Can Nepal Overcome The Digital Divide?

Lizzie Ottenstein
Shreejana Mainali

While online education is the norm for some, it’s still a major challenge for developing countries like Nepal whose education system has struggled to provide basic resources like textbooks and internet access. The pandemic has forced Nepal to transition to online learning without a sustainable plan, incurring a burden on its education system and resulting in a significant digital divide. 

The digital divide in Nepal

The rural population (about 80% of Nepal’s population) has always struggled with the shortage of digital infrastructure and the absence of digital literacy. There is a gap between high-income city dwellers, who have access to modern communication technology, and low-income rural populations who lack basic resources and internet access. The transition to online learning has exposed and deepened this gap. 

The lockdown has increased difficulties. More than half the nation’s students have been deprived of basic needs and quality education. A survey conducted by Indrawati Rural Municipality in Sindhupalchok showed less than 10% of students have internet access at home and dozens of households don’t have televisions and smartphones. Several graduate and postgraduate students are requesting their colleges stop online classes, claiming they live in remote villages with no stable internet access. 

Some private schools and colleges have responded to the crisis by rolling out online classes using online tools like Zoom. Students with stable internet access have had a more seamless transition to online learning, resulting in a boost to reimagine and reform remote learning in Nepal. But can public schools and underprivileged students adjust?

Bridging the gap — where are we now? 

There are countless hurdles to bridge the digital divide in Nepal, yet we are taking steps to counteract it since the lockdown. The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology has launched an e-learning portal for grades 1 to 10 where students can access course materials online and offline. Another organization, “Room to Read,” is providing literary materials to students via radio broadcast and social media. 

The Tribhuvan University authority, the VC, Registrar and Rector along with other officials and teachers are working tirelessly to make online classes more interactive and engaging using tools like Zoom and Google Meets. Three out of 40 central departments under different faculties of Tribhuvan University have started virtual classes. Nepal’s government has also implemented policies to expand internet and other technical infrastructures to over 1,000 schools, but execution has been slow.

What needs to be done

Public and community schools have a long way to go before they can fully transition to online learning. It’s critical for school leaders and administrators to implement new policies that promise equity for all students. Private educational sectors, in collaboration with the government, should merge ideas, funds, and resources to build digital infrastructures, like the expansion of broadband internet, distributing laptops, smartphones, and offering online education in rural areas.

This expansion needs to be made affordable for low-income families. Popular ISPs such as Worldlink charge Rs, 15,000 annually for an unlimited 25Mbps internet package, a steep cost for communities struggling to make ends meet. Aside from this, all school administrators should now focus on asynchronous learning so students have access to resources without the burden of staying online 24/7.

Although telecommunication providers, including Ncell and NTC, have launched special data plans like Mobile Class Data Pack and e-Shikshya Package for students and teachers, they are not accessible to those below the poverty line. This problem extends to faculty who are struggling to design effective online curricula, which requires a stable connection. Many need to convert paper-based courses to online content and gather additional resources. 

Online education is not completely new but it is experimental for Nepal’s colleges. Physical classes are irreplaceable yet we can still work to bridge the digital gap by introducing subsidized and stable internet and device access throughout the nation and build engagement via  asynchronous learning models. The ongoing efforts are quite exciting but their effectiveness needs to be assessed and improved. Despite the uncertainty of how Nepal’s education system will cope with the pandemic, it’s certain that it will continue striving towards digital transformation.