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KATHMANDU: The nationwide lockdown enforced to curb COVID-19 pandemic in the country has led to a complete shutdown of all educational institutions in Nepal. Millions of students ranging from pre-school to university are compelled to stay at home.
With the lockdown in its 5th week here, the days of reopening the schools and colleges are still uncertain. As students are not able to attend classes in person, many parents are seeking out online resources, apps, and games to keep their kids’ minds engaged at home.
According to the Department of Education, there are 7 million students at the school level. They could have completed their grades and would have been promoted to upper grades had the pandemic spread not impaired their school days.
Smelling the foul the novel coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China could make in everyone’s life here, the government issued the order to complete the annual exams at school level by March 18.
The National Examination Board issued a notice on March 18 and postponed SEE, the annual grade exam for Grade 10. A total of 482,219 students got the notice of their exam postponement 10 hours before the scheduled time.
The postponement of SEE scheduled for March 19-30 despaired the students who could enjoy 3 months of leisure before their Grade XI classes would start.
Officials from the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, the regulating authority for education in Nepal, who have been in long slumber enjoying their holidays offered by lockdown have now, woke up and since the last few days, they have started disseminating instructions to the educators to start virtual classes instantly.
However, the educators and the institutions are skeptic about the possibility of running virtual classes effectively at this hour.
“Most of the students are out of contact and many of them don’t have any access to internet facility as required for the ‘zoom’ classes,” Ramesh Prasad Sharma, Principal of MDMSS, Kathmandu said, “neither the teacher is prepared enough for it.”
Sharma, who has been an educator for more than 35 years, tried it in his school but despite well-equipped lab found it not effective yet.
“There are limitations,” he says, “The teachers are not prepared for it, when they are in lockdown we can’t just instruct them to prepare. We need to think about the resources they have with them. Secondly, do they have the devices, the internet and environment at home; then can the parents make the environment required for it? Most of them can’t because they were not prepared for it.”
Deependra Bajracharya, Business Development Manager at Microsoft Development Pvt. Ltd. Singapore is familiar with the limitations of such classes as well. Bajracharya, in an interview published in ictframe.com, echoed Sharma when he said such classes are effective to those who are somehow used to with the technology before.
What is a virtual classroom? Are we prepared?
According to Dr. Veronica Racheva, a virtual classroom is an online learning environment that allows for live interaction between the tutor and the learners as they are participating in learning activities.
According to her, the most common tools of the virtual classroom are videoconferencing, online whiteboard for real-time collaboration, an instant messaging tool, participation controls and breakout rooms.
Judged from this point of view, most of the institutions are not equipped enough for an effective classroom.
“If it’s for engaging the students then also it’s unlikely to address more than 5 or 10 percent students,” Raju Rana Magar of Madan Bhandari Memorial School, says.
Binod Adhikari, the Campus Chief of Arya College has tried ZOOM classes. His experience is not much encouraging as well.
“Such classes can be interactive and useful only when the number of students is small,” Adhikari shared his experience with Khabarhub, “If you give time to the students when they are in big number, you have no time to go ahead at all; if you ignore the class is boring.”
“There is the risk of losing students’ attention on both cases, when you let them speak they make class unmanageable, when you ignore, they lose attention. Unless the students and teachers are used to it, the classes are not much effective,” he concludes.
Bajracharya from Microsoft also thinks the effectiveness of such classes lies in familiarity with technology.
“Honestly speaking, most schools and colleges are not prepared for online education,” Bajracharya says, “Some Universities like Nepal Open University and Kathmandu University (KU) are in an ideal state to conduct online education.”
Microsoft has provided over 250+ educational institutes with online education resources.
With insufficient technocrat teachers, poor technology like slow internet, lack of access to it and no previous experience of online classes it is tough nut to crack in Nepal’s context.
Role of DoE
Department of Education, like other departments of Government, turned quite late in responding to the situation. Despite making various provisions about online education it did not get much priority from the government side.
When asked about the preparedness the government was making the soft-toned spokesperson of the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology had given a relaxing answer on March 22.
“Most of the school children have attended their annual exam and it’s their natural session break made a bit longer,” Deepak Sharma, the spokesperson at the Ministry said then, “Provided the epidemic gets worse further actions will be taken.”
However, he did not specify what those ‘further actions’ included.
Now nearly after 4 months of COVID-19 outbreak, the government has formed a committee to study the modality of online classes. The committee formed under former Minister of Science and Technology Ganesh Shah made six subcommittees to study about it.
The subcommittee formed under Dr. Lekh Nath Sharma, the Vice-Chancellor of Nepal Open University, has already submitted its report. His report has advised adopting different methods for different regions.
“No single method can be recommended as all applicable in Nepal,” Sharma said, “We recommend the measures ranging from online teaching to using local media as means of teaching-learning.”
He also confesses that taking it to all students is difficult as it’s the first time in Nepal. Technically also the internet access is not much easy. As per the survey, Nepal Telecommunication Authority started in 2020, 21.29 million have access to the internet. Out of it, only 55.30% have access to mobile internet.
Similarly, according to the report of the High-Level Education Commission 2018, there are 27883 community schools. Only 10 thousand such schools have access to computer which means about 12% of schools have computer access. 13% of schools have internet access and only 35% of such schools have an electricity facility. In such a situation, how can the teachers and the students there be well acquainted enough to take/give online education?
How are other countries coping?
China, the first country to be affected by the pandemic has opened the school with lots of precautions.
The schools of China are reopening phase-wise nearly after 4 months. According to China’s Ministry of Education, the students must have their temperatures checked at school gates and show “green” health codes on an app that calculates a person’s infection risk before entering the schools there.
Most of the countries in Europe and the developed countries in Asia are handling online classes. With nice technical backup and the practice of using online materials has made the classes for senior grades comfortably better in those countries. For junior ones, they are planning to open phase-wise as online classes can’t compensate for the socializing normal classes often nurture.
South Korea has tried differently. The teacher enters the class assuming students are in the classroom. Students respond from home. Everything else including attendance taking is done as in the real classroom.
Are online classes safe?
When people are speaking about the significance of online classes, many people are concerned about the risk the children are exposed to while attending the online classes.
Hye Jung Han Researcher and Advocate, Children’s Rights in her write up As Schools Close Over Coronavirus, Protect Kids’ Privacy in Online Learning expresses concern about children’s privacy. “In the frantic rush to figure out which internet education technologies to use, government and schools need to factor data privacy considerations in their selection criteria,” she says.
Recent news about the hacking of zoom, and the threats of being hacked underlying in using such technology highlight the need to think about risks haphazard use of technology can expose to.
“No solution will be perfect, and countries will need to use their best judgment during this unprecedented time. But by keeping the rights of children at the forefront, parents, teachers, schools, and governments can better understand the risks while planning for equitable and accessible remote learning,” Han says reiterating the significance of children’s privacy.
Are there alternatives?
“Surely,” answers educator Sharma, “We get alternatives everywhere. If the online classes are not effective due to lack of other technology, we can use the national and local media for teaching-learning.”
Online classes, provided the government ensures the security of children, work for the time being but for those who can not be included in such classes we have to seek other options as well.
He advises the government to work together with various organizations like PABSON and N-PABSON to prepare a roster of technology-friendly teachers, train them, and in collaboration with various television channels telecast classes for various grades through various television channels.
“Though such classes can’t be perfect either,” he adds “all students having access to a TV can enjoy the classes.”