It was exciting for me to return to Nepal, my motherland, after a decade, but even more thrilling was the opportunity to visit 24 public schools in Chitwan. Our nonprofit organization, Health Foundation Nepal, has been supporting underprivileged students with the aim to bridge the worsening digital divide in the country, and I was very curious to witness the outcome of our efforts.
The Health Foundation Nepal started its Digital Literacy and Health Literacy Program in the public schools of Chitwan in 2016. Its central aim is to educate students in a way that helps them adapt to the fact that Nepali society is becoming more and more digitized. Science and technology clearly present themselves as the most effective ways for Nepal to emerge out of poverty. Therefore, Nepal launched the School Sector Development Program in 2016 with the goal of improving not only access and equity but also the quality of the entire education system. The government plan rests on three basic pillars: the permission to use computers 30 percent of the time in fully networked schools, the provision of information and communications technology (ICT) resources to teachers, and equipping students with critical ICT competencies. This remains largely an unfulfilled dream in the 24 public schools in Chitwan which I visited.
Reportedly, Nepal has already invested more than $14.4 million USD in computer infrastructure for more than 4,000 schools. For each school, the benefits consisted of four computers, a printer, and an internet connection. Sadly, the outcome of these efforts did not look very convincing to me. A big reason for this is the lack of teachers. Primary schools usually have only three teachers for five classes, which results in the need to leave two classes without a teacher at regular intervals. Since the government cannot afford enough teachers, there is not enough personnel to teach ICT competencies and digital literacy to the pupils. Besides, there simply is not enough government money available to equip all public schools effectively with ICT.
Nepal Telecom has also been supporting ICT implementation by providing 20 computers to selected schools, but in the absence of skilled computer teachers, these computers have been collecting dust instead of helping the digital literacy of students. Instead of making them available to use, school leaders and teachers keep the computers locked to keep them from breaking.
For these reasons, as well as the lack of effective teaching techniques, a lot of students do not even show up in class. This is also a result of the fact that many families simply cannot afford to send their children to school every day.
Challenges of digital literacy
The main setbacks to the robust implementation of ICT are the unavailability of an adequate number of computers, the lack of dedicated and well-trained computer teachers, and the absence of a space to store computers safely. Regarding the economic situation of many families, ICT support and resources at home as well as regular attendance of school unfortunately have to take the backseat behind food, shelter, and clothing.
Local authorities should collaborate with non-profits and coordinate and facilitate local efforts to develop skilled computer teachers that can ensure a continuous and high-quality computer education for students.
Since the country is not yet equipped with the proper infrastructure to provide a constant power supply and an uninterrupted internet connection, the practical use of the newly implemented ICT resources is also questionable. Implementing resources has been overemphasized instead of equipping students with the skills to use them. Therefore, most students cannot even turn on or shut down the computers.
Instead of the large-scale implementation of resources that nobody is able to use, it would make more sense to move forward in smaller, more basic steps. A good next step to take would be to provide students with some offline basic training and to teach them windows, different kinds of software, as well as the use of the keyboard and basic typing skills.
Since the public school teachers in Nepal already have a full teaching load and are not able to invest time in learning ICT, some school leaderships have been acquiring volunteer teachers. Schools like these would benefit from being provided e-learning resources. This would help the teachers to hone up their ICT skills by creating interactive learning materials and eventually be able to develop e-learning resources themselves.
Right steps to take
The focus of the Nepal government should be to equip students with basic computer skills before expanding internet access to schools. The best results can often be achieved by keeping the curriculum simple. I was amazed to see that a computer textbook written for the students in the eighth grade was too complex even for the computer teachers.
If the government collaborated more with nonprofits, they could help to make lessons more enjoyable and interactive. This would improve the attendance of public schools as well as the focus during classes. Health Foundation Nepal provides a computer teacher who rotates through all of those 24 locations. This teacher tutors three to four schools in a day, so that each school has its next turn in only eight or nine days. The rate of attendance has been significantly higher on days in which computer class took place and students show a great deal of interest, enthusiasm, and engagement.
The focus of the government should be to equip students with basic computer skills before expanding internet access to schools.
This is already a big success, but in the end, effective ICT implementation requires increasing both the number of computers and the frequency of computer classes—even in public schools that are now still far away from being able to afford their own computers and teachers. It would be ideal if students could practice their computer skills at home, but since their working parents have to struggle day and night to make ends meet, this is a dream that seems destined to remain unfulfilled for a while.
Local authorities should collaborate with non-profits more closely and coordinate and facilitate local efforts to develop skilled computer teachers that can ensure a continuous and high-quality computer education for students. Constant tech and maintenance support is also a key to uninterrupted computer classes. Regular students’ interaction and engagement, effective local leadership and a management committee to oversee the program, as well as community support and the training of quality teachers will pave the way for further steps in making ICT implementation more effective.
Dr Manoj Bhattarai is a Vice President of Health Foundation Nepal and oversees its Digital Literacy Program