The grin on his face is hard to miss. Manas Singh is beaming during the Zoom call. The 22-year-old recently graduated as a computer engineer, with a perfect CGPA of 10 in his final semester.
And, it came easy. The coronavirus outbreak made it easy, for the Mumbai University student and others like him taking examinations online.
Singh was to sit his final semester exam in May. The last semester was crucial but then COVID-19 stuck, upending the college and university exam schedules, putting a question mark on the career plans of hundreds of thousands of students.
The government said exams would only be conducted for college and course-ending examinations, while first, second, and in some cases, third-year students, would be moved to the next class based on internal assessment.
Singh’s cumulative grade point average (CGPA) for seven semesters was 7 out of 10. But, it is the Perfect 10 he is most proud of. “Unlike others, our batch passed with flying colours without any effort... Felt like our college ended in March and not August 2020,” he told Moneycontrol recently.
The score is almost impossible to get but not when the exam is held online. Singh isn't the only one to break the record. His batch has at least a dozen students with Perfect 10. Students who barely managed a CGPA of 6 scored an impressive 9.5+ in the last semester.
Most universities in the country follow a semester system, with the academic year split into two six-month sessions. Examinations are held at the end of each semester.
How are tests conducted online?
Colleges affiliated with Mumbai University have a straightforward format. They use learning management systems (LMS) like Google Classroom, Blackboard, and Moodle for course resources and assignments. Video-calling software like Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, or Zoom is also used. But the test is conducted on Google Forms.
"The link to the form is released on our LMS according to the exam schedule. It consists of only multiple-choice questions and we're given an hour to solve 25 problems, each carrying two marks. Obviously, everyone copy-pastes the question on Google, find the answer and you're done in a minute," Singh told Moneycontrol.
Students are expected to keep Google Meet or other video-conferencing software on so that the invigilator can keep an eye on them remotely. But it does little to curb mischief or deter students from cheating. "On the side, we're also sharing and discussing answers on our WhatsApp group and helping others," Singh said.
While science and technology students have it easy with multiple-choice questions, streams like art, literature and health sciences are hard work.
They too rely on Google Forms but answers are detailed and students can either type in the form or write on a paper and upload pictures.
Sakshi Malvankar graduated in audiology and speech-language pathology from Manipal University this year. Their format was subjective, requiring students to write detailed answers, which were not easy to get online.
"Due to the nature of our course, it isn't easy to get answers online and our college officially called it an open-book test but you can always ask your friends and get through," she told Moneycontrol over the phone.
The viral edge
Several Mumbai University students scored exceptionally high when tests were conducted online. A student joked that he hadn't cleared a single semester without failing at least one subject. The online examination snapped the “losing streak".
Final year students got the "online" benefit for one semester or two, their juniors are luckier. The May-June exams were given a miss and they were promoted on internal assessment. Everyone scored higher than usual. The December-January semester examination are on and are being held online.
The students who will pass out in 2021 and 2022 will have the “benefit” of clearing one semester on internal assessment and the second through an online exam. For a three-year course, a third of marks will be not be based on standard testing, while for four-year courses like engineering it will one-fourth.
This gives an undue advantage to these students as scores have seen a sharp increase.
But the new pattern is also putting a lot of students at a disadvantage. Vocational courses require a hands-on approach and for students of these courses, high scores are little consolation.
There were nor practicals or events; documentaries cannot be replicated online, said Saaransh Chaudhary, a student of Bachelor of Journalism and Mass Communication at JIMS college in New Delhi.
The third-year student complained that exams were conducted in a haste and teachers were only going through the motions to complete the syllabus. “There’s no effort being made to ensure online courses cover even a small portion of what we’re missing out on. In the end, we’ll be graduates without any real-world experience,” said the 21-year-old.
The college didn’t respond to Moneycontrol’s email on queries about online teaching and examination.
Teachers, too, admit that online exams are not foolproof. "We knew that this is going to happen. Online exams are a shortcut and there's no way we can expect students to keep ethics or morals in mind. Who wouldn't want a perfect score? It's the ideal time to boost your degree CGPA," a teacher at a Mumbai University engineering college said on condition of anonymity.
It wasn’t that the online system was flawed or inaccurate, the teacher said. Internationally accepted tests like IELTS, TOEFL and even GMAT were done online but with a superior infrastructure that blocked the browser tab, disallowing internet search or any other program during the test duration.
"They even have AI-monitored webcams that continuously analyse students’ behaviour to weed out malpractices," the teacher said. "Our universities neither have the know-how nor the money to invest in these tools."
Universities have struggled to make the shift. Information technology was never high on the priority list, not until the coronavirus struck. Mumbai University is just one of the many examples.
Even before the outbreak, results were released in a 2,000-page PDF and not on a website. The last time Mumbai University tried to move its backend online, results were delayed by almost three months.
“Until 2019, the pass percentages ranged from 60-70 percent for most courses. There has been a significant spike in the performance of students in 2020,” Mumbai University spokesperson Vinod Malale said. He didn’t share the exact figures but some teachers confirmed that that the spike was in the 25-30 percent range.
The university has made some tweaks for the ongoing semester exams. Instead of all multiple choice-based questions, half of the paper is now descriptive that requires students to write down the answers, scan, and upload the PDFs of the answersheets.
Recruiters acknowledge that the grading mechanism isn't reliable right now but they aren’t too worried. India never had a standard system and industries always found a middle ground, they say.
"How do you differentiate between a student from ICSE, CBSE and a state board? They've all had different syllabus and backgrounds. Yet, we've found a way to amalgamate them for a degree course. A similar approach is applicable here as well," an executive at a recruitment company said, requesting not to be identified.
Headhunters are aware of the situation students are facing and are trying to accommodate everyone.
Marks were essential for admission not work, the executive said. “We look at not just marks but also extracurricular activities, internships, projects, research papers, and the overall aptitude. While most of the options in the list aren't viable right now, online courses have proven to be a good fallback mechanism" the executive said.
(Names of students have been changed to protect their identity)(The author writes on technology, aviation, and mobility.)