The whole world is battling against the COVID-19 pandemic. Businesses, trade, industries and day to day life have been affected. But they continue to function somehow. Education on the other hand is a different story. UNESCO estimates that 1.7 billion learners that account to over 90% of total students are forced out of education because of the current pandemic. The reality is no different in Nepal. Over 8 million students, their parents, and their teachers are all in confusion. The government hasn’t put forward any clear strategy. UNESCO has warned that dropout rates are likely to climb after schools reopen. The longer the closures, the deeper the impact. An interesting report by the Lancet study, led by University College London, found that school closures could have a relatively small impact on the coronavirus’s spread. But amid parental concerns and clear lack of mechanism in case the schools are affected means the schools won’t be re-opened in a hurry. And even if they do open, parents are likely not to send their children to schools until situation gets back to normal.
Researchers claim the virus is here to stay and 2nd wave of virus is very likely after the lockdown is lifted. Hence the lockdown can go on and off for a few more months and possibly a year and half. The future of over a billion students is in jeopardy. So as an alternative to conventional education system, online and distance learning is being pitched forward. But before making any rash decisions we need to carefully consider the moving parts. Developed countries will find it a lot easier to switch to digital education but for LDCs like Nepal it is easier said than done.
It is not like the GON has done nothing at all, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology of Nepal has launched a learning portal for students from class 1 to 10. It will be operated and controlled by the Education and Human Resource Development Center CEHRD. Only time will tell if this is a genuine attempt towards digitizing education, impersonation or a juggling act.
Words like “online education” or “online learning” are being thrown around a lot recently. Online education as the name suggests is a system of learning stuffs online, with the help of internet. Several universities in the world already had online education for courses even before the pandemic. Now the need of online learning is more than ever. Online education may seem like a quick and easy alternative but it is not without problems of its own. This statement from Bill gates is sufficient to outline the most elementary problem. “Particularly for the low-income students where the online learning hasn’t been fully enabled because, you know, they don’t have the equipment or the connection or the teacher is not set up for it. The inequity has gotten greater in education,”– Bill Gates (Source: CNN) .
Let us look at the state of connectivity in Nepal.
CIA world fact book data:
Telephones – mobile cellular: This entry gives the total number of mobile cellular telephone subscribers, as well as the number of subscriptions per 100 inhabitants. Note that because of the ubiquity of mobile phone use in developed countries, the number of subscriptions per 100 inhabitants can exceed 100.
Total subscriptions: 39,178,451
Subscriptions per 100 inhabitants: 132 (2018 est.)
Country comparison to the world: 38
Domestic: 3G coverage is available in 20 major cities (2019); disparity between high coverage in cities and coverage available in underdeveloped rural regions; fixed-line 3 per 100 persons and mobile-cellular 132 per 100 persons; fair radiotelephone communication service; 20% of the market share is fixed (wired) broadband, 2% is fixed (wireless) broadband, and 78% is mobile broadband (2019)
Nepal also has 3 state operated TV stations, as well as national and regional radio stations; 117 television channels are licensed, among those 71 are cable television channels, three are distributed through Direct-To-Home (DTH) system, and four are digital terrestrial; 736 FM radio stations are licensed and at least 314 of those radio stations are community radio stations (2019). But these numbers belie a harsh reality: huge disparities and inequalities persist between regions and social groups.
So, if Universities like TU or KU implements full-fledged online education, we will come across a digital divide. A Dalit teenage girl in Kerala allegedly committed suicide because her family couldn’t facilitate her to join online classes. Her father was a daily wage worker. Nepal has about one fourth of its people living in poverty. Drop outs, non-participation and more extreme cases as such will occur if we are not careful .To address this, we have to make sure to exploit every mode of communication possible.
Although no physical presence is required in online as well as distance education, the mode of communication are different. Distance learning differs from online learning in a way because there is no in-person interaction between students and teachers. In some countries, the students at lower-level never have to sit on exams. The teachers will give assessments on the basis of some assignments and that’s how they mark the progress of the students.
Although e-learning can potentially enable many useful life skills, the lockdown has exposed the digital divide in Nepalese society. And not just students, many teachers are also facing the brunt of this and struggling to effectively relay information to their students, who are also grasping at straws to understand. The digital divide typically exists between those in cities and those in rural areas; between the educated and the uneducated. Even among populations with some access to technology, the digital divide can be in existence in the form of lower-performance computers and devices and lower-speed or unreliable internet connections.
The Nepal Media Landscape Survey carried out by Sharecast Initiative Nepal in 2018 illustrates that ownership of radio sets and mobile phones has increased to 59 percent and 98 percent respectively. Similarly, the survey shows that 72 percent of households in Nepal own a TV set and nearly 60 percent of people watch television every day. While the ownership of these household amenities has increased dramatically since 2011, the disparity in the distribution of these resources between urban and rural areas and across classes is still high. There is something called the RTDF (Rural Telecommunication Development Fund) which can be used to develop and upgrade the telecommunications sector. We can upgrade internet coverage and data plans to ensure the availability of networks throughout the nation. Similarly, why not plan certain discounts for students in data plans and the internet? But this is a long term plan. Right now, it is impossible to impart online education that is accessible to everyone. There was unsatisfactory turnouts of students from historically oppressed communities and regions even before the lockdown. If we go forward with online education, the bridging of the gap will be even more difficult. Hence Focus should be centered on mass communication sector to achieve immediate goals.
The rush by countries to shut down schools was one of the first instinctive global responses as covid-19 began scything through populations. At the same time, educators and others have expressed worries about possible setbacks for children caused by extended schools closures, particularly for those who lack access to online schooling. In Wuhan, China, the source of the outbreak, the lockdown was eased April 8, allowing 11 million people to get back to work — but not school. Leaders in developed nations have suggested that schools need to re-open. The Australian Prime minister Morrison said that swiftly reopening schools is crucial for “those students who we know won’t get an education at home. It’s a sad reality but we know it’s true and we need to face it.” Several nations carried out teacher training to equip teachers with necessary knowledge to conduct online and distance learning effectively. But the Nepal Government hasn’t utilized this time to take any such actions. It is a formidable challenge for teachers and students who have been thrown into this situation and they are helpless. It is also evident that there seems to be no clear consensus on how this situation is to be handled among administrations around the world.
Abhiroop Mukhopadhyay of the Indian Statistical Institute argues “While learning online has become inevitable, we will not be successful until we understand that teaching online doesn’t mean taking the entire classroom on Zoom and continuing with the same delivery approaches. This may be a subtle point, but has deep implications.” We need to make sure that this revamping of education will not be the same present in a different wrapper.
Education is really aimed at helping students get to the point where they can learn on their own. (Noam Chomsky)
Education institutes are similar to media institutes in a way they function but it is a bit harder to systematically analyze them because of their complex nature. A government or a power center only allows the curriculum and teaching to go as advanced as it can control. Education system in our nation has effectively been about control. Competition among students is encouraged to create a hierarchy so that a distinct divide between learners can be created. It is easier to control disunited masses. Progressive educationist have long been advocating child centered education as opposed to the conventional target driven system.
The current education delivery is basically “here are stuffs you should read, learn and be able to repeat”. Our education system rewards discipline more than understanding. Some learners just play along the rules and think that they will have to do those stupid things and agree to the system to get ahead. Others unconsciously assimilate that as a part of their behavior. Give it enough time and the line that divided the two stream of thoughts gets pretty blurred. This change in system that everyone is talking about should not be just about the means but be about the content and method as well.