6 MIN READ
When prohibitory orders were announced back in April, Puja Baniya, an architecture student at Thapathali Campus, had to go back home to Rupandehi.
“Many of my classmates tested positive. Considering the circumstances, classes were moved online,” said Baniya.
Almost three months later, her classes are still being conducted virtually.
In early April, as the second wave of Covid-19 infections started in Nepal, all schools and colleges were asked to halt physical classes and move to teaching online. With a lockdown in place, many students like Baniya, who come to the Capital for higher education, were forced to move back home and join their classes online.
But the transition to online learning has not been easy in Nepal. Early last year, as classrooms moved to a virtual space where almost everything was synchronous and Zoom-based, students and teachers alike found it difficult to adjust to this novel way of teaching and learning.
“Physical classes are like a performance. Unlike online classes, I can hear my students laugh when I deliver a jokepoint, which gives me so much leverage. Before the second lockdown, I returned to an offline setting of 40 students and enjoyed it a lot,” said Deepesh Paudel, a marketing faculty at Ace Institute of Management and Ace International Business School.
Things are smoother this time. Students and teachers have a better understanding of what to anticipate from online classes. But despite being in its second year, whether online learning can find a more permanent fixture in Nepal’s education system after the pandemic remains to be seen.
“What we're doing right now is not an attempt to build a robust, online educational ecosystem. It's a make-shift arrangement to try to keep the business running and to continue to support our students,” said Kanishka Shakya, a marketing faculty member at different colleges in Kathmandu.
The pandemic has forced schools and colleges around the world to go online with their teaching, leading to an ongoing debate on the efficacy of online pedagogy. Concerns are rising about hastily prepared practices developed by instructors who lack knowledge and expertise in digitally meeting learners’ needs.
Many students too are finding it difficult to keep up with online education. They have started to hit their limits with screen time and assignment loads as colleges continue to organize full-time classes online to complete courses.
“Our minds stop processing anything after spending hours in front of a screen,” said A, a Bachelor in Business Administration student at Kathmandu University School of Management, who is not comfortable revealing their identity.
The absence of structure has also led to lack of motivation, students say. The dreariness of online classes continues to grow, where every day is the same: a long, dull blur.
Teachers too feel disconnected from their students. In particular, they speak of not being able to bond with their students.
“Trying to spark a discussion is often met with silence, leading me to wonder if they are confused or afraid to ask for help or not paying attention at all,” said Roshee Lamichhane, a faculty member at Kathmandu University School of Management.
The social context of living classrooms -- the often-invisible human connections that reinforce learning -- is missed the most. Students and teachers both benefit from nonverbal cues that help either group evaluate what is being taught in real-time and adjust accordingly.
“I miss having spontaneous, organic conversations with my classmates and teachers. Being able to hear and see each other in real-time helps construct a more complete picture of my peers,” said Radhika Shrestha, another architecture student at Thapathali Campus.
Higher education’s move to online learning may be leaving a sour taste in the mouths of students and faculty across the country, but there is a silver lining. Educators initially viewed this transition as a stopgap solution meant to fill time until universities could move back to face-to-face instruction. But many are now looking at it as an opportunity to make e-learning part of their ‘new normal’ after experiencing the benefits first-hand.
“With more adults entering higher education and the need for more flexible schedules, we were anticipating growth in online instruction, even before Covid-19. The pandemic just accelerated the whole thing,” said Ashish Tiwari, vice-president of Ace Education Ventures. “The experience with remote instruction has helped faculty members develop a deeper understanding of the tools of online instruction and perhaps a deeper appreciation for the pedagogical potential of online learning.”
But virtual education has its limitations. It is a tool that is not yet readily available for everyone nor does it work for everyone. Access to uninterrupted electricity, internet, and even ownership of a personal laptop or computer are privileges in Nepal. Many students, especially those in rural areas and who attend public schools, lack these facilities. And even for those who are able to go online from their homes, internet access remains spotty in many parts of Nepal.
Despite their limitations, as access to the internet grows and mobile phones become more prevalent, educators see online education as the future of learning. Educators are rethinking ways to leverage the virtual world to make the education system more conducive to learning. Around the world, and in Nepal too, colleges are hosting virtual guest sessions for students with academic and industry experts while opening up new avenues for learning with the use of digital tools like virtual classrooms, interactive lesson plans, and more flexible assignment structures.
“Slido, a Q&A and polling platform, has helped us engage, capture our views, and feel more connected. I’m hoping we'll be able to use this platform even after we switch to an offline environment,” said Manak Subedi, a BBA student at Kathmandu University School of Management.
According to Tiwari, institutions of higher education like Pokhara University have decided to conduct open book final examinations, which test critical thinking and understanding of concepts rather than encouraging rote repetition.
“We plan to use this assessment tool in other programs in the future,” said Tiwari.
For many students and teachers, these are welcome developments in the evolution of education.
“What we face now is a time of reckoning, not just in transitioning to effective online or hybrid learning at all levels of education, but also in critically reexamining our assessment practices. Our approaches have often been grounded in rote learning that does not encourage critical thinking or deep learning,” said Narendra Kumar Nagarkoti, director of Paailaa Foundation Nepal, an organisation that collaborates with private and public schools to train teachers to make learning more student-friendly.
The Covid-19 pandemic and its consequences on education provide an opportunity to rethink the teaching and learning process. While a digital divide continues to act as an obstacle to equitable access to education for all, these challenges have forced institutions and educators to evaluate the value of human connection and interactive pedagogical methods.
“Online classes for distance learning are a great untapped opportunity to make education more inclusive,” said Apekshya Shah, an assistant professor at Tribhuvan University. “For instance, distance learning can help bridge the social and geographical gap between learners and educators when students are unable to travel to urban centers for educational purposes. It also provides access to higher education for diverse groups, including underprivileged women and individuals with disabilities.”
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