Millions of us woke up on Sunday morning with front-page headlines that screamed "Online birth pangs dog CAT", "CAT's e-debacle leaves students foxed", etc. But what was a matter of clever wordplay for newspapers spells uncertainty and unwarranted anxiety for 240,000 IIM aspirants and their parents.
As for the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) experimenting with the online entrance exam and Prometric, the company handling this system of testing , it is a time of big crisis. The stakes involved for all the stakeholders are too high. They involve the future of the IIM admission seekers, the image of haloed IIMs and, most importantly, the future of e-governance in the country.
It's no easy task launching a mega computer-based testing operation of this scale that involves training, equipping and coordinating activities among a large number of dispersed players. A number of biometric and security devices built into the test system adds another layer of complexity. The risk of pranksters trying to sneak into the servers or infect them with viruses is equally real.
A variety of suggestions have been pouring in from academics, technical experts and test preparation companies. These range from extending pilot phase to building in redundancies in the computer systems to allow logging in by tens of thousands of aspirants simultaneously.
Some experts have blamed the current crisis on a complacent vendor with a failure record quoting examples of how the UK government body ended its five-year multimillion dollar contract with ETS, the parent company of Prometric, following serious troubles with the administration and marking of tests. The issue rocked the British parliament and continued to consume headlines day in and day out all through July and August 2008.
However, even as the directors of IIMs and the technical teams from Prometric work towards stabilizing the system, they also need to step up their communication with candidates. They need to issue statements, assuring candidates that they would find ways to accommodate all those who missed their tests.
Finally, instead of belittling the new system, it is in every one's interest to let this new model succeed because a mega initiative like this has lessons not only for the IIMs but for the entire education system. If it succeeds, it could possibly lead to a transparent e-governance system emerging in the education system.
The decision of the IIMs to move from the traditional three-decade old paper and pencil method of selection of candidates for 3,000-odd seats to the computer-based method is revolutionary in more ways than one and it is important to give it a fair try.
The online CAT exam is the first baby step in application of IT beyond the private sector that will help overcome the oft-quoted risk of impersonation at the entrance exams and enable transparency. It will also help build a database of applicants, over years, and correlate the performance levels of successful applicants and their actual performance at IIMs.
An average Indian has benefited from e-governance initiatives that have brought some semblance of order to the earlier chaos. Two most successful examples that touch the lives of every Indian include the replacement of the old ballot system by electronic voting machines in elections. The second national success story is the railway reservation system adopted over two decades ago. The system has seamlessly moved on to internet-based booking of tickets over a period of time.
But can we say that these two high impact systems are with absolutely zero defect? Perhaps no. Because there are occasional failures, system breakdowns and outages due to a variety of reasons that render them dysfunctional for a few moments to a few hours.
The education system needs a full-fledged e-governance system that goes beyond handling online admissions, generating fee bills to recording attendance and posting results. The country needs to graduate to a seamless system of education that offers relevant and most up-to-date content and allows mobility of students across streams, across colleges and above all inclusion of those who have no access to education. We need to look ahead, and seek ways to building linkages with the unique identity systems being launched by the government under Nandan Nilekani.
---Sanjiv Kataria is a strategic communications and PR counsel for the services industry. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org