COVID-19 is health issue. It has, however, significantly upset all dimensions of human life, including education. According to a UNESCO report, 1.6 billion children all around world have been severely hit by the temporary closure of educational institutions - schools, colleges and universities. Nearly nine million students of Nepal suffered its consequences bearing negative impact on their social life, learning and skills development. In order to lessen its impact, educational institutions have tried to respond to the closure differently in various contexts with a range of options for students, teachers, administrators and parents, depending on the online resources available to them. They adopted e-learning at the educational institutions for teaching and assessment. In a nation of unevenly distributed technologies and infrastructures, however, there are a number of challenges around equitable access to e-learning. Innovative technologies are at the centre of all options with the aim to lend some form of educational continuity. As distance and online education is dependent on technological facilities, including internet and Wi-Fi, the discrepancies that exist in their availability are widening the gaps in access and quality of education.
Digital disparity The use of digital learning has also created inequalities in access to education owing to the entrenched socio-economic disparity. Around 56 per cent people in Nepal have access to internet. Even though 35 per cent schools have internet facilities, only about 13 per cent of them have resources to run online classes. The digital divide and uneven access to e-learning and e-resources will further increase inequalities between social groups, leaving a huge number of students behind. It can be concluded that technology based teaching/learning offers several benefits but it can also exacerbate inequality if it is not handled in a planned way. This will in turn hamper the efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4, which stresses inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning opportunities for all. Likewise, SDG 10, which aims at reducing inequalities, will also be affected. Now most of schools and universities are operating classes in person. They are facing immense pressure to catch up academic calendar. As a result, the whole focus is centralised on finishing syllabus rather than giving proper skills vital for building the future. They are already experiencing high dropout of students as another consequences of this pandemic. Many family members have lost their jobs. So students from poor economic background are forced to join work to have additional hand to help in families’ economic crisis. In remote backward areas, parents are asking their children to help them in farming, livestock management and other gainful activities and those who can economically afford are eager to send their children abroad for foreign employment. Prior to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the idea of imparting education through the information communication technology (ICT) was widely discussed. The government had already devised the policy such as School Sector Reform Plan (2009-2015), ICT in Education Master Plan 2013-2017 and Schools Sector Development Plan 2016-2023 to expand ICT infrastructure in schools to support ICT associated teaching/learning materials and strategies, equitable access to quality education and reduce digital divide. These plans also focus on enhancing the efficiency and effectiveness of educational management and governance. However, these plans and policies do not seem to have great impact on ground. Majority of schools neither have ICT infrastructures nor human resource not even access to internet, which made them vulnerable to the pandemic. But this pandemic has given Nepal an opportunity to redefine education. Here are three substantive areas one needs to address. First, we need to strengthen both online and offline classes in line with Nepal’s education system - the public, community-based and private, diversity in population and geography, keeping teachers and students at center of everything. Changing definition and style of offline classes has been a key part of discussion since long time and some changes have been visible. This should continue and connect with online classes. Before the pandemic, online learning environment existed as a virtual library and store of information and not in a space where day-to-day learning took place. The pandemic has unveiled that online space can be no less engaging, enriching and accessible than offline. Second, engaging students effectively as partners in teaching and learning is arguably one of the most important issues in higher education in 21st Century especially after this pandemic. Students as partners is a concept which interweaves many other debates, including assessment and feedback, employability, flexible pedagogies, internationalisation, linking teaching and research and even internship. In this paradigm students can co-design activities and assessments, making them active participants in their learning. Students can help shape the format of live activities, for instance, by giving regular feedback which is easier to carry out online. Third, it is necessary to redefine students’ engagement. The very definition of student engagement is contentious, and varies by contextual background. In general, it refers to a student’s participation in their active learning process. Before the pandemic, engagement and attendance were often synonymous. The students’ participation in a course was measured by whether or not they turned up in classes in person. The interactions and discussions that students take part in online can say much more about active engagement than simply showing up at a lecture as passive listener. This is particularly true for those who might have found regularly attending a class challenging but are able to demonstrate their enthusiasm and insight more clearly online.
Awareness Educational intuitions are not only about teaching and learning but also about raising social skills and awareness to fit the labour market, earn one’s own livelihood and enhance career prospect. Missing schools even for a relatively short time will have negative consequences for skill growth the society needs in crises. Furthermore, Nepal has formulated a number of ICT and education-related policies since 2000. Still, the challenges remain especially in areas of poor understanding of pandemic, slow response, faulty implementation strategies and inability to implement educational and health policies. It is too early to fully grasp the impact of COVID-19 in the education system in Nepal. There are enough indicators that provide insight to the policy makers to carry out tangible and major changes in health system, putting education at the centre of sustainable development.
(Dahal is the Executive Director of Kids of Kathmandu)