Not all changes are engineered. Some are unplanned and abrupt. The pandemic has triggered unexpected actions resulting in normalising events hitherto considered implausible. One such new normality is witnessed in the education sector, more specifically in the higher education sector, where a tectonic shift has taken place. What initially started off as a stop-gap virtual teaching arrangement continued for almost an academic year to finally complement the teaching-learning process with virtual evaluation of student learning outcomes.

That the online method of teaching and learning, including evaluation, will henceforth become an inevitable part of the system is a no-brainer. But what piques the interest of the stakeholders is how the online evaluation method has panned out and the upside and downside attached to it. This is an attempt to piece together the cost and benefits associated with conducting online evaluations based on the recent experience, at a generalised aggregated level and decipher the net outcomes of online evaluations. The analysis encompasses the three principal stakeholders: institutions, teachers, and students.

The responsibility to continue with their educational services propelled the higher education administrators and institutions to find ways to conduct online examinations to gauge the learning outcomes of students. The preceding online teaching phase did certainly help institutions, besides the other two prime parties–teachers and students—at least in terms of removing any misgivings about the practicality of moving wholly towards technology for assessments. The nature of online evaluations differed based on the nature of the institutions. Autonomous institutions like universities and autonomous colleges undertook their evaluations in a similar fashion, in contrast to the non-autonomous colleges, who followed the systems developed by their affiliating universities.

For universities and autonomous colleges, conducting online examinations has cut down the paperwork. Institutions have also saved on answer paper procurement cost. In some cases, setting of question papers by external members, moderation, printing, distribution of question papers to various colleges/ units have been done away with. In terms of evaluation charges, institutions also have saved on Travelling Allowance that is paid to external evaluators who commute to evaluation centres. Non-autonomous institutions benefitted by not having to organise examinations physically, which otherwise they would have. Financially, institutions seem to have trimmed expenditure, while retaining the usual receipts from examination fees, resulting in a net increase in revenue, which is a welcome happening, especially for resource-starved government institutions. As of now, storing evaluated scripts online is not costing much, but it may become pricey if the online mechanism is adopted regularly.

Teachers went about question paper setting, moderation, and evaluation of answer scripts in almost the same way as they had in the past, except that this time it was done virtually. Further, most teachers also had the benefit of evaluating from the comforts of their homes and at a convenient time, which was not possible during evaluating answer scripts physically in designated evaluation centres at a stipulated time frame. 

Online evaluations have not additionally cost institutions or teachers monetarily, compared to in-person examinations and evaluations. The workload also does not seem to have increased.

Students seem to have developed some liking for online exams due to reduced time durations of examinations in some cases, availability of more time for preparation as time spent on commuting to the examination centres is not required. Further, the pattern of questions, at least for mid-term or internal evaluation was more objective than theoretical, compared to offline, making it easier for students to answer. To help students, who had technical issues like poor internet connectivity, additional time was offered to students to upload their answer scripts. This extra time was used by the students for not just uploading answer scripts, but also to keep writing answers over and above the usual stipulated time. Hence, practically, students had more time in online mode than the conventional in-person mode. One irritant to the students, though, was that in some cases they had to buy papers for answering questions, which, in the offline mode, was supplied to them out of the examination fees paid by them.

Though the online evaluation has many benefits attached to it, the biggest drawback is the quality of the assessment of learning outcomes in the online examinations. 

The conventional in-person examinations ensured student learning outcomes are genuinely assessed compared to the online examinations, due to physical supervision of students during the examinations. Though some institutions took pains and conducted proctored online examinations, those cases were few and far between. Even those online proctoring mechanisms adopted had few loopholes, which were skilfully and ingeniously exploited by some young minds to their undue benefits. Many believe that online student performance did not reflect their understanding of the concepts and consequently the learning outcomes, as they had scope for malpractices for answering in the online mode. Further, many institutions, including the affiliated colleges, junked the usual third-party or external evaluation of answer scripts and went for in-house paper corrections. This opened the scope for mark or grade inflation as internal evaluation sometimes paves way for favouritism towards their own students for obvious reasons. While the less learned students got more marks than they did merit, the learned ones got a raw deal as their efforts did not get the real deserving recognition, which was the norm in the offline mode. 

What the higher education sector has achieved via the online mode in the last one year is incredible, given the almost insurmountable challenges thrown by the pandemic. The administrators, teachers, institutions, and students deserve kudos for the accomplishment. The online system is still shaky but is here to stay. It, therefore, needs to be pruned of the quality issues to stand the test of time. The way forward is to ensure quality and use the online mode wherever appropriate. One important prerequisite to improving online evaluations is to begin with improving the online teaching-learning process, which is the subject for the next piece.

Image Courtesy: DNA India

Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.

Dr M Saravanan
Dr M Saravanan
M.Saravanan has worked in public policy for over 12 years, focusing predominantly on higher education. Currently, he works as Deputy Registrar & Chief Finance Officer, Anurag University, Hyderabad. He has offered consultancy services to the Union and State governments, private organisations and educational institutions. He has a Ph.D. in development economics from the University of Madras. His areas of interest cover higher education, school education, skill development and economics. He had been a part of the editorial team of a journal and has published opinion pieces for Deccan Herald and Business Line.

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