Digital Nepal Framework (DNF), envisaged by the government in 2018, had identified eight sectors in a bid to unlock the growth potential of the nation. Education was one of them. It has stated that the internet falls into the category of essential service and lays foundation of digital Nepal. The lockdown and prohibitory orders, enforced to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, have hit hard the education sector, with closure of schools and colleges across the country. Hence, the concerned authority needs to conduct an in-depth inquiry into the current status of DNF, as the robust internet connectivity has become the key to running virtual classes throughout the country irrespective of geographical locations of the learners and facilitators.
Online classes Recently, the government has decided to permit the schools to conduct the online classes. The Minister for Education, Science and Technology also expressed that there was no option but to make optimal use of modern technology and system to resume the education activities. He underlined the need for the necessary arrangements to advance learning through the distance education. Since Article 31 (1) of the constitution guarantees the right to education for every Nepali citizen, it is rational move to recognise the distance learning so that no one is deprived of education even during the pandemic. Last week, The New York Times reported that around the globe educators were struggling with how to best make distance learning viable during the pandemic. It stated that the situation was similar even in some of the world’s wealthiest countries. But in poorer countries, the challenge is particularly difficult. The newspaper with global reach shares heart-touching anecdotes from Indonesia. In North Sumatra, students climb to the tops of tall trees a mile away from their mountain village. Perched on branches high above the ground, they hope for a cell signal strong enough to complete their assignments. The stories of the students from Indonesian villages are not different from that of Nepali students living in remote parts of the country. Students are out of schools and universities because of the pandemic, and for the rural poor who lack internet access and smartphones, online education is still a distant dream. Bhim Bahadur Sarki, a Master’s-level journalism student at Nepal Open University faces similar problem. A resident of Duduwa village, some seven kilometres south to the east-west highway in Banke district, has been struggling every evening for the internet signal to catch up with the course. He has been using the data pack, but he seldom gets the 4-G connection. Like Bhim, many students especially from the countryside have been facing unwanted disturbances and they never use video because of poor bandwidth. Their travail symbolises the hardship of school and university students across the country. Recently, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology approved remote learning initiatives for schools. The universities have been conducting online classes for the Masters and MPhil’s level students over the past six months. They are also planning for the distant evaluation. Some of the institutions have also begun the distance classes for the Bachelor's level. More than 35,000 schools as well as more than 14,000 colleges under as many as 10 universities, have remained closed over the months. Thus, schools in the urban areas and universities have implemented remote learning but the varsities have been unable to reach out to all their students owing to the limited internet and cell phone service. Many students still lack smartphones and computers. The DNF aims at taking the lead in expansion of 5-G networks. Similarly, the initiatives being taken under the digital reinforcement of education sector like online learning platform and smart classrooms seem to be instrumental in the difficult circumstance like the present one. The notion of digital Nepal has received further impetus with the national optical fibre network, high-speed internet connectivity for efficient delivery of public services and public Wi-Fi hotspots. Contrary to the plan, half of the academic session has already lapsed, with the teaching-learning process suffering from slow internet connections or its limited access even in semi-urban areas. As the internet cannot function without the devices depending on the supply of electricity, unanticipated interruption mostly outside the Kathmandu Valley has been creating another problem. More than 7 million school children and nearly 500,000 university students, and thousands of teachers are facing such challenges. It is necessary to take the stock of either the fibre optic-based internet service or the 4-G network internet connectivity taking into account the past practice and experiences. It is not sufficient to draw up a rosy plan alone. The reliability and dependability of the internet is pertinent. The regulating agencies such as the Nepal Telecommunication Authority should ramp up its monitoring to make sure that the telecommunication service providers are working as per their commitment and stated requirements.
Visible gap There is a visible gap between rhetoric and reality when it comes to internet coverage in the country. Moreover, since the number of internet users has gone up in the wake of the lockdown; the networks have become slow and unreliable even in the urban areas. For the last six months, the telecomm services have been operating on the same bandwidth. Carpet coverage of the internet throughout the nation, seamless connectivity or extensive reach through the 4-G data is the dream to be achieved. Hence, a comprehensive map prepared out of the empirical assessment needs to be studied by the concerned authority. The lofty goal of the digital framework will be realised only when there is the realistic assessment of situation, which provides an insight into improving the existing weaknesses in technology and supporting infrastructure.
(Dr. Aryal is associated with the Central Department of Journalism and Mass Communication of Tribhuvan University. firstname.lastname@example.org)