Making online education effectiveThe government needs to allocate more funds to support online teaching-learning.
As mentioned in the budget statement for this fiscal year, the government has decided to provide soft loans of up to Rs80,000 to students of government schools and those in higher education to procure laptops. The loan, which carries a nominal 1 percent interest and is repayable in two years, is expected to facilitate the alternate teaching-learning process. This scheme looks attractive but grossly fails to take note of the fact that students and teachers are in the same boat so far as infrastructural challenges are concerned. The post-pandemic situation demands that both teachers and learners possess at least a working laptop or desktop computer, or mobile set with good quality internet features.
That the government failed to prioritise education in the budget is evident from the sub-optimal allocation of funds to support the entire ecosystem of online teaching-learning. Taking stock of the current situation, we can see that the digital divide is glaringly wide in a country where private players in education are somehow able to maintain online teaching-learning without many hiccups but those in public schools and remote places are found to be wanting to launch online education. Learners in public schools could hardly get the prescribed books in adequate quantities at the beginning of their academic year, let alone digital devices such as laptops or mobiles. On the positive side, the number of broadband internet users rose by 10.63 percentage points this year compared to 2020, but the sad reality is that more often than not, the internet is used more for surfing social media platforms than productive teaching-learning purposes.
As per a UNICEF report, at least two-thirds of Nepal’s schoolchildren were unable to access remote learning due to school closures last year. The reality is that online education has not been effective in the two years following the Covid outbreak. After the initial euphoria that the government created through tall claims in the budget, it has not been able to roll out any effective strategies so far. For instance, the announcement that broadband internet would be expanded to 60 percent of the community schools by the end of this fiscal year is a case in point. This announcement is more of a ritual and continuation of last year's promises that has hardly seen any progress.
The impeded learning in the last two academic years demonstrates that policymakers and political leaders are concerned only about the completion of the courses in routine fashion. No attention is given to objective assessment of the learners and overall efficacy of teaching-learning pedagogy. Most of the schools, be they private or public, have promoted their students without proper evaluation and due assessment. The quality of learning of those sent up to the next level unconditionally remains questionable. The assessment criteria have hardly been designed in line with the teaching-learning objective under the online mode. A total lack of technical skills on the part of teachers and learners missing the needed infrastructure is acting as a stumbling block to making online education truly effective.
Research shows that it is imperative for teachers to have competency in information and communications technology (ICT), and it needs to be enhanced in higher education. The prevailing situation at the school level hinders the smooth running of online classes due to a lack of adequate ICT infrastructure and incompetent teachers. In addition, most schools and colleges have failed to devise ways to accurately measure the learning outcome of their students. Most of them jumped on the post-pandemic online bandwagon without due diligence of their current capabilities.
Another research in higher education suggests that online and distance education further exacerbated inequities as a majority of the universities and colleges failed to provide strong pedagogical support to students from marginalised and disadvantaged communities. Most institutions across all levels, already challenged by infrastructural limitations, have migrated to the virtual mode, turning a blind eye to their preliminary setup. One of the oldest universities in the country struggled hard to conduct online examinations after the pandemic, demonstrating its lack of preparedness in the online teaching-learning process.
For effective implementation of online teaching-learning, formulating proper policy trajectories to guide educational institutions before shifting to online education is a must. For moving ahead in the digital transformation journey, infrastructure remains critical. Availability, affordability and accessibility of technological products are going to determine the efficacy of online education. Training and skill-building among teachers can’t be neglected. Teachers need to be trained in the use of new software for online teaching-learning. Additionally, new software with built-in features that can check for plagiarism needs to be procured. The Rs1.2 billion earmarked for alternate education in this year's budget needs to be broken down under headings such as teachers’ training, development of new software and alternative delivery mechanisms to make it implementable. Local software professionals need to be encouraged to design customised software that can successfully assess the stage-wise effectiveness of the teaching-learning process.
The government should think of ways and means whereby cost-effective internet packages can be made accessible to both teachers and learners while extending concessional loans for the purchase of laptops and mobiles. This would certainly help in attracting both teachers and learners to the new learning system. Efforts must also be made to encourage ed-tech start-ups to develop customised local content to be offered for massive open online courses to learners in remote areas. Such novel initiatives are very much needed as knowledge dissemination through cell phones is more effective than traditional means such as TV and radio. This option can prove to be more successful if we consider the fact that Nepal’s mobile internet penetration rate has touched almost 100 percent, which is the highest in South Asia, next only to Sri Lanka. It is the readiness of the ecosystem of online education and the preparedness on the part of all stakeholders which can make online education effective and sustainable in the days to come.