Tuesday, 18 January, 2022

Bridging The Digital Divide

Dr. Kundan Aryal

A student of Master's level in Journalism and Mass Communication requested his department head over the phone not to run online classes, citing that he lives in a remote village of Ramechhap and, therefore, he is unable to be connected online. As many as three out of total 40 central departments under different faculties of Tribhuvan University have started virtual classes of the Mater's level. The teachers and the students are being gradually acquainted with the new way of teaching-learning. However, there is a big question of the digital divide and one cannot ignore the concerns of those students who lack access to the internet.
Online classes
Online classes are not new for TU. In the aftermath of 2015 earthquake, it had kicked off the distance learning mode of education. It has been running M.Ed. in English and Mathematics programmes through its Open and Distance Education Centre (ODEC) since 2015. As the methods of the teaching in ODEC have been the combination of several approaches including virtual class lectures and face-to-face interaction, the experiences are instrumental for entire university at this time of global crisis. The TU authority is firm on providing online classes along with sufficient reading materials to the students in a bid to cope with the situation. When the situation becomes normal, it will return to the physical classrooms as well. At this difficult juncture, keeping teachers and students busy through the online is the best alternative to the traditional classrooms. The students would get an opportunity to gear up there self-study and enhance their critical thinking with the use of the available ICT facility.
All the campuses, offices except the institutions related to essential services have been closed since March 23 owing to the nationwide lockdown. Some of the institutions such as TU Teaching Hospital, Maharajgunj have been continuously providing services to the patients. The TU administration, the VC, Registrar and Rector along with other officials and teachers are in close coordination to find alternative ways to engage students and teachers in virtual classes. Subsequently, it prepared the guidelines for online classes. The University decided to allow its teachers to run the virtual class by using ZOOM, Google Class or MS Team. It has unveiled online teaching guidelines regarding the process of preparation and requirements of taking a class, code of ethics for teachers and students and necessary action in case of breach of the guidelines.
Most importantly, the TU has decided to operate the online classes on par with the regular class-room performance. Thus, it is the responsibility of a TU teacher to conduct the online classes regularly during the corona crisis. For all the students, the online classes are the only viable option at this moment. Now they need to understand that being online means being able to attend the classes. The quality of the classes gets improved only if the students join them with enthusiasm and energy.
The difficult time has also brought some opportunity to the students and teachers to be more familiar with the ICTs. Now TU is working on a project to provide official email ID to its nearly 12 thousand teachers and 250 thousand students. The university is collaborating with the Microsoft to provide licensing MS Team software for the smooth running of the virtual class.
Here, one can raise the question of the digital divide in view of a significant number of students deprived of internet facility. The issue of uneven distribution of internet holds water given that internet penetration in the country is estimated at nearly 65 per cent. Nevertheless, most of the internet users in the country are from younger generation, which means they are students of different levels of faculties. Likewise, Nepal Telecommunication Authority states that 34 per cent people use mobile phone. It indicates that a single person carries more than one telephone services from multiple companies. It is estimated that there are nearly 38.5 million mobile users in the country of 28.5 million people. It is observable that every student in the colleges carries a mobile mostly the smartphone.
Against the backdrop, bearing the issue of the digital divide in mind, one needs to think about the exploitation of the technology for the sake of knowledge and education. First, there is the policy formulated by the university recognising the need of the virtual class. Second, there is a minimum level of technology available for us. Third, the students and teachers who are mentally prepared to adopt the technology are also almost equipped to some extent with the devices.
Spirit for innovation
The juxtaposition to the above-mentioned preparedness, there is the inadequacy of communication super highway. The fibre optics installation project up to the entire rural area through the highways is still in its primary phase. There is an acute problem of internet connectivity and bandwidth, especially in the rural and remote areas. On top of that, the cost of the data package is unaffordable for many students. However, amid all these odds, there could be a way if one has a will. TU and Nepal Telecommunication Authority can jointly work to bring a sea change to enhance the internet access for all students.
There are social, economic and political constraints that cause the digital divide. In the context of Nepal, the third is not relevant. For the second, students need appropriate and doable interventions from the authorities. For first, one needs to come forward with the spirit of adopting new ideas, technologies and innovations.

(Dr. Aryal is associated with the Central Department of Journalism and Mass Communication of Tribhuvan University.)