Completing Spring 2020 Semester Entirely Online in Coronavirus Times

The corona virus shocked and seriously disturbed everyone including the educational institutions. The autonomous, undergraduate-dominated, national, and primarily-residential institutions – including IITs, IIITs, NITs, etc. – had to necessarily close down the hostels and send their students home to all parts of the country. Fortunately, most including IIIT Hyderabad could send the students back safely in the middle of March when the alarm of transmission was low enough. It was quite clear to us that the students weren’t coming back for at least two months. Nearly all regions of the country need to be safe, and travel has to be safe before students returned. Running the semester in an online mode was the only option, if it was feasible.

IIITH started online classes on March 23rd, giving a full week for students to reach home and settle as much as their situation allowed. The institute used that week to test and train the faculty on the various technological solutions out there, Microsoft’s cloud-based solutions for email and other services we had adopted earlier. That included supported version of Teams, a tool suitable to run online classes. A big plus was the ability to record the classes including audio, video, slides, digital blackboards, etc. Students could access the video later even if they couldn’t attend the live class. Faculty were requested to keep notes and other study material on the LMS platform Moodle for students to access at will. The institute’s academics team and tech-support team worked hard to train the faculty, who reciprocated enthusiastically. We were aware that a small fraction of the students had poor to no access to online technologies. However, an overwhelming majority of the students are highly comfortable with technology and had adequate access. We decided to proceed with online classes and vowed to support those with difficulty in multiple ways to ensure they weren’t further disadvantaged.

Online classes were held for nearly all of the courses and the attendance in them hovered around 80% which is on par with institute’s normal average! The faculty members no doubt adopted their teaching style to suit the new situation. Hands-on work like assignments and projects were modified and given more prominence. However, the institute needed a strategy to conclude the semester quickly to remove the cloud of the lockdown and the weight of the semester’s courses from the students’ heads. It would allow graduating students to be not worried unnecessarily about delays. The students are as stressed due to the situation as anyone else. Not adding to that stress will only do good to everyone. Though this is a totally atypical year, the students will also have the opportunity to work on any internship projects that may be available online. IIITH itself typically has over 150 of its students do projects on campus in the summer. Those will certainly be available.

Concluding the semester equitably using only the online mode is a challenge. IIITH decided to take it up as creative measures are needed to counter the difficult times. The academics team lead by the Dean of Academics devised a few options, which were discussed at different levels, including at an online meeting of all faculty members. Conducting the final examinations after students returned was deemed inadequate, as the load of the semester’s courses will be borne by the students for an uncertain duration. What are the options available under these circumstances?

Rigidly conducted examinations dominate the imaginations of academic evaluators today! Concerns of evaluations and grades overwhelm academics, moving far from its primary goal of leading the students to the subject gently. This is all the truer in India. If this subversion of the goals makes us uncomfortable in normal times, a golden chance was at hand to experiment with something different. Crises also offer opportunities to break out of lethargy!

The faculty debated at length on different options, keeping two principles firmly in mind as: (a) we need to be compassionate and generous to students who are already in distress and (b) fine differentiation of students through grades can take a back seat if we can attempt to lead students to the subject. After considerable debate, the faculty body adopted the following scheme to complete the ongoing courses of the Spring 2020 semester.

  1. Do away with formal final examinations; distribute its weightage to less stressful and more hands-on components like assignments, projects, quizzes, reports, etc. Conducting long final exams is tricky if done online, considering the highly variable situations the students may find themselves in where they are. Evaluations based on more hands-on applications of concepts will stress the students less, though the work on the teachers may increase. Undesirable sharing is possible for such work, but we adopted it. It is good to not obsess excessively about every possible violation, as long as serious and hard-working students get their due.
  2. Award a W (or Withdraw) grade in place of an F (or Fail) grade for courses. Both serve the same purpose as the student must meet the requirements later. The F grade hurts immediately and later, something we can eliminate at least for this semester.
  3. Award only A, B, C, and W grades for these courses, leaving out A-, B-, C-, and D grades. The faculty members are urged to be generous to push those who may have got an A- otherwise into the A range and not down to a B. Students worry about grades and their impact on future prospects in normal and distress situations. Coarser grades will allow them to not stress about the impact of bad connectivity or other difficulty they faced due to the online process.
  4. One step further, each student is given the option to keep the A/B/C letter grade as awarded or replace them with a P (or Pass) grade, after the grade is announced. Pass grades satisfy the requirements of the individual course towards the program requirements, but do not count in grade-point average calculations. A student who performed badly due to extraneous reasons can opt for this without his or her GPA being adversely affected.
  5. The institute also runs half-courses in the first and second halves of the semester. The second-half courses had 60% or more online classes. The faculty members were given the option to decide on A/B/C/W grades or P/W grades for the 8 such half courses this semester. It was felt that the teacher would in the best position to make that decision, considering how things went for the specific course.
  6. The three lab-dominated courses will complete only after students return and get to do them physically, perhaps in the fortnight prior to the start of the next semester’s classes. Labs that are primarily computer-based were conducted in the required time and sometimes using a simulator. These are early courses and no graduating student is on any.
  7. Students who couldn’t take part meaningfully in the online phase of the courses – due to poor connectivity, sickness to self or family, etc. – will be evaluated separately whenever it is safe. A combination of alternate evaluation and grading methods will be employed for them with a combination of assignments, projects, oral examinations, reports, etc. They will not be disadvantaged in any manner by this.

The above contains a few deviations from the usual, with a goal of concluding the semester equitably. Extraordinary times require extraordinary efforts. An institution is a worthy one only if it can adapt to the genuine needs of its most disadvantaged members. It is worthy only if it has the confidence to do the right thing by every student even under trying circumstances. IIIT Hyderabad, its faculty, and others are fully committed to do the best and to learn from it, while treading unfamiliar territory.

We are confident that the ongoing Spring semester will be concluded completely by the end of May. The graduating B.Tech and M.Tech students will have their requirements completed practically on schedule. Continuing students will have their semester done with early in May, giving them time to attend to other things including remote internships and other opportunities. We are glad to remove the worry in the students’ minds about the Spring semester. Oral examinations for PhD and MS theses and associated components are taking place normally with presentations to committees taking place over internet.

The students of IIIT Hyderabad were apparently thinking deeply about different options under these circumstances, independently of the institute. They produced a document that analyzed the situation and several options very well. It was gratifying to realize they had discussed many of the same ideas. The students of IIIT – usually vocal and forthcoming in articulating their concerns – accepted the announced plan more readily than we had anticipated, perhaps due to that exercise.

We will have much to learn from this experience in the coming months. I am sure the students have learned much also in the process, also about handing the uncertainties of life. The most important lesson that I hope everyone learns is the following: Concern and compassion are at least as important as fine points of the subject, in the larger scheme of things. Fine points of the subject can be learned when necessary if one is confident that the system will take care of you appropriately.

 

Prof P. J. Narayanan, Director, IIITH, is known for his work in computer vision (3D reconstruction, structure-from-motion, computational displays), computer graphics (ray-tracing of implicit surfaces, dynamic scenes), and parallel computing on the GPU (graph algorithms, string sorting, ML techniques like graph cuts, ANN and clustering, as well as several computer vision tasks).

Comments(1)

  1. Prof. PJN Sir – Really Great and appropriation solution in the current situation. Indeed appreciate the concern, commitment and valuable contributions of The Deans (A & RnD), Faculty and Academic Staff at this point of time. I am proud of my association with IIITH for over 17 years. A Royal Salute to You All.

    B Lakshmi Narayana says:

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