As with all other sections of society, the COVID-19 pandemic has turned higher education upside down around the world, including Nepal. Universities are turning to digitally-facilitated remote learning.
It is likely that after the pandemic is over, most schools will return to more established teaching methods of face-to-face lectures and discussions. However, given that we may see other, similar, crises in the future, it is important that we invest in resources that will make distance learning possible in Nepal.
For some resource-rich schools, mostly in the global north, the switch to online distance education amidst the COVID-19 crisis was relatively seamless because they have been investing in digital infrastructure and already have some experience with virtual learning platforms.
Lockdown gives distance learning a boost in Nepal, Shristi Karki
The platforms themselves are now offering more sophisticated asynchronous virtual learning facilities in addition to real-time video conferencing that seeks to mimic face-to-face lectures and discussions held in physical classrooms. A number of fully online commercial learning management platforms, such as Blackboard and Canvas, have been used by universities in the United States. Open-source software such as Sakai and Moodle are also emerging to compete with commercial software and these could be attractive to educational institutions in the global south.
Regardless of how systems of higher education are changed by COVID-19, it is clear that online and distance learning does not encompass the entirety of higher education’s future. For one, the virtual nature of online or distance education is unlikely to be able to fully replace the age-old model of education that values and relies heavily on personal interaction, close mentoring, and intimate dialogue to facilitate effective teaching and learning.
Schools with fewer resources will find it difficult to invest in rapidly evolving technology. Disciplines that require laboratories, field-based instruction, or training of boots-on-the-ground skills face challenges in shifting to distance or virtual modes.
Online classes may widen digital divide, Madhu Sudan Dahal
We therefore cannot aim to fully replace the traditional classroom. But in this time of crisis – and in the crises that may follow – digital technology for virtual learning can provide an alternative mode so that higher education does not come to a screeching halt.
Nepal has made tremendous progress in information technology and wireless connectivity. The telecommunication sector can be an able partner in public-private initiatives to reliably connect students with educators and educational resources both locally and globally.
Even before COVID-19, demand for reliable internet access was creating a political commitment to scale-up digital connectivity. E-learning and open and distance learning (ODL) had made some progress in Nepal, albeit amidst debates over their credibility and robustness, and it is possible that the coronavirus crisis gives existing platforms a boost.
Nepal’s new digital landscape, Sonia Awale
There has also been some use of game-based learning platforms Edmodo and Kahoot, especially in secondary schools. If good content can be provided through online learning platforms, then the provision of these platforms will be one of the many benefits of greater internet connectivity.
Digital learning platforms, however, are not the only way to make distance learning possible. Nepal also has the ability to leverage the already well-established FM radio networks television broadcasting, and social media as infrastructures for remote learning. As compared to commercial platforms, these resources are inexpensive, easily accessible, familiar and easy to use for academic institutions and students alike.
Nepal would benefit from a careful assessment of its own existing resources and capacities before seeking to adopt other tools. Doing this would likely be more cost-efficient and more impactful. Regardless of whether existing technologies are used or new platforms adopted, however, it is important that the possibilities for distance learning be put in place. Without this, higher education will not be able to function in this crisis, nor in future ones, making it costly for society and for future generations.
COVID-19 was unprecedented and disruptive, but a future crisis need not destabilise us as much as this one has. It is important for us to ensure that education continues even in times of crisis, so that our students learn and institutions that provide that learning remain.
It is important to put structures in place for distance learning, and to do this while we are still in the midst of this crisis.
Computers in schools without textbooks, Sunil Pokhrel
Unlearning education, Anurag Acharya
With inputs from members of the non-profit Nepali Academics in America (NACA):
Nalini Subba-Chhetri, Netra B. Chhetri, Udaya Wagle, Milan Shrestha, Gyan Nyaupane, Neelam C. Poudyal, Marohang Limbu and Brijesh Thapa
The Nepali Academics in America (NACA) is a US-based non-profit and non-partisan network established to enhance collaboration among Nepali academics and scholars.