Lockdown gives distance learning a boost in Nepal

Home learning familiarises teachers and students with technology, and could help lift quality of instruction

In ordinary times, children would wake up in the morning and put on their uniforms, pack their bags, and leave for school.

This time of year, SEE students in Nepal would be making full use of their post-exam holidays, books and exams the last thing on their minds. University students would be in the thick of spring semester, some on the verge of graduating and going out into the world as young professionals.

But these are not ordinary times.

Nepal’s baby steps towards distance learning has gotten a boost as the COVID-19 lockdown redefines schooling, replacing it with virtual classes. But the pandemic has also revealed how unprepared schools and teachers are to distance learning, and the existence of a digital divide despite the spread of data communication.

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At Tika Vidyashram, a public school in Sanepa, principal Bimala Lamichhane had been advising students sitting for SEE exams to find educational materials on YouTube since the lockdown began. However, as the shutdown stretched on, Lamichhane along with her teachers resolved to conduct Grade 10 classes on Zoom.

But after trying for two days, Lamichhane realised that it was a futile exercise.

“Not every student was able to access Zoom, because none of the students have computers and only some had mobile data," she says. “Some of the students do not even get to eat properly during the lockdown, let alone have Internet access.”

Her students thought it would be better to form a group on Facebook Messenger and conduct classes that way. Now, students take pictures of their assignments and upload them onto their Messenger group so that the teachers can evaluate them. Students who can access the Internet call their friends who cannot, and pass along information.

“Simply advertising online classes is not enough when there is a lack of access,” says Lamichhane.

Government schools in Nepal are notoriously underfunded, understaffed and lack infrastructure,  which is why parents who can afford it send their children to more expensive schools. There is a fear that the COVID-19 lockdown will add to not just the digital divide, but also the gap between haves and have nots, and the disparity in the quality of education provided by public schools and private schools.

But Lamichhane thinks even better endowed private schools are having a difficult time adjusting.  “Some private schools might be able to successfully conduct classes online, but there is no way most can communicate with 100% of their students,” she says. “Be it a public school or private, this pandemic has shown that we are all on the same boat.”

A model government school, Shreejana Shreshta

Tika Vidhyashram in Sanepa. As the lockdown stretches on, SEE students are forming groups on Facebook Messenger to communicate with teachers. Photo: BIMALA LAMICHHANE

The reputed Shuvatara School in Lamatar has been able to reach all of its 450 students and conduct  classes online. With the help of the 3Di project, teachers have been conducting webinar-style classes via Zoom, and students hand in their assignments on Google Classroom.

Principal Khyam Timsina says that the first week was a trial period, but classes have been going on smoothly on the second week of their online academic year. And although online classes are not the same as real classrooms, Timsina adds, the students have taken to it.

It's all about IT, Sahina Shrestha

For Shuvatara, there has been a positive consequence of conducting classes online. “This process has empowered our teachers, who have been learning a lot about IT and gaining mastery in the technical aspects of teaching,” says Timsina, who says the lockdown has challenges but also offers opportunity for education.

“This pandemic has made us think about developing digital learning, which we perhaps would not have done otherwise,” he says. “ICT in education is crucial, and hopefully, some much-needed attention will be directed towards building a digital platform that will help students well into the future.”

However, the pandemic has brought into stark focus that although 96% of households in Nepal have mobile phones only a quarter of those polled in a recent nationwide survey said they used the Internet on a daily basis, and most used it to access Facebook and YouTube. But telecom companies are attempting to provide a solution to this problem.

Nepal’s new digital landscape, Sonia Awale

NTC has introduced its E-siksha package, providing 2 data options to students at reduced cost. Schools can request the company to provide students access by giving NTC a list of their mobile phone numbers.

“We have a robust system,” says NTC spokesperson Rajesh Joshi, adding that if schools take the initiative of communicating with their students about the service, most can easily go online with high-speed 4G Internet in all 77 districts.

Still, many students are concerned about missing out on their classes due to the unavailability of the internet, expressing their frustrations on social media. Even having constant access to the Internet doesn’t mean that learning is easy.

A final year undergraduate student working on her thesis says that although she has been doing the research over the Internet, the lockdown has made it impossible to conduct fieldwork that she needs. Moreover, she has Zoom consultations with her thesis supervisor at 10 pm. “It is a new experience for all of us,” she writes in an email to Nepali Times,but we have had to adjust to it in order to utilise our time.”

Karkhana CEO Pavitra Gautam believes that although online education is a way to engage students at a time like this when not much else can be done, this cannot be the only way to go about education.

Unlearning education, Anurag Acharya

“Be it a Learning Management System or Zoom, most of the time educators are not thinking about how engaged their students are with them,” says Gautam, adding that there should be a deeper understanding about how kids learn rather than arguing over what tools and technologies are better.

Will this attempted shift towards the digital improve the quality of education post-pandemic?

Gautam says that if we just look at this as a way to engage students until the schools open back up and we go back to our old ways, nothing is going to change. Neither will things change if we look at this as a way to completely transform education into the digital.

“Technology is a tool that should support good teachers,” he explains, “and although technology enhances capacity, amplifies the reach of information and can bring reforms it is not sensible to depend entirely on it. A blended model is going to be the best approach.” 

Read also:

Giving back to Nepal what Nepal gave to them, Kunda Dixit

Computers in schools without textbooks, Sunil Pokhrel

Shristi Karki


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