Making Online Education Accessible and Inclusive in the Time of COVID-19 Pandemic

IDIA

This report was authored by a team from IDIA Charitable Trust (IDIA). The team consisted of IDIA’s Directors, Svetlana Correya and Swati Agrawal, and law students, Shreyas Alevoor (National Law University Odisha) and Puja Raghavan, (Campus Law Centre, University of Delhi) who were interning at IDIA. A special note of thanks is extended to IDIA Directors and student volunteers for their help in administering the survey in law schools across the country.

I.            Introduction

In light of COVID-19, most of the law colleges and universities have started online classes for students as the primary method of instruction. Further, many of them have also started or proposed evaluation of students for various courses during this time using online mediums.

It is extremely important that these classes are inclusive and accessible to students across region, class, ability etcetera. COVID-19 has left students and others baffled and under a significant amount of stressors. In view of the same, it is important that the online modes of instruction and evaluation do not cause further problems for the students. In the spirit of inclusive and accessible education for all students, law colleges and universities can take various steps to ensure that no student is left behind.

IDIA Charitable Trust (IDIA) conducted a survey among law students regarding the online classes and evaluation being conducted in their respective colleges. We received over 880 responses. Based on the same, this report looks at various problems faced by the students and offers some easy steps and solutions for law colleges and universities to adopt. These are in line with making legal education inclusive, diverse and accessible.

IDIA (Increasing Diversity by Increasing Access to Legal Education) Charitable Trust is a pan India project that seeks to empower underprivileged and marginalized communities by creating lawyers and community leaders from within such communities. It does this by sensitising about as a viable career option, selecting those with an aptitude for the study of law, and then rigorously training them to enter the best law schools in the country. Once they are admitted to top law colleges, it provides a scholarship to these students (IDIA Scholars) that comprises financial support, training and mentorship among other things.

II.          Research Methodology

The survey was conducted through two Google Form questionnaires released on 20 August 2020 and filled by 22 August 2020. The first questionnaire (“Form-I”) was sent to the Team Leaders (“TL”) of IDIA Chapters across 18 law schools[1], and consisted of general questions on policies developed by the respective law schools with regard to the conduct of online classes, attendance, and the chosen mode of evaluation. The second questionnaire (“Form-II”) was shared by the TL of the IDIA Chapter at the law school amongst the student bodies. Form-II consisted of questions on specific issues faced by every individual student and asked for their concerns and suggestions with regard to the issues faced by them. We received over 880 responses to Form-II.

Disclaimer: The information provided by the students in the present survey has not been independently verified by us. When analysing the survey data, one should assume a certain margin of error to account for misreporting (whether deliberate or unintentional) by the students.

III.       General Information

In this section, we list out general information about the conduct of online classes in their respective colleges as provided by the students in response to Form-I.

a. Nearly 78% of the colleges use Google Meet and Cisco Webex as the platforms for conducting online classes. 2 colleges use Microsoft Teams.

b. According to the students, only 58.8% of the colleges allowed a call-in option (as reported by the students). A call-in option allows students to connect to the audio portion of a meeting without an internet connection.

c. Most colleges conduct 4-5 classes daily with the duration of classes in most colleges being around 45 minutes to 1 hour per class. In one of the colleges surveyed, the duration of class was 2 hours, though the total number of classes was less than 3 a day.

d. While the majority of the colleges are conducting tutorial sessions, most of the responses by students reported that the frequency of these sessions is very low.

e. There is still no information by many of the universities on important topics like minimum attendance requirements for online classes, mode of evaluation and the fee structure along with policies to help those students who are unable to pay the fees.

IV.        Problems faced by Students

In this section, we have largely analysed the responses of students to our questionnaire in Form – II, which consisted of questions specific to the issues and concerns faced by students with regard to online education. The responses drawn in this section provide qualitative and quantitative insights into the demography of the consumers of online education at our nation’s premier law schools:

a. Over 35% of the students were situated in a rural, or semi-urban area, out of which, 13% had access to electricity for less than 12 hours a day.

b. When asked to rate the stability of internet signals at their current location (on a scale of 1-5, 5 being “very stable”), 14% of the respondents rated the stability of their internet connection to be 2 or less. 61% of these respondents were situated in a rural or semi-urban area. It must be noted that only 15% of rural households in India have access to internet services.[2]

c. 42% of the respondents reported that they had to share their internet devices ‘almost all the time’ and ‘sometimes’ with their family members.

d. 22% of the students surveyed reported using only their smartphones for the purpose of attending classes. It must be noted that some of the video-conferencing applications are not compatible with smartphones, or offer only limited functions as compared to the desktop versions of the same.

A. Internet Infrastructure and Access

Access to a stable internet connection is the most important prerequisite for attending online classes conducted via audio/video portals that extend over 4-5 hours per day on an average.

More than one-third of those surveyed reported their internet signal stability to be 3 or less on a scale of 5. Unfortunately, students living in semi-urban, rural and remote parts of the country often face connectivity issues due to poor cellular coverage to attend online classes that are streamed live. Often, a limited data package of 1 or 2 GB per day is not sufficient to attend online classes for all the subjects every day. More than half of the respondents reported having less than 2 GB data available per day. Approximately 45% of the respondents with a daily data availability of less than 1.5 GB per day reported having to share their internet data packages and/or devices with other members of the household. Not surprisingly, more than half of the students surveyed claimed ‘Weak internet connection’ as a problematic aspect of online education.

Students who earlier had access to computers at the library or computer labs of law schools find themselves without a device to attend online classes. Smartphones are unable to take on the load of every day online lectures, assignments and project submissions. Old laptops and smartphones that need repair leave the students without a backup device to attend classes. Students from weaker financial backgrounds are particularly vulnerable to miss online classes due to problems with the devices.

Lack of stable electricity connection is another barrier. Electricity and the internet are barriers especially for those who are living in regions affected by floods or other calamities.

B. Academic Affairs: Conducting Classes, Study Materials and Modes of Evaluation

       1. Mode of Instruction and Tutorial Sessions

Over 40% of the students surveyed mentioned a lack of personal attention and doubt-clearance sessions as a disadvantage of online learning. This is concerning as interactions with subject teachers for exchanging ideas forms an important part of one’s education. This support from teaching faculty is especially needed for students who do not have a stable internet connection to attend complete live classes.

       2. Accessing Study Materials

Some students responded that teachers do not share readings regularly. This situation is exacerbated by the nation-wide imposed lockdown that prevents students from purchasing hard copies of their study materials. Before the lockdown, law students relied heavily on course packs, which are essentially xeroxed copies of textbooks and commentaries.[3] It must also be noted that most law books, commentaries and guides are extremely expensive and rare to come by, and are therefore beyond the means of the vast majority of the law student population. For students with visual impairment, the situation is even more dire as they might not have access to help needed for going through the reading materials. The reading materials should be provided in a format that is accessible for screen reading softwares. Even though universities provide remote access to legal and social sciences research databases, 40% of the respondents claimed that accessing these databases through remote access/ IP Login was a major challenge.

      3. Modes of Evaluation

As on the date of the survey, only 6 out of the 18 law schools surveyed had announced their mode of evaluation for the ongoing semester. Keeping in view the current situation, some of these universities have opted for open-book examinations, conducted across a staggered timeline. Some of the universities have opted to retain marks for attendance. Some have prescribed strict time-limits for completing and submitting the answer scripts. Considering that a significant number of students have very limited access to stable internet and electricity supply, it is suggested that universities, for the purposes of evaluation in the present semester, drop marks for attendance and fix liberal timelines for the submission of assignments and projects.

In a recent matter[4] before the Karnataka High Court, a Division Bench observed that in case a student is not able to take an online exam owing to disruption in electricity supply or other genuine reasons, the respondent university may consider such case and permit the affected student to appear in the examination if it was missed. The court also observed that the students who miss the examination conducted online should be permitted to attend classes in the next semester. Further, students who wish to improve their performance in an online exam may be permitted to do so by the respondent university.

C. Accessibility and Persons with Disabilities

A large number of students with disabilities surveyed have said that the study materials shared by the faculty are not in an accessible format. Online lectures exclusively in video format or in audio format leaves out students with visual and hearing disabilities respectively from participating in online classes. Images cannot be picked up by screen reading softwares, hence it is important that all images be accompanied by ‘alt descriptions’ to describe the appearance of the image. ‘Screen sharing’ is an important feature of online learning platforms that are regularly used by teachers to discuss relevant reading materials. Students with disabilities find it difficult to follow the reading material being discussed if the relevant page numbers, paragraph numbers are not read out by the teacher while sharing the said document on the screen. Sharing of screen is not an accessible method of teaching as it leaves behind students with visual impairment. Many online platforms provide for a virtual whiteboard which is not screen reader accessible. Anybody using a virtual whiteboard should ensure that the contents written on it are read out loud or typed out in a readable format for the benefit of students with disabilities. Students with disabilities often miss out on information that is shared on chat boxes of virtual learning platforms.

D. Financial Constraints

Most NLUs and leading private law schools charge upwards of Rs. 1.5 lakhs every year by way of fees. The nation-wide lockdown due to the pandemic, the subsequent job losses, unemployment, and a near-complete shut down of many of the business activities have resulted in constrained finances in several households.[5] On the date of the conclusion of the survey, only 10 out of the 18 law schools surveyed had reduced their annual fees. Recently, matters have been filed in different High Courts to resolve the distress students face as they continue to pay the semester fees for services not utilised.[6] and only 5 law schools had instituted support programmes and alternate payment options for students unable to pay their fees.

E. Physical and Mental Health Issues

Over 10% of the respondents reported to be suffering from physical health issues which might prevent them from attending classes, and close to one-third of the surveyed students reported to be suffering from mental health issues. The pandemic has aggravated the deteriorating mental health conditions in the country.[7] Experts have opined that “the lockdown has increased the already prevalent risks related to mental illness, financial insecurity and work stress, and has added new ones like loss of control, depletion of social networks, job uncertainty, abuse and social isolation.”[8]

Some students claimed that the long hours of classes were exhausting and took a toll on their physical and mental health. Many universities conduct 4 or more classes a day, and several students complained of strain in the eyes from sitting before the screen for hours. Migraine headaches were another reported concern.

Some of the law schools surveyed have set minimum attendance requirements, in addition to strictly adhering to timelines for submission of projects and assignments, with no extensions provided under any circumstances. Over 30% of the respondents marked ‘Preparing assignments and projects’ as a major concern with online education. Stress and anxiety as a result of deadlines, are therefore among the commonly reported mental health issues.

F. Conducive Home Environments

A conducive environment for learning, free from distractions is a major prerequisite for education. The fact that over 40% of the respondents reported the ‘lack of a conducive learning environment at home’ as a major barrier to them attending online classes is of no surprise, considering that 37% of the households in India have only one dwelling room.[9] Even then, a toxic environment at home can hinder students from availing the benefits of online education.[10] It is therefore important that universities take this factor into account while taking any policy decision, especially those relating to modes of evaluation to reduce the stress and anxiety of students in these uncertain times.

V.         Suggestions for Reforms and Best Practices

Having identified the problems faced by students in the above section, we list below some implementable solutions on the following issues.

A. Overcoming lack of infrastructure:

Proper internet connectivity, adequate electricity supply and well-functioning laptops and smart phones are essential tools that students must possess in order to attend online classes. Students from underprivileged backgrounds may not have the means to keep their devices up to date and in impeccable condition due to financial distress and geographically remote locations that do not provide services for their upkeep. In order to assist students facing the above-mentioned difficulties, we suggest the following –

a. Topic wise reading material and teaching plan should be provided to students in addition to and well in advance before the scheduled online class on a regular basis.

b. Technical support staff of the college to set up helpdesk for students for troubleshooting problems that may arise in the working of laptops and smartphones.

c. Where the devices are beyond repair and the student is unable to purchase a new device due to her financial situation, the college could consider setting up a laptop bank to loan functional laptops to students for the period during which classes shall be held online.

 B. Modes of Instruction:

Considering the deep digital divide,[11] it is important that universities develop policies which ensure that no student is excluded for the want of a stable internet/ electricity connection. The following suggestions can be incorporated towards this end –

a. Recording classes and uploading them to be viewed at convenience, using video-conferencing systems which consume less data and have a ‘call-in’ option inbuilt. The call-in option on video-conferencing apps connect to the audio portion of a meeting without an internet connection.

b. One-on-one tutorials and doubt-clearing sessions should be conducted at regular intervals, preferably on a weekly basis. The professors should be encouraged to maintain their office hours during which students can seek one-on-one guidance.

c. Recording lectures and tutorial sessions and storing them on a cloud server can help students access these at convenience depending upon the availability of proper internet connection.

d. For the benefit of students living in remote locations with no internet connectivity nearby or in areas with frequent internet shutdowns, the university may consider uploading recorded lectures and reading material on pen drives and mailing them through a courier service.[12] IDIA would be happy to help the universities in doing the same.

C. Assessment Methods

As noted in the previous section, most universities have not announced their mode of assessment for the ongoing semester. Some universities have opted for time-bound online examinations as a mode of evaluation, which puts students without internet access at a disadvantage. We suggest that:

a. Short examinations with lower weightage could be conducted at regular intervals to ensure retention of the material taught. This will ease the burden of having to attempt a single deciding exam covering the bulk of the curriculum. .

b. Sufficient time should be given to upload the responses so that students with internet issues at home can also respond.

c. Considering the exceptional circumstances, no student must be unduly disadvantaged. Ample opportunities should be provided to students to clear the examination if they were unable to do so in their first attempt.

d. Most universities typically require students to write research papers as a part of their projects. However, it is suggested that considering the difficulty in accessing online resources, projects shift their focus from external research oriented submissions to application based submissions, involving the application of what has been already taught in the class.

e. Universities could also consider adopting alternate modes of evaluation such as take home assignments and projects instead of time bound, online examinations and quizzes for students located in remote locations without stable internet connection.

f. Sufficient extension of time without penalties should be given for submission of projects, assignment and examinations considering the extraordinary circumstances.

 D. Duration of Classes and Attendance Requirements

Keeping in mind the domestic responsibilities, and the physical strain faced by students, it is suggested that not more than 4 classes of 1 hour each be conducted every day, with ample time for breaks between classes.

Considering the exceptional circumstances, universities may appeal to the Bar Council of India to relax the minimum attendance requirement, or completely do away with it till the time there is a change in the material circumstances. Universities may drop the attendance marks component for the current semester.

E. Accessible Reading Materials

a. Faculties should share classroom readings with the students at regular intervals. The readings shared should be in an accessible format, and readable by screen reading software for the benefit of students with visual impairment. Page numbers and paragraph numbers should be read out loud while sharing a document on screen. All information put on a white board should be read out loud so that it can be followed by students with visual impairment.

b. As far as possible students should be encouraged to use the microphone if they have queries during an online lecture; where queries are typed out in the chat box the same should be read out loud so that students with visual impairment do not miss out on the relevant information.

c. Universities should collaborate with other Central and State universities in the state with regard to inter-library loans, and offer remote access to research databases to students if they do not do so already. They could also promote and educate students on the use of open access research resources.

F. Fees for the current semester

Since classes have shifted online, and students are not residing on the university campus anymore, it is suggested that:

a. Universities consider reducing their fees proportionate to the facilities not used. This could mean doing away with the fees charged under heads such as infrastructure, estate maintenance, electricity, and sports facilities.

b. A minimum fee could be charged to cover the salaries of the support and maintenance staff.

c. Fees should be charged on an instalment basis instead of collecting a lump sum amount, especially for those who need such relaxation.

d. In the event that an individual student is unable to pay, the university should consider it in a sympathetic light and provide reasonable extensions to ensure that the student is not overly burdened.

e. Universities should implement the Bar Council of India’s circular on the collection of fees and letter and spirit. In a circular issued to law schools, the Bar Council of India has advised law schools to be “compassionate and considerate to the hardships of the students in the light of the pandemic,” and devise alternate schemes for the payment of fees with staggered deadlines. It has also suggested that fees be proportionately reduced and consider individual cases of hardship from students in a sympathetic light.[13]

Where required, universities should consider providing facilities for interest free loans in order to pay the current semester fees.

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[1] The following law schools were surveyed: NUJS-Kolkata, HNLU- Raipur, HPNLU-Shimla, NUALS-Kochi, RGNUL-Patiala, MNLU-Nagpur, NLIU-Bhopal, NLU-Delhi, NLU-Odisha, NLU-Jodhpur, GNLU-Gandhinagar, NALSAR-Hyderabad, NUSRL-Ranchi, MNLU-Mumbai, NLUJAA-Assam, GLC-Mumbai, Nirma University’s Institute of Law-Ahmedabad, and SVKM’s Kirit P. Mehta School of Law-Mumbai.

[2] Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, Government of India, Key Indicators of Household Social Consumption on Education in India | NSS 75th Round, <http://mospi.nic.in/sites/default/files/publication_reports/KI_Education_75th_Final.pdf> accessed 27 August 2020.

[3] Incidentally, IDIA’s Founder, Late Prof. (Dr.) Shamnad Basheer was a part of the defence team in the landmark D.U. Photocopy Shop case, where a Division Bench of the Delhi High Court ruled that the preparation of ‘course packs’ i.e. compilation of photocopies of the relevant portions of books prescribed in the syllabus, and their distribution to the students by educational institutions does not constitute infringement of copyright in those books under the Copyright Act, 1957, as long as the inclusion of the works photocopied, irrespective of the quantity was justified by the purpose of educational instruction.

[4] Rintu Mariam Biju, ‘Online exams are not “unreasonable” or “against the interest of students” amid Covid 19 pandemic’ <https://www.barandbench.com/news/litigation/online-exams-not-unreasonable-or-against-interest-of-students-covid-19-karnataka-hc> accessed on 05 September 2020.

[5] IANS, ‘18.9 mn Salaried People Lost Jobs since April, 5 mn in July, Says CMIE’ Business Standard India (19 August 2020) <https://www.business-standard.com/article/economy-policy/18-9-mn-salaried-people-lost-jobs-in-covid-era-5-mn-last-month-cmie-data-120081900172_1.html> accessed 26 August 2020.

[6] Meera Emmanuel, ‘Students of RGNUL Move P&H HC Challenging University Demand for Full Semester Fee amid COVID-19 Crisis’ <https://www.barandbench.com/news/lawschools/students-of-rgnul-move-ph-hc-challenging-demand-for-full-semester-fee-covid-19-crisis> accessed 26 August 2020; ‘Law Students Approach Kerala HC Against Collection Of Fees By NUALS For Services Not Availed By Them During Lockdown Period’ (LiveLaw, 22 August 2020) <https://www.livelaw.in/news-updates/law-students-approach-kerala-hc-against-collection-of-fees-by-nuals-161801> accessed 26 August 2020.

[7] Joel P., ‘COVID-19 and Mental Health: Suicidal Tendencies and Self-Harm on the Rise’ (The Wire) <https://thewire.in/health/covid-19-mental-health-suicidal-tendencies-self-harm-rise> accessed 26 August 2020; Mohammad Ibrar, ‘Lockdown Triggers Rise in Mental Health Issues among Students: Delhi University Professor’ The Times of India (19 May 2020) <https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/delhi/lockdown-triggers-rise-in-mental-health-issues-among-students-delhi-university-professor/articleshow/75826330.cms> accessed 26 August 2020.

[8] Ibid.

[9] C Chandramouli, ‘Houses, Household Amenities and Assets Data | 2001 -2011 | Visualizing Through Maps’ (Census of India) <https://censusindia.gov.in/2011-Common/NSDI/Houses_Household.pdf> accessed 26 August 2020.

[10] This was recognized by NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad in its report on the conducting online classes, available here: https://library.nalsar.ac.in/storage/2020/06/COVID-19-Academic-Year-Report.pdf.

[11] Protiva Kundu, ‘Indian Education Can’t Go Online – Only 8% of Homes with Young Members Have Computer with Net Link’ (Scroll.in) <https://scroll.in/article/960939/indian-education-cant-go-online-only-8-of-homes-with-school-children-have-computer-with-net-link> accessed 26 August 2020.

[12] Supra, (n.11).

[13] Monisha Purwar, ‘[COVID-19] BCI Asks Law Universities/Colleges To Frame Alternative Flexible Schemes For Fees In Easy Instalments’ (28 July 2020) <https://www.livelaw.in/news-updates/bar-council-of-india-issues-advisory-on-fees-to-centers-of-legal-education-throughout-the-country-160646> accessed 26 August 2020. Full text of advisory available here: https://images.assettype.com/barandbench/2020-07/a6aa8e29-2973-4fad-bbbe-4ae847dbf1d1/BCI___Advisory_to_be_considerate_on_the_point_of_fees.pdf.

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