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Shots fired: NLUD’s online AILET implies physical CLAT not ‘patriotic’, ‘endangers’ families, risks ‘mass infection’ (rhetoric aside, all options seem bad)

A good strategy in CLAT, AILET and other MCQs can be to pick the least bad option: In this case, it is not clear which one that is
A good strategy in CLAT, AILET and other MCQs can be to pick the least bad option: In this case, it is not clear which one that is

The Cold War-esque rivalry between NLU Delhi’s All India Law Entrance Test (AILET) and all the other national law universities’ (NLUs) competing Common Law Admission Test (CLAT) has intensified, with the former directly implying that the latter’s plan to conduct the admissions test would be unsafe and against government policy, amidst the Covid-19 pandemic.

NLU Delhi - which controversially has managed to stay out of the Supreme Court-mandated unified entrance test for all NLUs until now, holding its separate AILET for which it collects separate fees - had announced on Tuesday that it would hold a “remote proctored” entrance test, much like the LSAT-India primarily used by JGLS Sonepat).

By contrast, the CLAT consortium of NLU vice-chancellors (VCs) had decided that the CLAT would be held as a physical exam via computers available at test centres, with numerous physical distancing and other anti-Covid19 measures in place.

However, today, NLU Delhi has released a note on its website (PDF) from its registrar, Prof GS Bajpai, ostensibly to settle prospective students’ doubts over what remote proctoring means, as well as explain how and why it decided to go that way.

Old-school pen and paper 'impossible'

First, the note said that a traditional pen and paper test, as AILET and CLAT had traditionally been, was “highly impossible and logically improbable”, and violated “social distancing as strictly prescribed by the Govt. of India and also by the WHO”.

The note explained, as part of its paragraph long rebuttal of the model:

This sort of testing mode cannot overrule the risk of infection for students travelling to various centres away from the security of their homes and touching the testing materials, desks, chairs and classrooms that would have been assigned in a physical testing module.

Even the highest levels of sanitisation would not completely overrule the potentiality of infection to many in such a case. Hence, in the situation that India is facing with its infected cases and death toll spiking to alarming levels each and every day, a pen and paper test is out of the question right now or anytime sooner.

Such a form of centralised testing is thus not possible.

CLAT approach not safe, says NLU-D

Second, NLU Delhi’s note took aim at the option of a “centre based online computer-based test”; tellingly, the CLAT on Tuesday had announced in identical words but a different order, and we again quote, a “computer-based, online, centre-based test”.

Here NLU Delhi goes all out explaining why it “ruled out” this option (while implicitly but probably not accidentally also slamming the other NLUs’ approach), devoting five long paragraphs to explaining why it decided it could not go the CLAT way (our emphasis added):

This model of examination entails calling young students and even their understandably concerned and fully invested parents out into different parts of various cities in the country. This open access to outside environment for even a few hours of the test along with commuting time is enough time, place, and interaction for more than some to be potentially at risk of infection; given the perilous times when people have been strongly advised to remain inside their homes and only venture out in case of emergencies and following social distancing. In the case of centre based exam, many would be resorting to public transport in the form of buses, autos, rickshaws; or communal travelling in cabs; or collective travel in one car – all of which potentially puts a considerable amount of people at a fairly high risk of infection. The pandemic has reached a dangerous form of infection called ‘asymptomatic’. Hence, it is a matter of grave concern to us that it is not just one point to consider of people bravely venturing outside their homes to conduct and attempt the test, but also of the long term and large extent of this ‘one-time’ exposure.

The identified centre based examination amounts to taking people in groups and exposing not only them but in extension their family members back home - to mass infection. This large mobilisation of people is again against the Govt. specified rules and regulations for not holding any kind of event which exceeds a certain number of persons and follows the most stringent levels of social distancing. Centres for conducting AILET are not too many, only 30-40 across the country, in a normal scenario, which might decrease in the current situation, and therefore be far and wide. Hence, it is a fact to be seriously considered that not only is there a possibility of the centres being too far from a candidate’s home and require one or many modes of transport, but also such a level of nation wide examination can potentially be cancelled if any centre suddenly falls under a containment zone. Also due to one centre being contained or one case being tested positive later in a centre, can have hazardous consequences in terms of risking in conducting this ‘All India Test’. This amounts to highest levels of risk taking in terms of putting one/more centres to possibility of test cancellation and all its candidates to risk of not just infection but also trouble and disappointment in cases of cancellation. It will be extremely difficult for the University and for NTA to conduct the examination again, or to suddenly arrange for alternative centres in case of some declared containment zones due to Covid 19.

This option that has been availed and tested previously on multiple occasions by institutions, does not seem a very viable or safest option either. It was carefully considered and then also very justifiably rejected to not hold AILET as an online centre-based examination. Therefore, this form of centre based RPT is anyway better than conducting a physical pen and paper test at an identified/designated centre. Even the most stringent and immaculate of sanitisation cannot possibly guarantee a complete safety and non-infection free space to students and all concerned at the centres.

Both the above two models of examination involve definite risks which we all might not be prepared to handle if contingency arises. Also, we as a national educational institution renowned for providing the highest levels of premium academic exposure to the students cannot put enough faith in either a pen and paper written examination nor an online centre- based examination – at this point in time and place.

We also want to follow as far as possible the MHA’s guidelines as prescribed in the Unlock part 2 of the Covid-19, which stipulates that as much as possible education and examinations should be conducted online, “Online/distance learning shall continue to be permitted and shall be encouraged…”. Therefore, in the best interests and large welfare of everyone we choose to not endanger students, parents, examiners, etc. to mass external exposure.

Reading between the lines

We have reached out to this year’s CLAT committee for comment, though it’s worth noting that the CLAT claimed in its announcement that it would take a number of measures and impose restrictions on candidates, in order to decrease the risks of transmission.

That said, despite possibly using a few too many scare-mongering pandemic words, NLU Delhi is not necessarily wrong either in the claims it has made about physical testing: any long-duration mass physical meeting, even under the strictest physical distancing and other measures does carry the risk of at least some infection spreading.

And while (at least undergraduate) CLAT candidates themselves are going to be young and therefore at a much lower personal risk of debilitating side effects from Covid-19, it is likely impossible to eliminate the risk that some could catch and carry the coronavirus back to more vulnerable family members back at home.

Why NLU D decided proctoring was the least bad out of the bad options

Bajpai concludes in his note that the third and “most safe and sound option left” after ruling out the other options, was an “online computerised home based remotely proctored test”.

The advantages were numerous, claimed NLU Delhi’s note, and not just safety but also psychological: since it could be taken at “home or familiar surroundings”, students would be able to perform better and “prosper”, and “nullifies the stress and strain that all the candidates and their families would be facing owing to the external exposure during travelling to a test centre and while using and touching so many surfaces and materials like a computer, mouse, keypad, chair, etc”:

Hence, both on humanitarian grounds of saving lives and preserving futures of students, and on patriotic grounds of following the govt. ordained guidelines in cases of emergencies and contextually for Covid-19 – the best available and easily exercised option is RPT from home examination.

This is a one-time exceptional case resorted to in this time of emergency and lack of safest options available, that AILET has been made an RPT from home examination.

Out of the three models available, the previous two are with potential but serious risks having the capacity to harm at a mass level, in-built with difficulties that cannot be overcome at a time of social distancing and a pandemic.

RPT Concerns

On the other hand, NLU Delhi (and JGLS’ / LSAT’s) solution of a remote proctored tests (RPT) taken from home, has been criticised for myriad reasons too, including accessibility and access, as well potential for cheating.

To that extent, the rest of NLU Delhi’s note, rather than continuing with (though not eliminating) indirect-CLAT-bashing, addresses a number of common RPT concerns.

First of all, NLU Delhi revealed that the government’s National Testing Agency (NTA) would be conducting the proctored online exam (rather than private sector solutions, such as the LSAT).

In terms of specific concerns, NLU Delhi noted:

Internet and computer issues

For any problems with internet access, the AILET recommended going to an internet cafe (the per hour costs were, “on an average INR 50-100, which is not much, considering the fact that” more would have been spent on travel to a physical exam centre, it said).

Candidates with “lack of resources”, notably computers or internet could be tackled by being “forward thinking and making arrangements with neighbours/relatives/friends”, or, again, going to an internet cafe, or “travel from your town/village to the district headquarters for gaining better cyber stations”.

Those “a candidate [who] feels compelled to spend on a computer”, could consider it “as an investment” in their future education, for which a computer would be necessary, said the note.

Technical issues

This could be a big one and hard to predict on the day, depending on what kind of system the NTA manages to roll out.

NLU Delhi, for one, promised that “all of the technical problems such as as inability to submit, lack of time, power cut, computer getting frozen, etc. will all be deftly and satisfactorily dealt with in the two webinars on AI based AILET”.

Some of this would also be helped by the NTA conducting two webinars and one mock test before the exam, said NLU Delhi.

Access to IT literacy

The AILET would require only the same “basic IT literacy” as any “12th class pass or attempted student”, promised the AILET.

“Many students are used to filing online forms such as Google forms and other and are familiar with such online interfaces,” claimed the AILET.

However, NLUs had expressed concerns that many from less privileged backgrounds might be quite comfortable with mobile-phone-based technology, but less so with desktops or laptops, which are generally more expensive and harder to use in rural areas.

Security (aka leaking & cheating)

NLU Delhi addressed the concern of “security being a challenge”, potentially, in online exams.

However, NLU Delhi said that NTA was “renowned for being a specialised, autonomous and self-sustaining testing organisation”, which does exams for JEE, NEET, UGC-NET and others.

It was also “credible and reliable” and a “trustworthy” government approved agency that had been investing heavily in conducting home-bound exams (AILET linked to an HT report from 30 June).

On the second limb, cheating, NLU Delhi was emphatic that it would not be possible, while also deploying the magical-sounding but rarely understood artificial intelligence (AI) buzzword in its service: “To be an AI assisted and remote proctored, this edition of AILET dispels all misgivings of any foul play as the level and quality of AI use is going to be of very high quality.

“It will not only deter not any unfair means but also detect the same with the digital evidence on the spot. And in all such case immediate disqualification would be only the consequence so the candidates need not worry on this aspect.”

Conclusion: Many rocks and many hard places

At the end of the day, as NLU Delhi’s long explanatory note has indicated, no one really knows the way ahead and all options are more or less in untested and unprecedented territory.

It certainly seems difficult, if not impossible, to eliminate 100% of risk from any physical test, such as CLAT’s, in the current climate.

However, it may be possible to manage that risk to an acceptable level, with effective physical distancing and other hygiene and behavioural measures, though the devil will lie in the implementation and detail and there are many opportunities for it to go wrong with potentially serious consequences.

The problem is, no one really knows how that and the CLAT will play out.

On the other hand, online proctored exams will rely mostly on untested technology, which are likely to cause difficulty at least for some candidates on the days, while also potentially disadvantaging those who have not been privileged enough to grow up around laptops or around rock-solid internet connections.

It also seems hard to truly believe any assurance that a silver-bullet state-of-the-art AI technology will curtail any ingenious jugaad, invention and innovation that a few candidates are nearly certain to try to cheat the system. On the other hand, physical tests are obviously not immune from elaborate and creative cheating attempts either.

Likewise, no one really knows yet how the AILET will play out on this front.

In other words, exam convenors might be damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

For once, candidates will have some much easier choices to make once they actually get down to the MCQ part: CLAT is currently scheduled for 22 August, and AILET for 18 August.

NLU Delhi guidance on online AILET (PDF)

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