Preparing schools for a changing digital landscape

In the last two decades, the world has witnessed a dramatic shift in both its educational and technical landscapes. Nepal has attempted to follow suit.

I grew up in a middle class family in south eastern Nepal. We did not have a computer at home, let alone a cell phone. My family used a dial up phone that was securely locked up when not in use. In middle school, I had the privilege of using the single computer at school for 45 minutes, once a week. The computer class syllabus focussed on the hardware mechanics of the computer: a basic introduction to ROM and RAM. At the time, those words were very new to us.

Since then, the world of technology has drastically changed. Now majority of

Nepali households have one, if not multiple, cell phones. In the urban centres of the country, digital technology has become a staple in the syllabi even in early elementary classrooms.

Ranging from basic programming skills to machine learning in python, the incorporation of digital technology is a vital part of a holistic education in today’s world. The potential use of integrating digital technologies into the Nepali education system is not only necessary but also imperative. However, for this to become a reality, government policies supporting modern educational practices need to be more favourable.

Digital technologies have changed our way of communication, both nationally and internationally. The ubiquitous cell phone has become a vital mode of communication in developing countries. In urban Nepal, it is common for individuals, including teenagers, to own at least one digital device for both, communication and recreational use.

In addition, other mobile technologies like laptops, smart phones and e-books have also become popular gadgets to own, albeit among the affluent. However, even with these devices, the network in Nepal is not reliable. As a result of poor network services, many people carry multiple sets of mobile phones or purchase a phone that holds multiple sim cards.

On March 23, 2020, with the discovery of a few COVID-19 cases in Nepal, the government announced the closure of all schools and colleges for more than a month. However, with the continued increase of COVID cases, the government has continued to extend the lockdown. When they began to close schools in March, students were at the end of the school year and preparing for the final exams.

The board exams for grades 10 (SEE) and 12 have been put on hold indefinitely, seriously affecting the lives of students. After a few weeks off, most urban schools chose to continue the school year online. They used a variety of online learning platforms such as Zoom, Google Meet and Skype. Not all teachers in Nepal were equipped to integrate technology into their courses, but they are finding creative ways to use the available to support student learning. This would not have been possible if urban schools of Nepal had not provided the resources, including introductory digital technology devices.

Whereas teachers might be struggling to adapt to this new form of learning, students, a number of whom own their own personal devices and are, in general, a technologically advanced generation, might be finding it easier. However, this is only limited to schools in the urban areas of the country. Even in the most urban regions of the country, not all students have the materials necessary to succeed in an online learning environment.

Many schools and homes in the rural areas of the country not only lack the Internet, but also the technological devices required for online-learning. These schools and pupils in the rural areas fall through the cracks. In the far western part of the country, students walk for miles to go to school. At home, these students might not even have their basic necessities covered, struggling for food to eat and warm clothes to wear. How can they afford a cell phone, let alone a laptop necessary for online learning?

As a result of the prolonged uncertainty of the lockdown in Nepal, the schools in

Kathmandu that have the necessary resources have already upgraded their students’ (except for SEE, and 12) supplies necessary to continue online classes, particularly in the higher grade levels. With limited resources and poor physical infrastructure, most rural parts of Nepal do not have well-trained teachers. Additionally, the quality of educational resources is poor. Even today, classes are held under a tree for lack of physical infrastructure.

Students in rural areas do not have the same advantages and opportunities as urban students. Students who are able often move to a city to pursue their higher education. In this situation, distance learning through the use of digital technologies can enable such students to take online courses or prepare for exams, even in the post-pandemic period.

Many organisations have already begun to focus on the development of digital technology throughout the country so that all the students have access to education materials and resources. For example, Dr. Mahabir Pun’s project “Nepal Wireless Networking Project” with Open Learning Exchange works to develop wireless capabilities that reach the remotest parts of the Himalayas.

They have been working with schools since 2007 to provide free and equitable access to quality education and innovative learning by integrating technology in daily life. Likewise, to support students’ access to cost-efficient Internet, Nepal Telecom has launched a new e-Shiksha package for students, schools and colleges.

During the lockdown, Room to Read is working to provide literary materials to the students and communities through traditional (i.e., radio) and modern (i.e., social media) forms of media. These are examples of creative methods private businesses and non-profit organizations funded by international donors are working to ensure that Nepal’s young people are not only able to continue their education through this pandemic, but that they have the technical know-how to succeed in today’s world.

While there are many national organisations and private learning centres that are working to provide digital learning training to teachers and students, it is time for the Department of Education to take greater responsibility in ensuring that these resources are available to all institutions, regardless of geographical location and wealth. The Department of Education must work to ensure that schools and students have equal access to available digital technologies and resources. Also, it is vital to train educators to implement available technologies into their curriculum.

Instead of having students in the rural areas wait for half the school year to receive textbooks, the government should be able to quickly and efficiently transfer digital textbooks to the these schools in a couple of minutes. This technology exists, and the government should facilitate the resources available and prioritise education.

Even when the lockdown ends, is it really safe for students to go back to school? What will the future hold for students without the technical resources and training required to succeed in the 21st century? The government should focus on the future of all the students. Instead of simply encouraging school to close online classes, it should make an effort to develop digital curricula, resources and a learning environment for all students, regardless of geographical location or socio-economic status. It should not only encourage, but also support schools in integrating technology into their curriculum.

Rajouria has an MEd in Education Technology from the University of Hawaii