Online ‘Underground’ Classes, Where Laws Don’t Apply
By Thameenah Razeek
Even after lockdown is lifted, Ministry of Education limited the number of students in tuition classes and seminar halls in a bid to preventing congregation in classrooms. The present crisis has now precipitated a three-fold challenge for educational institutes, to provide online, undisrupted education that is high-quality, scalable and secure during the examination.
The Examinations Department ordered a ban on organising and conducting of tuition classes, conducting subject related lectures, seminars and workshops, printing and distributing question papers for this year’s GCE A/L examination. Despite of the order, students sitting for the examination attend various online classes and seminars via Zoom and WhatsApp regularly. The tutor and the learner; both parties willingly participate in the online classes. But the question here is who is monitoring the conduct of these classes and who will take responsibility after these activities were banned?
Tuition classes in Sri Lanka are however, out of the control of authorities. For decades there was no proper authority to regulate the system. In that case who will monitor online classes that are being conducted during main examinations such as A/L?
A tutor in a leading mass class told Ceylon Today institutes of higher education are likewise going through the biggest crisis they have faced in their entire period of existence. With no immediate prospect of students enrolling for the upcoming academic term, coupled with the halting of existing curricula that were scheduled to be delivered in the classroom and also no sector-specific relief provided as yet by the Government, institutes risk losing their source of revenue. Consequently, a vast majority of them are scrambling to leverage online modes of learning as a stop-gap measure, if not a solution that can sustain in the longer term.
“Over the past seven months, advances in digital technology have seen a steady rise in the Massive Open Online Classes mode of education, even among universities across the country. We did not have enough time to cover the syllabuses due to the lockdown. So we decided to continue online classes even after the lockdown ended. It reduced the congestion in the class as also it helped the students to reduce travel and other expenses,” he noted.
When asked if conducting classes during examination period was an offence, the tutor said yes and also added that since there is no one to monitor the online classes they are not afraid of conducting them with the assurance that the students will never lodge any complaints. The tutor was also confident about the fact that the parents have extended their greatest support to conduct the classes.
The main reason behind banning tuition classes and seminars in advance to the examination is to allow students to prepare for their exams calmly and to stop out-flowing of exam papers. However, parents do not see it the way the Ministry sees the problem.
It was noticeable that the tutors who are conducting online classes are so confident on what they are doing and they have no second thoughts with regard to the illegal activity they are engaged in. These tutors even charge a class fee from students that is deposited to the tutor’s bank account.
Ceylon Today inquired a student who is sitting for A/L examination this year and she revealed that the online class she has enrolled charges a fee of
Rs 3,500 for the examination month. She said that initially the amount should be deposited to the tutors account and the bank receipt should be sent via WhatsApp to the assistant of the tutor. Then the assistant will add the student to a WhatsApp study group. Afterwards, the assistant will request the student’s address to send the booklets.
The classes will be conducted for about seven hours before the examination date. The seminars are conducted through Zoom and the link is only given to the students who had paid the fee. Responding to a question, the student said most of the time the tutor will be discussing past papers and model papers related to the subject that falls the next day. The students express positive views regarding this even though it looks so stressful. “Initially my parents were upset of the fact they are unable to pay Rs 3,500 amidst the sudden curfew imposed in our area. But dad managed to borrow money from one of his friends. Now I’m in the class since they paid. Predicted questions and answers are being discussed. Sometimes we are also given model papers where some questions are marked saying that they will definitely come for the examination,” she noted.
While justifying that her tutor is doing a great job for them, the student never insulted the tutor for his job nor did she blame her parents. When asked whether the questions that came for her exams tallied with the questions the tutor gave day before the exam, she said some of them tallied but most were different.
The issue here is if the questions are being disclosed before exam day, then who is behind it? Examination paper setters need to travel to examination centres to define question papers. The entire process is manual. Examiners need to define questions according to the exam pattern. As there is no standard way of maintaining a question bank, the time required to define question paper can be higher to the extent of defining questions in their initial stages.
During each process, there is manual intervention and the possibility of leakage of question paper to outside world increases. The examination paper is always in danger of being leaked; especially during the exam period.
However, the question is how the Education Ministry and the Examination Department is planning to monitor these online classes and seminars prior to the upcoming GCE O/L Examination in January?
Professor Kapila Perera, the Secretary to the Ministry of Education, had no idea about online classes or seminars that are ongoing currently since no one has even concerned of having a thorough investigation into the situation. It was also revealed that no authority, no parent or no child has approached the Education Ministry or the Examination Department regarding this matter.
However, Prof. Perera said that they will definitely look into this and said if they failed to control the situation at this moment, they will look forward to ensure that it will not be repeated in the upcoming main examinations. He also noted that classes in any manner are banned prior to a main examination.
When asked why they did not bother looking into the issue, he noted that normally such classes are conducted in a building and not virtually; adding that no one has thought that this kind of extra classes and seminars are being conducted.
“After the sudden outbreak of Coronavirus we had to look into the overall stages of conducting the examination without delaying it further. We did not think of the extra classes or seminars that will be conducted online. This is illegal. No student or no tutor can conduct classes in the middle of examinations. Even though the situation is new to us we will look forward to minimising it. After the lockdown many classes were conducted online. Even State-run schools conducted the missed lessons through Zoom and WhatsApp,” he added.
Speaking further he said that everything and every experience is new to Sri Lanka, leading to new experiments and new thoughts. He said this illegal activity is also new to the Ministry and the Department that they did not have any clue about it. “The Government will decide when the school can conduct classes. They themselves cannot come up with their own rules. These online classes are illegal and are looting parents.”
Online classes and seminars are not illegal, but conducting them while the examinations are ongoing can have many consequences. Online classes can breach the privacy between the student and the question paper. If you take the class and the person obtains a benefit from your effort while claiming it as his own, it is illegal; obtaining benefits by deception, a fraudulent activity.
When online, students are often expected by their teachers to look at the screen for the entire class and stay focused on the video feeds of their classmates. This can result in feelings of prolonged eye contact, which can feel threatening and uncomfortable. Feeling as though everyone is watching can be distracting as students focus on how they may appear to others.
Also requiring students to use video during class makes assumptions about the ability or students or their families to pay for the requisite technology. These concerns about required video in online classes are not aimed to prevent teachers connecting with students. The goal is to ensure that students feel comfortable and safe when they are facing a main examination during this pandemic. Tutors can engage with the students in many other ways prior to the examination. Distance learning may take time to find a system that works best for everyone.