A case of digital divide in the online teaching and examination process amid the pandemic has emerged from Jadavpur University, a reputed, autonomous public university in Kolkata, West Bengal.
In a recent online examination held in the University’s Department of Economics, as many as 50% of the students could not successfully submit their answer sheets on time and were late by a maximum of 10 minutes. Owing to the delay, the professor teaching the course refused to accept those answer sheets and later, meted out controversial treatment to the students.
In an anonymous post shared online by many including the Arts Faculty Students’ Union (AFSU), a student who took the test on March 4 said that they were unable to submit the answer script within the stipulated time of 5:30 pm due to internet connectivity and other issues. The writer of the anonymous post along with 34 other fellow students managed to submit their answer scripts only by 5:40 pm.
The professor refused to accept the late submissions. In a copy of the email sent by Professor Sanmitra Ghosh to the students post-exam, as accessed by Newsclick, reads: “I shall evaluate only those answer scripts which were received by google mail server before 5:35 p.m. (server time stamp).”
“He had the following things to say when requested to check the copies - (a) "You are inefficient, which is why your copies won't be evaluated" (b) "I will make sure that your companies and employers know that you outsource your question papers to be solved, so that you don't get jobs,” the student alleged in the post.
The student complainant said that after multiple requests, Prof Ghosh decided to accept the answer scripts but allegedly award only 50% of the marks that the students secure. Moreover, it was on the condition that all 35 students (including the complainant) had to unanimously agree to his proposal.
Amidst the raging pandemic and other issues such as network connectivity, lack of privilege due to one’s class, gender, and social position, it was “unjust for a professor to penalise his students for being 5 minutes late,” the student complainant wrote. The student further stated that they did not mail the professor requesting to check their answer script; following this, “He (the professor) has inflicted immense mental pressure on me and my classmates, and has forced us to agree to his condition. He has mailed us, specifically mentioning my name, and has stated that he will penalise my classmates by not checking their answer scripts since I haven't agreed to his condition,” the student’s post read.
The said mail from Prof. Ghosh on April 18, mentioning the student’s name, noted that “such an arrangement (of accepting late answer scripts) can be made only if it is a unanimous decision,” according to the copy of the email accessed by Newsclick.
The student further said that being pointed out in this manner has become a source of mental trauma for them and they are experiencing “severe anxiety issues due to the concerned professor's activities”. “I am compelled to seek therapeutic intervention to deal with the additional mental pressure being imposed on me by Prof. Sanmitra Ghosh. My PG1 first semester examinations are less than 3 days away, and I am unable to focus on my studies due to the above issues. I fear that he will continue to penalise me and my classmates to ensure that I agree to his imposed condition by hook or by crook,” the student wrote.
The AFSU on May 3 sent a deputation letter regarding the incident to Vice Chancellor Suranjan Das by email. Demanding the acceptance of the answer sheets, the AFSU said it was a “clear case of digital divide.” If the Union’s demand was not accepted, they would take “more stern action” to safeguard the rights of students to “a safe and equal environment for education,” their e-mail said.
AFSU General Secretary Debraj Debnath told Newsclick that they would do whatever necessary to ensure “no harm comes to the students.” He said that the Union was trying to hold dialogues with the VC and the Comptroller of Examination, but because of the latter falling sick due to Covid-19, talks have been stalled. He also claimed that the VC had spoken to the head of the Department of Economics in this regard, but the professor was fixed on his position of conditional acceptance of the answer scripts.
Debnath further said, “The student in question has sent a personal letter to the VC as well. It is the beginning of their semester examinations and the uncertainty and the pressure created by the professor amounts to mental torture.” He added, “We expect humane behaviour from professors in this trying time. They would not even open the college so that we can physically appear in the exams. During online tests, computer can crash, network errors can happen -- it is in nobody’s control.”
The incident also led to former students of the department talking about the issue in the open on social media. Talking about the recent incident, one former student of the department reshared his post from 2018, which expresses concern over the professor’s conduct and the course taught by him. Asserting that he did not have any “personal grudge” against the professor, he said the Econometrics course has been “a source of nightmare” for students. Similar allegations were made against the professor by the current postgraduate student in the anonymous post.
“The number of people unable to pass the course has been increasing over the years. Either, it has to be assumed that the quality of students in the Department is declining over the years, or there is a gap between the teaching process and assessments in this course because of which the students are suffering… I hope that the Professors in JU Department Of Economics would be able to empathize with students who try their level best to pass this course and then fail miserably,” the former student of the department, Aritra Basu, said in his Facebook post. He added that as a result of these recurring incidents, students are barred from taking part in the on-campus recruitment drive till they clear the supplementary exam in that particular paper the following year.
Sharing the complaint and their letter to the VC, the AFSU wrote on Facebook, “In this situation exams, and other activities are taking place in online methods. This is not a normal situation for everyone, and there are many who are disadvantaged at many stages. Considering these situations, all stakeholders of the university must work together and in cooperation and understanding with each other. Still several examples of clear domination and harassment in these cases and several teachers can be seen without any understanding of the situation and context.”