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.”
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