On March 20, when Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli announced the closure of all the organisations except those providing essential services as a preventive measure to control the outbreak of novel coronavirus in Nepal, all educational institutions were prepared to shut down.
But, Sanu Maya Bolon, a BBA first semester student at King’s College in Kathmandu, was not free from the ‘burden’ of her assignments. On March 22, at 6 in the morning, she went online–with a lot of preparations and excitement. She joined a chatroom of 32 other classmates and her English Composition teacher Bhawana Shrestha for a two-hour class, online.
One day after that, the government announced a nationwide lockdown and travelling “unless emergency” was restricted. But, Sanu Maya and her classmates had their classes ‘on’, online. Their teacher, Bhawana, shares that her college was all prepared to conduct online classes if the situation demands anytime. Experiences of people like Bolon and Shrestha suggest that the lockdown, though it was not desirable, showed a glimmer of hope towards technological transformation in the Nepali education sector.
The new horizon
One week into the lockdown, many had already realised that the timeframe would be extended. As expected, the government has already added another week of lockdown. With the extension now, various private educational institutions are coming up with an alternative solution to conduct their classes online. Some departments of Tribhuvan University and Kathmandu University have also announced they are conducting online classes, during this period.
Chandi Raj Dahal, an assistant professor of media studies at KU School of Arts, has also been conducting classes online for the past week. He finds this mode helpful as teachers and students can be connected outside Kathmandu and even internationally. “While there will not be an easy alternative for face-to-face communication, this has created a great opportunity for us to start a new era of learning.”
Meanwhile, Sagun Shrestha, a Nepali PhD student at Dublin City University in Ireland, says the online classes can be effective even in Nepal as they provide students with emotional support as they get to meet their friends online, amid this lockdown.
He is currently busy researching more about online teaching-learning and says the findings so far show that the group activities are most effective to conduct online. He is also of the view that it can be very effective to push and enhance teachers, parents and learners alike to acquire digital literacy and excel.
Seconding his argument, Narottam Aryal, the president of King’s College, says, “We have only conducted a couple of demo classes, and a couple of full-fledged classes online, and we are already getting feedback from students saying that they would like to integrate online classes even after the lockdown is over and all is settled. We are already talking about the possibilities.”
With that, the changing times have changed the meaning of technology for people at homes still continuing their work. Laptops and mobile phones with a good internet connection have become more important than ever to stay connected; they are also important in teaching-learning also.
“It took me a bit of time, but there are so many tools that I was unaware of; they are all very useful and interactive, they enhance classroom activities as we [students] can comment and connect with everyone. Also, with the technology, the teachers can also easily keep track of whether the students are participating equally, and what we are doing in our space. In our online class, it is important for everyone to comment or answer, even if it’s just one line. So, it certainly keeps you on your toes,” shares Sanu Maya.
It not only keeps the students but teachers on their toes as well. Bhawana thinks the new mode of class requires more attention from the teachers, and that is good. “There are many screens for one teacher to monitor. The teacher has to make extra efforts to connect with the students and that means another dedicated time to communicate.”
Assessing the effectiveness
While online classes are not a new concept, it is new for students and teachers alike in Nepal. Though they have found this practice quite exciting now, its effectiveness is yet to be assessed.
“We are affiliated with Westcliff University, so the discussion about conducting online classes was ongoing for quite some time, and we got ample help from the university to make it effective,” informs Narottam, maintaining sufficient preparations are imperative for the effectiveness of the online classes.
Sagun agrees. He says there are two kinds of approaches one can take in any online class: synchronous and asynchronous. Synchronous tools allow delivery of lessons in real-time, in the form of live sessions from platforms like Zoom, Google Meet, Skype, ezTalks, Slack, Blackboard, etc. In asynchronous tools, the responses are quite delayed. The examples include learning management systems like Moodle, Canvas, etc.
Based on her experiences as both a student and a teacher, Sweta Baniya, a Nepali PhD Candidate at Purdue University in the US, says the teachers have to think about the accessibility of students before designing the curriculum. “We cannot force online education on students or parents who cannot afford a laptop or computer for their children, let alone the internet. Accessibility will be a huge issue if the students cannot download the stuff we post online.” From the US, she is currently collaborating with King’s College to conduct online classes.
New platforms of learning
The practitioners say one of the most effective, hence commonly used, platforms for online classes is Zoom, a video conferencing platform, which is more common for meetings internationally. The platform has options like conferences and webinars that can easily cater to an online class. Considering the current crisis, the platform has also announced that it would remove the 40-minute limits for its free services in March while even for the paid services, it has increased the number of participants to 100.
Another platform is Google Meet (Hangouts Meet) that can be used easily for setting up a meeting or an online class. Google CEO Sundar Pichai has announced free access to the platform for all educational customers until July 2020, to ease the educational growth of all worldwide. Many are already using it as a complementary tool for their classroom activities while the announcement has increased its potentialities.
There is also Moodle that is an open-source learning platform. It is customisable and used worldwide for many of the online courses as well integrated into the syllabus. This has also announced free registrations for the month of April and shows a lot of potentials for Nepali educational institutions.
Also in Nepal, telecommunication giants NTC and Ncell both have announced special packages and bonuses to make the connectivity easier and more accessible for everyone, especially for those working from home and even students.
Problems to overcome
While there are exciting possibilities, there are still problems that come along with this breakthrough.
One of the most complained aspects has been the internet connectivity. “We practised for the whole week, but on the very first day of real class, my internet was down and I could not connect with the students and they were left confused. Thankfully, we had the technical team and a stand-by teacher and the things were handled. But this does create a problem on the smooth operation, and all our preparations go in vain,” shares Bhawana.
Meanwhile, Sagun adds that one of the two dominant issues that discourage running online classes is the limited availability of technological infrastructures in academic institutions and at the homes. The second is the limited digital literacy among the stakeholders involved in the teaching-learning process.
Bhawana also fears that it might make students take the physical classroom for granted given they have the options of an online classroom.
“Apart from conducting online classes for higher-level education, online classes are also appropriate for language classes like IELTS, GMAT, TOEFL, SAT, etc.,” says Anu Musyakhwo, a Master’s of Optometry student at Ansal University in India, based on her recent online class experience. Now back to her home in Bhaktapur due to the crisis, she is currently attending her dissertation preparation class online.
Stakeholders agree. Mahashram Sharma, a former secretary in Nepal’s Ministry of Education, says, “Now that have the opportunity and importance of IT is realised more than ever. If we are to start and go digital, this is the right time to get a head start.” Data also show that mobile penetration in Nepal has reached 130 per cent (because one person may have more than one phone number) and 62 per cent of them use the internet on their phones.
There is a prospect of connecting teachers and students outside Kathmandu as well. “However, for schools outside Kathmandu, we first have to adopt asynchronous tools to teach and impart knowledge. We have problems such as teachers not being enough, lack of infrastructural development, students walking long hours for school. We are underdeveloped and lagging behind,” says Mahashram adding, “The first step would be the integration of YouTube, TV, radios, including ‘how-to’ tutorials and video-based chapters to first get them acclimatised to handling tools, and then introduce a proper syllabus. The Curriculum Development Centre should bring up the necessary packages. However, the possibility of conducting classes for school-level education is yet to be discussed.”
On this, Sagun also suggests stakeholders, specifically primarily teachers, need to be careful in the planning stage of running online classes. “Firstly, one needs to collect some data about the possible devices the students can use to join online classes. Then, we need to work on their skills to handle digital devices to remain in such classes, and parents to create a conducive environment for the students. The schools need to be in touch with parents and their emails so that they get a chance to keep track of their children’s progress.”
He adds, “Our courses are too loaded with content or theories, and at times, their connection to the real world is missing. We should encourage teachers to make learning more applied or practical, and it might also encourage them to design their teaching that integrates digital technologies.”