time the lockdown is lifted and normal business activity resumes, who knows what the state of the industries will be?” says a senior member of the MHRD monitoring committee, which is trying to figure out a solution. HRD Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank had recently urged companies to not cancel job offers to graduates from IITs. “But that is just his wish,” says an officer who was part of the deliberations.

The only saving grace in these grim circumstances is that the country is ready to take the entire gamut of school, college and professional education online, “from KG to PG” as a senior official put it. This means classroom learning, at all levels, can be shifted online immediately. This has been possible mainly because distance learning in India has quietly been part of the mainstream for quite sometime. The National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS), in collaboration with the CBSE and the NCERT, has been working on projects to make academic content available to learners across India through the digital medium or through the direct to home (DTH) mode.

The CBSE has developed a portal called DIKSHA through which lessons in various Indian languages are posted online for both students and teachers. Students can register on the portal for free and access content in their own language. Similalry, the NIOS has developed content for secondary and senior secondary classes on the Swayam portal of the MHRD Ministry ( www.swayam.gov.in/nios). Through this portal, students can study the course of their choice, watch related videos and take an online test. The portal will also have a coordinating teacher to answer students’ queries.

Online learning platforms

Four DTH TV channels on the SwayamPrabha bouquet of channels is yet another intiative of the NIOS. Channel 27, Panini, is dedicated to secondary classes, channel 28, Sharda, is dedicated to senior secondary classes, channel 30, Gyanamrit, is dedicated to sign language while channel 32, Vagda, is dedicated to live, interactive sessions. “The Information & Broadcasting Minister has recently directed all private service providers to make these channels available on their platforms too. Any student, sitting anywhere in India, can now learn through these channels and also ask questions through the live, interactive channel,” says Prof C.B. Sharma, Chairman of NIOS.

Talking to Frontline, Sharma says all this digital content has been available for sometime but people did not know about it. “You hear about learning platforms like Byjus and Unacademy. We have been around for far longer but, unfortunately, we did not advertise ourselves. This lockdown has given us the opportunity to reach crores of school and college students and we should make the best of it.” According to him, school teachers and principals, who were haphazardly trying to create online learning material should avoid doing that because they do not have the proper training. “Instead, they should access the content already available on these portals as this has been created by experts who have the requisite skills. Parents and teachers/principals should instead try to provide counselling and remedial lessons to children,” he says.

The need of the hour, says Sharma, is to immediately create a task force which can devise ways to take online learning to every nook and corner of India, make use of community radio and FM channels and popularise learning through other digital mediums like YouTube.

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