Schools across Nepal are looking for viable options to continue the new academic year amid many uncertainties about the future. They have started online classes as the shutdown continues, and although online education will increase the existing digital divide in the nation, there are not many options.
The internet penetration rate in Nepal is 72%, out of which 55% have access to wireless services and 17% to wireline internet, and 96% of households have access to smartphones.
However, most Nepalis use the internet only to access social media – especially Facebook and YouTube. So, online classes will not have a significant impact on students without proper groundwork and will depend not only on the availability of technical infrastructure, but also a basic technical knowledge on the part of students and teachers about how online platforms work.
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This is the right time for the government to invest in education. The Education Ministry has allocated Rs70 million to launch online classes which will help start the movement, but will not be enough to give momentum to developing a new education system. At the same time, the government also needs to build a framework to expand internet connectivity to rural areas.
Additionally, Nepal Telecom and Ncell need to be persuaded to provide internet service to students at minimal cost and fulfil their corporate social responsibility. Service providers in Nepal are strictly business-oriented, which makes the internet an expensive luxury. Not every student can afford online classes, even if some service providers have offered lower costs at this time. Many students will still not be able to afford it.
Online classes require at least 3G broadband access, which much of rural Nepal does not have. Wireless broadband is even more expensive. Currently, 1 Megabyte of internet costs Rs1, which means that an hour of online visual classes at the lowest video quality would require 300MB internet, costing students Rs300 every hour.
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The best way to conduct the online classes is if academic institutions facilitate classes by making use of freely available educational platforms like Google Classroom, without charging tuition fees to students. Only one-fourth of Nepali public schools have computers, and even fewer have internet connectivity.
We have to be aware of bridging the digital divide, but although bridging the digital divide could take time, bridging the knowledge divide among students across the country does not have to.
Reading materials can just as easily be disseminated through radio and television. A country that has seen a revolution in community radio is well placed to rely on its reach to make sure that students are not deprived of necessary information. That is also distance learning, and it is a good start. But our goal should be to reach every corner of the country and to make Nepal digitally connected.
For educators, conducting classes online will mean navigating newer ways of monitoring and evaluating students. This includes being trained in conducting video conferences, webinars, and making videos for YouTube. Teachers will also have to adapt to the online format while prescribing lessons and assignments, focusing on idea-sharing and creative writing. Online classes will also be meaningless if institutions continue to set store by the three-hour-final-exam modality.
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The digital shift can also pose challenges to educators. In this day and age, some students may actually be more technically savvy than teachers. This means teachers can actually learn from their students even as the students gain knowledge from them, making learning a two-way process. However, teachers need to be extra vigilant about some students misusing online platforms. Plagiarism, for instance, could flourish if students rely exclusively on the internet for academic work.
Although distance learning might feel difficult for educators and students, many universities around the globe had already been doing this successfully before the pandemic. Students experience university education without having to physically appear in class and are evaluated through their assignments, presentations, open-question exams — all without it negatively affecting students’ academic experience or the quality of education provided by the institution.
Madhu Sudan Dahal is a researcher and senior engineer at Nepal Telecom.