“If you were to design a place to make sure that everyone gets the virus, it would look like a nursing home or a campus,” Paul LeBlanc, the president of Southern New Hampshire University.

The current pandemic has ground the world to an abrupt and unpleasant halt. Infected numbers are still rising fiercely in India, with no signs of slowing imminent, anytime in the near future. People are dying by the hundreds every single day. The economy is reeling from the effects of a complete shutdown of nearly all economic activity. In the midst of all this, we have to continue our education.

Over the past few months, all education, from the school to the college level has either been on pause or has been conducted in the now-normal, online format.

Is it actually possible to learn online?

While a good percentage of classes can technically be held online, the online teaching paradigm has a number of serious limitations. Interaction between students and teachers is virtually non-existent in the online teaching paradigm. And even assuming theory lectures can be held online, Engineering is inherently a practical subject that can’t be learnt meaningfully without laboratory courses which are of course quite impossible remotely.

Frustration of staying at home, missing college life and hanging out with friends aside, why is it actually necessary for colleges to transition to at least some semblance of normal?                                                                                                                
These problems make us wonder whether it is even worth the trouble of attending an online University. If college education could be reduced to a bunch of videos and assignments, then how are our fancy college degrees better than online MOOC certificates?


Academia in the wake of Covid-19

Students are hardly the only component of academia. Researchers have also been affected by the pandemic. Researchers at Times Higher Education have initiated a study to explore the challenges faced by academics due to the ongoing pandemic. For academics across the world, the pandemic has forced a near 100% move to remote work.

Graphic credit: Carlotta Cataldi

Preliminary findings reveal three main problems -

1. Academic Tunnel Vision

Governments, Universities, philanthropists and organizations have been (quite understandably) pouring money into funding Covid-19 related research. Clinical scientists have been mandated to temporarily cease research activities so that they can be redeployed into medical practice. And many clinical trials have been paused or terminated early to ensure patient safety. In addition, almost all conferences across all fields have either been postponed or have been shifted to a purely online mode. While it is true that even small breakthroughs would go a long way in restoring the world to normalcy, there have been concerns among academic researchers that extreme focus on the pandemic would mean less funding and attention for some of the other major challenges humanity faces. It must be kept in mind that mankind has had countless problems before Covid-19 and will continue to do so long after the pandemic is behind us. Throttling or diverting funding earmarked for other research such as Climate Change or treatments for chronic medical conditions could have serious implications down the line.

2. Can research even be conducted online? -

Some kinds of research are inherently impossible to conduct in isolation, without access to equipment and labs. In addition to this, even with video conferencing and other online tools, it is difficult to effectively collaborate with large groups of people without face-to-face discussions and brainstorming.

“Any tendency towards reinforcing a research monoculture based around quantitative work is likely to be exacerbated, while undermining multidisciplinary research”, the study claims.

3. Teaching online

Most researchers also devote a considerable portion of their time to teaching classes. With the move to the inherently trickier online teaching paradigm, professors have to spread more of their time on teaching. This is decreasing the amount of time they have available for conducting original research.


What happens when we do reopen?

University campuses are inherently designed to facilitate and encourage the interaction of a huge number of students. Students live together, study together and learn together. Classrooms provide a level of interaction and understanding that an online video couldn’t even hope to match. Our hostels house a large number of students eating, playing and enjoying life together.

However, in the words of Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University - “If you were to design a place to make sure that everyone gets the virus, it would look like a nursing home or a campus.”

Let us approach the challenges of reopening campuses and how University authorities have proposed addressing them sequentially.

First, we need to get the students from their homes across the country to the campus. It is evident that this in itself would be extremely risky, even following recommended safety precautions. There is a good chance that travelling itself would expose students to the virus.

Once on campus, students cannot be immediately allowed to return to normal activity. Travel would likely have to be followed by a lengthy quarantine period (as of writing this, most states enforce a 14-day quarantine for people travelling from other states), which would be immensely difficult to enforce since the on-campus medical facilities are nowhere near large enough to handle such a large number of people at once. Universities have proposed a staggered approach to address this.

Source for image - Times of India

Students would be invited back to campuses in a phased manner - first the PhD students, then the postgraduate students and finally the undergraduates. By keeping a safe period of time between each phase, campus medical authorities would be able to handle the influx of students at a given time.

Now let us assume everyone has reached campus, has been quarantined for the required period and as of now none of the students are infected. But even now there remains one major potential source of infection, i.e. the non-teaching staff - our beloved mess dadas, hostel-workers, rickshaw-walas, security guards, etc. In recent years, the on-site housing capacity of campuses has already been stretched thin due to the increasing student intake year on year. It is not possible, or at least not easy, to provide in-campus residence to the non-teaching staff. In coming in and out of campus on a daily or even semi-daily basis, even with the strictest of temperature checks, masks and sanitization it is quite possible (and perhaps inevitable) that the virus may slip through and infect the students.

All it takes is one crack. With the densely-packed hostels and classrooms, even a single infected person could potentially infect tens of people directly, each of which would go on to do the same. Due to the largely asymptomatic nature of the disease in our age group and the high interaction of students with each other, the virus could have spread to a huge number of people even before we realize that there is a problem. The situation would spiral out of control very quickly.

This brings us to a rather interesting, though grim, question.

Who is to blame if a student dies?

Moral liability aside, institutions could face legal trouble if they fail to provide a safe environment for their students. Dr Abhik Majumdar, a faculty member at the National Law University, Odisha, elaborates on a range of possibilities. “The liability of an institution depends on whether or not it reopens following a government order; whether the order in question is mandatory or merely an authorisation given to institutions to reopen at their discretion; and whether the institution is a private or a state body.”

If the Govt. says educational institutions MAY reopen at their discretion, liability is solely on the institution. Private institutions especially might face legislation in this case. If the institution is Government run/funded one like the IITs, they are still responsible for ensuring that safety measures are provided and enforced. If they fail to do so, they CAN be held liable.

Other considerations

Numerous studies have shown that older people are the worst affected by the virus. This means that our beloved Professors are most at risk. Knowing this, can we really ask our Professors to risk their lives by teaching class after class of students, any of whom could be infected or carriers? In fact, several Professors at colleges across the world have straightaway refused to return to the in-person teaching paradigm in the absence of a cure or vaccine, even with strict social distancing measures.


Approaches to reopening

Universities across the world have proposed reopening, at least on an online platform, in a variety of ways.

Fully Online semesters

Due to the above problems being especially prevalent in a heavily populated country like India, (as of writing this) most universities in India are planning to have at least one semester in the fully online format. IIT Roorkee has also proposed shifting the lab courses to a later semester, focussing only on theory courses that can be taught online. To address the problems of lack of requisite hardware or connectivity for some underprivileged students, IIT Bombay is tapping its huge alumni network for support. This, in particular, is a move we can expect other institutes to make. The Government itself may provide funding for the same. But even with financial support, some students live in remote regions, where it is physically impossible to get a stable enough internet connection or even 24/7 electricity. To enable the learning of these students, IIT Delhi has proposed residence on a ‘need-to’ basis - those facing such unavoidable problems will be given the option to stay on campus. Students will also be given the option to defer one or more semesters to a later date.

While these measures have been announced by individual IITs as of now, it is expected that they will be standardized across all of the IITs and possibly other institutes in India as well.

It remains to be seen how an online semester would work for the upcoming first years. With the JEE exams deferred to September, it is likely that the first semester for first years would start only in early 2021.

What would our campuses look like when we do reopen?

Source for image - Times of India

So there are clearly challenges and risks involved in any level of reopening. Staying locked-down is imperative to preserving our lives. But will the saving of our livelihoods and learning have to take precedence at some point?