The Dormant Academic Year: To Call it Zero or Not

Shereein Saraf

Associate, Quality Education Program

Picture Credit/Indian Express

With over seven months of a series of lockdowns in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools and institutions of higher education in India have learned their way in methods and measures of distance learning. Although online classrooms are the only option seeming to be viable, does it serve as a substitute good enough for physical classrooms? If so, we have achieved what we were aiming for in the past decade - a successfully digitized education. But if not, it does raise questions of whether we are moving towards increased inequities in access to education, a fundamental right to all. This article is an attempt to analyze the state of online education, primarily focusing on the scenario in India. 

Picture Credit: Chris Neal/Shooter Imaging

Physical Classroom versus Google Classroom

As the new academic year commenced this April, so did a completely novel way to teach. Students, who started their day with a ride to school in the fresh morning air, now sit back to open their laptops and phones to log in to their Google Classrooms. Though there are other alternatives like Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and Cisco's WebEx, the narrative remains consistent. Amid the hustle-bustle of the household and interrupted internet connectivity, seeking both concentration and continuity is hard for these students.Even if connectivity isn't a problem, at least for a small section of the Indian suburbs, fixating on gleaming screens for six to seven hours seems tiring and frustrating at the same time. Unknowingly, now so, it will impact students' concentration to sit through the "physical" lectures down the line. 

For teachers not used to teach through, or rather to a computer screen, the worries are no less. The current arrangement is nothing like the classroom teaching that provided a space to move to and from, convey and receive underlying feedback through body cues, and engage in highly participatory discussions. What remains is an hour-long monologue that students find hard to follow.  

Where teaching online is hard, conducting examinations is harder. Teachers, who find it challenging to work with technology, are not accustomed to creating a rigorous assessment to evaluate if the students are following lectures and understanding the texts and reference materials. Besides, it is laborious for them to be able to use - what we think of as basics - tools like Microsoft Word and Excel. It is partly due to a lack of proper infrastructure and technical training but also due to cultural context and hesitation to collaborate with ICT applications. It has, thus, created a knowledge divide between teachers and students. (Kundu, 2018)

Picture by Rasy Nak from Pexels

The Piecemeal Measures Taken 

By and large, the government has tried to ensure relief to students by reducing their syllabus for the Central Board Examinations the next year. At the school level, the syllabus underwent shortening for primary and middle school classes. These reforms are, however, futile if students are not able to attend the classes regularly due to an array of reasons discussed above. 

Reducing the syllabus does not help at the end of the day. Instead, it creates confusion among teachers, trickling down to students, as to what is to be taught and learned respectively. Moreover, it does not serve the purpose at hand and demands for an assessment enforced on students for the sake of obtaining grades. An article by The Economist, titled 'Closing Schools for COVID-19 does Lifelong Harm and Widens Inequality', asserts that these scores are a predictor in deciding how a student has performed and will perform in the future. Teachers tend to unconsciously discriminate against children who do not have access to the internet and thus fail to engage in online classes by giving them lower grades. The seven months long lost contact between the teacher-student dynamo overshadows any cut in the syllabus. Even though this all could have come to an end in September, as schools scheduled to reopen, the increasing number of cases in India muddled this proposal. The Ministry of Education has yet again failed to address this issue by eliminating the possibility of declaring this year a zero-year, repercussions of which will further be the focus of discussion in this article.

For one, this shows the orthodox mannerism of our government to be similar to how parents perceive education. It has been long enough that our education system and the curriculum aligned with it remain academically driven by ideal percentages. For another, there lies a highly optimistic overestimation of how well online classes are faring. A quick clue - the picture is not as rosy as painted. 

Recommended Approaches 

With 1.2 billion mobile phone subscriptions, India has a pool of 560 million internet subscribers, making it second only to China. (McKinsey Global Institute, 2018) The gap between the number of phone subscribers and that of internet subscribers is quite alarming. As of now, India lacks the infrastructure to support the digitalization of education to every nook and corner. Sam Pitroda, the Father of India's Computer and IT Revolution, said that "if we can't expand digital education, which we can't today, we must bite the bullet and say that this is a void year," in one of his recent interviews with The Quint. It is different for countries like Finland and South Korea when the administration, even during the pandemic, ensures that each child has access to the internet before going ahead with digitized classrooms. (The Economist, 2020) For a developing country like India, such a level of sophistication is yet to come. 

The response to education, in addition to, healthcare, during the pandemic, proves that India needs to build a robust infrastructure. It is the need of the post-pandemic world when students will go back to schools and will find themselves a year behind - academically and even psychologically. 

At least to the end of mental health, and to ensure equity in our unequal and traditional education system where grades supersede knowledge, promoting students to the next class without holding examinations seems appropriate. If today's marks are a predictor of future performance, then by similar logic, yesterday's grades must also predict present performance. However, the current actions of the government differ, which proposes to squeeze this year as much as shall be required to get back to the time-old academic year. In other words, it anyways intends to compromise academics for this year's batch, as classes that start now need to end by March - as always has been. If this is the case, calling it a zero year won't make much of a difference. 

One of the arguments against declaring this year as a zero-year is that it will affect the students graduating from schools and enrolling in institutions of higher education. Students who appeared for competitive examinations like National Eligibility Cum Entrance Test (NEET) and the Joint Entrance Examination, JEE - Advanced had to wait through a long period of uncertainty before the administrations took a decision. Many students, who felt they could have performed better if normal conditions prevailed, are willing to drop the year to reappear for these examinations. After all, they have to wait a couple of months as the government proposes to get back to the original academic timeline next session. Even though a gap year is frowned upon in Indian society, students are willing to take such a drastic step. Despite this, our government is hesitant to do the same. 

Another interesting case is that of using 'self-regulated activities' - wherein the student strategizes, monitors, and reflects upon his academic goals - rather than being spoon-fed by the teacher which has grown in popularity in countries such as Estonia and Japan. (The Economist, 2020) Again, the age-old focus on theoretical understanding rather than practical applications is hampering us to use such an approach at the macro-level. The reasons for this are not new to us - lack of proper skillset and teacher training as well as infrastructure to create such modules, assignments, and quizzes - are just a few. 

Picture by Agung Pandit Wiguna from Pexels

Concluding Remarks

"In the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity." ~ Albert Einstein 

The pandemic-struck academic year may have been dormant, but it was a standout in its ways. To its credit, the pandemic has led many teachers to explore different alternatives to teach - using WhatsApp to solve doubts, prepare presentations for classes, Google Forms for weekly quizzes, and Adobe Scan (after the ban on CamScanner) for sending out corrected answer scripts.

On the other hand, to its (dis)credit, it has made us address the inequities in terms of availability, accessibility, and affordability of quality education.


Shereein is an economics enthusiast interested in questions related to development economics and political economy. She has completed her undergraduate studies in economics from Shri Ram College of Commerce, University of Delhi, researching about the gender within the workforce and inequity in agriculture. She will be pursuing her Masters in International and Development Economics at Yale University next fall.

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