Kathmandu, Apr. 4: On March 22, on the cusp of the lockdown, while most of Nepal was worried about the COVID-19 outbreak and about the travel restrictions that had been put in place, Alisha Singh was worried about the SEE students. With one of their life’s biggest exams postponed, these students were now uncertain about what to do and how to proceed. And this troubled Singh who felt she had to do something for these and other students whose classes had been cancelled and who were worried about their education. “With classes cancelled and teachers often out of reach, I saw students from other countries using platforms like StackExchange, Reddit, and Quora to post their questions and problems and seek out answers,” Singh said, adding, “So, I thought what if a similar teaching-learning environment could be created on Facebook for Nepali pupils? But why Facebook? Because, according to Singh, it is the most used and accessible social media platform among the students she was targeting. This idea hit her and hit her hard and she couldn’t not act on it. So, she thought about it for two days, pondered on it and came up with a project document. But what next? She knew she couldn’t do it alone. She knew that her views would be limited to her own experiences and expertise. Therefore, she contacted two of her friends Prerak Chapagain and Pratik Acharya. “Prerak lives in the US, and thus can bring a perspective of a foreign ‘tech-advanced’ society,” Singh explained her choice of people, “Pratik was my mentor at one of my previous workplaces and is a ‘tech-genius’ who is also very passionate about teaching and sharing knowledge.” So, now a team of three, Singh, Chapagain and Acharya, developed the idea further, challenged each other’s perspectives and discussed its feasibility and on Saturday, March 28, they launched the Facebook group ‘Social Distance Learning’ (SDL) with the stated purpose of creating an enabling environment for students from all grades and subject disciplines to post their academic questions and problems and get solutions from other members of the group. By then, the preliminary restrictions had turned to a full-fledged nationwide lockdown and now, not only students but other groups were also staying home. “People had a lot of energy as shown by them posting old pictures and sending weird messages, so we thought we could put that energy to constructive use in our group,” Chapagain said. So, they set out inviting ‘knowledgeable’ people who could contribute their ‘time and expertise’ in their circle. This, in turn, created a
chain reaction where these people then invited other similar people in their circles to the group and within just a few hours, the group was getting hundreds of member requests and was proving very popular. “This showed just how much people wanted a collaborative learning platform,” said Acharya. But this success also created, for lack of a better term, a mess. Yes, there was a buzz and yes, people were contributing, but this took the focus away from the group’s core target group – the students. “Within the first day, we realised that having students and professionals in the same group would not be feasible,” Acharya said, explaining that this led to the launching of another Facebook group ‘Social Distance Networking’ (SDN) on Sunday, March 29. “This group is primarily for young individuals, besides students, to network together, discover and learn through collective discussion, exchanging learning materials and collaboration on issues and projects,” Acharya explained. And SDN has proven a hit. In less than a week of its founding, it already has more than 1,100 members posting queries, sharing contents and collaborating on projects. “The group is pretty much self-sustaining. The membership is steadily growing and the generation and management of quality content is not an issue,” said Chapagain whose views were also echoed by Singh and Acharya. But that was not their goal. SDN came as a collateral benefit but their chief focus was on students. That was the whole reason for starting this whole group but that is exactly where they seem to be struggling. While SDN surpassed the 1000-member mark in less than two days, SDL still only had 62 followers as of Thursday. While the three founders claimed that their intention was not to amass followers but to bring together quality individuals with a genuine passion for teaching and learning, 62 still appears low in comparison to their other group. This, as Acharya reasoned, is because, “We need learners, educators and academicians in SDL, so the member pool is not as wide as that of SDN.” But, Chapagain acknowledged that they needed to work intensively to expand and develop the learning group, which was the force that kicked everything off in the first place. And working they are. The group has already begun talks with various schools and educators to develop virtual classrooms. They are also looking to collaborate with various organisations that are already active in the field of e-learning and associate their reach and expertise with the group. They also plan to go through schools and guardians to reach the students. “Our plan is to facilitate educators, we want to help the students learn and make social media a tool to deliver quality, interactive, multimedia education to Nepali pupils,” Singh shared the group’s vision.