Srinagar: At 10:45 am on Tuesday, 18-year-old Ahmed left his home to catch up with his friends in a nearby park outside his home here in Jawahar Nagar.
He wasn’t meeting his buddies for a game of cricket or casual chitchat. Neither was the bunch planning any picnic.
Instead, they all were meeting to write (read tap) their Class 12 Term-I exams on their smartphones.
Ahmed’s family was happy that he was finally “going to school”. The teen had been home for almost a year since August 2019 when the government enforced a complete lockdown after abrogating Article 370.
By 12:15 pm, however, Ahmed was back home, happily announcing that he had secured 34 marks out of 40 in his English paper.
His family, especially Nasir, his Uncle who helps him with his studies, was baffled.
“I was confused. I mean he came back in an hour, didn’t have a pen or a book in his hand and said he had attended the exams and even cleared it,” said Nasir, shaking his head disapprovingly.
To be sure, Ahmed wasn’t joking, Nasir checked his phone records especially the official WhatsApp group of his school Government Higher Secondary Institute, Jawahar Nagar.
It was indeed true.
Among the latest messages was one received at 11:41 am.
It was an attachment listing the result of 308 students who had attended the ‘examination’ 11 minutes ago.
Ahmed’s name and marks too were in it.
The group was now exchanging messages of who scored how many while their teachers were congratulating them.
As for the paper, it consisted of 20 multiple-choice questions on an open-book pattern. Students had to click on a Google docs link to access and fill it.
Most of them took 15 to 20 minutes to submit the online paper. The exam schedule as per the date sheet shared with the students by the school was between 11:00 to 11:25 am.
Nasir asked Ahmed if the exam was on an open-book pattern and he had access to a smartphone, why didn’t he manage to correctly answer all the questions.
“He told me he had to make it look real given his past academic records in which he has never scored beyond 60 percent,” said Nasir, smiling but still shaking his head in surprise.
“I was dumbfounded, lost for words. I mean I remember when I was in class 12, we used to be so nervous of exams and results. It used to be a big deal but this is really a joke in the name of education,” he said.
Ahmed is supposed to attend three more papers –Political Science (June 27), Sociology (July 02) and Education (July 4) – in similar fashion to pass the Term I exams.
Ahmed’s school is not an isolated case.
Amid a raging pandemic, the entire academic system in Kashmir is limping on digital tools like WhatsApp, Google Docs, and Zoom video conferencing application to pass off a façade in the form of digital education.
The entire examination system, right from kindergarten level to students pursuing degree courses in Engineering, are ‘writing exams’ on, more or less, similar pattern.
While the entire world closed down due to COVID-19 in March, Kashmir had already witnessed months of lockdown since August last year.
The teaching-learning process was abruptly shifted to online throughout the world.
However, Kashmir had to face a double challenge here too as high-speed internet was suspended in J&K since August and continues to remain so.
With zero classwork for months now, the students say they have not understood key concepts in their courses and find the exercise of online assessments “frivolous”.
“As friends, we laughed among each other while we were attending the exam. It seemed a child’s play,” said Ahmed.
His friend, who did not want to be named, said he hadn’t studied much at home knowing that he had to “write the exam on my phone.”
“We have hardly attended any of the online Zoom classes just because we don’t understand anything taught through it. Half of the time, we don’t know whether it is the teacher or the students talking on it,” he said.
Experts in Kashmir are concerned over how the world-wide-web based approach will have a negative impact on the overall teaching-learning process.
Sidiq Wahid, a Srinagar based Professor and former Vice-Chancellor of Islamic University of Science and Technology (IUST) said that online classes can only be a kind of supplementary to the education of the students but it cannot be an alternative to classroom teaching.
“I don’t see any benefits of online teaching in the current environment,” Wahid told The Kashmir Monitor.
According to him, such a system can have “negative impact” on the students because online teaching does not give them a chance to interact with each other and with their teachers.
“We don’t know to what extent every student has access to the internet and even if they have, low-speed 2G makes it worse,” he said.
Bashir Ahmad Dar, a valley-based educationist, said that online classes “will not help students in any way”.
“This is just to keep students in touch with their studies so that they will not completely get detached from their lessons,” he said.
“Online classes have a lot of limitations. Every dimension of a child’s growth has been affected, be it physical, emotional, or cognitive dimension. Every basic experience, routine life activities, and social interaction are compromised in online learning. This can’t be the alternative to the proper schooling,” he said.
As per Dar, it was high time that authorities adopted some strict measures for opening schools.
“Kashmir students have not seen schools since August 2019 due to which they have developed inertia. They have lost interest in schools and studies,” he stressed.
He added that teenage students, when given free access to smartphones, can accidentally or sometimes intentionally land into pornography which will prove disastrous for them.
According to a recent research titled ‘Impact of 2019-2020 coronavirus pandemic on education’ published in International Journal of Health Preference Research (IJHPR), school closure has negatively impacted students’ learning outcomes.
“Schools are hubs of social activity and human interaction. When schools are closed, many children and youth miss out on social contact that is essential to learning and development,” the study says.
Professor Nighat Basu, who teaches in the Department of Education at the Central University of Kashmir too said that online education will have an adverse impact on students.
“Most of the students do not show up in online classes, either due to the lack of gadgets, internet or loss of interest. In an online class, we don’t know whether students are really listening to us or they have switched to something else because we don’t have an eye to eye contact,” she said.
Dr Aftab Rather, who teaches sociology at GDC Shopian said that shifting towards the online mode can have countless negative impacts.
“Students could be exposed to internet obsession, development of virtual identities, besides suicidal tendencies, cybercrimes will be more rampant among teens, personality disorder, health issues especially insomnia and our children will be detached from their families,” he said.