How Indian IITs are keeping calm and carrying on during the pandemic

Top engineering colleges in India, which start holding in-person entrance exams today (Sept. 1) for millions of aspirants despite the pandemic, are going all out to ensure their existing students learn from home.

On June 24, the Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay (IIT-B) said it would go fully online for the academic session starting September. Within a day, six other IITs — Kanpur, Madras, Guwahati, Tirupati, Patna, and Delhi — announced the same. IIT-Bhubhaneshwar, too, followed suit. The other two dozen-plus IITs are likely to do the same.

The IITs that have gone online will defer exams, practicals, and lab work until students are back on campus.

Luckily, virtual instruction isn’t too foreign for these colleges.

“Faculty at most IITs have been teaching online courses for more than a decade,” IIT-Kharagpur told Quartz in a statement. “Further to this, since the end of March, several web conferencing software were used extensively both through the unit and individually by the faculty to conduct classes.” During the lockdown, classes at IIT-Kharagpur were conducted via YouTube Live, Zoom, G-Suite, and Skype, among other platforms.

The IITs aren’t the only elite colleges who are undertaking this digital revolution.

More than 96% of the National Institute of Technology Karnataka students were taking classes online as of Aug. 10. Anna University, the umbrella body of engineering education in Tamil Nadu which churns out the most H-1B techies, commenced online classes in engineering colleges across the state from Aug. 12. It’s even decided to conduct end-semester exams for final year students online. Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS) Pilani, too, started online MBA classes from Aug. 17 onwards.

While going online is the best way to ensure physical distancing amid coronavirus, it is a tough move given the scale of the task.

Online classes from villages

In March, when coronavirus started spreading in India, several schools and colleges decided to shut down temporarily. Most migrant students returned to their native places then. In mid-April, several educational institutions decided to resume classes online. For students in villages and small towns, attending online classes has been a nightmare due to a lack of infrastructure.

In May, The Times of India reported that a student in the southern Indian state of Karnataka had to trek atop a hill and climb on a tree every morning for three hours to attend online classes as that was the only spot where he could get a steady internet signal.

In addition, a section of students who come from less privileged backgrounds has voiced concerns about access to devices.

To overcome such hurdles, IIT-B set up a donation link with hopes to raise over Rs5 crore ($687,000) that will be used for equipping students with laptops and broadband connectivity.

IIT-B is even telecasting a handful of courses on TV to help the wider student population. “In order to help students of other universities in the country during the pandemic, 26 undergraduate courses of IIT-B will be telecast via Swayamprabha Channels of DD — a gift of IIT-B to all students in India,” director Subhasis Chaudhuri wrote in an Aug. 8 Facebook post.

IIT-Kharagpur recommended students keep their videos off to lower bandwidth consumption and said it will provide recordings of the lectures.

Back to campus

IIT-Delhi allowed students facing problems with internet access to return to campus to do online classes from hostels.

Of course, extreme precautions have to be maintained. At BITS Pilani, for instance, hostel superintendents and guards conduct thermal scanning and sanitisation of vehicles round the clock. Plus, there are strict rules around cafeteria use.

And even then, gaps exist.

In early August, IIT-Kanpur’s director was found to be Covid-positive. The college, meanwhile, had allowed some students to remain on campus. But at the end of August, with 10 people — five of them students — testing positive for coronavirus, it asked everyone to vacate the premises.

Nearly 65 scholars of IIT-Kharagpur argued that’s a tall order. Some of them come from remote areas they can’t reach because the government hasn’t resumed regular train service yet. Others are hesitant to return to family members with comorbidities.

The next frontier

While most students are already in the comfort of their homes and others live in fairly empty hostels, engineering aspirants have been perturbed about sitting for exams. Despite the hue and cry against conducting the Joint Entrance Exam (JEE) and National Eligibility Cum Entrance Test (NEET), they’re going ahead as scheduled. Over 2.3 million candidates have registered for both the exams.

The best-case scenario now includes maintaining caution.

“Necessary facilities have been arranged for the students to ensure social distancing, hygiene protocols and even facilitation for probable asymptomatic cases,” Virendra Tewari, IIT Kharagpur director, told Quartz on the JEE issue.

To alleviate travel woes, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha governments are providing free transportation to applicants. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) will reportedly help aspirants in flooded areas in Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Gujarat reach test centres. In Mumbai, railways will allow candidates with ID and their guardians to travel by train.

Additionally, IIT students and alumni have created a portal called to connect exam-takers with samaritans who can volunteer to drive or arrange cabs to safely drop them off at test centres.

But fears loom after India became the first and only country to report 80,000 new cases in a day on Aug. 30.

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