The spread of COVID-19 has made possible the digital transition of school education in the scale, not possible in normal time. After Nepal government imposed lockdown in March 2020, private schools started online education from April 2020, using different software and meeting apps from class LKG to 12. However, when these schools demanded fees and concessional loans, the government did not let them to collect the fees and did not provide the loans. So, from July 16 these schools halted classes as per the requests of PABSON and NPABSAN. On 22 July the consultation meeting with the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology and other organisations such as NPABSAN, PABSON, Nepal Teachers Federation, Guardians Federation succeeded and from the next day private schools agreed to resume the classes. This is the time to push for the need of digital media literacy for children.
Children's Perspectives To make sense of what children thought about online education, Ketaketika Kura, a section of news media, Setopati becomes helpful. After online education was started, eight students wrote their experiences under the section. Though these articles don't fully account for the thoughts of school students, we do get some idea about the topic. One issue students often raised is about infrastructure such as access to the internet and to adequate machines. They discussed how power cut and not having access to the internet had impact on their classes. A student who lived in a rented room pointed out the problems like not having a quiet space, and not having extra laptop or phones to join online classes. Most of these children reminded that though they themselves were able to join classes, there are many students who could not join online class as they did not have access to the internet. This is the issue related to digital inequality. In our society there are the students who belong to groups: have-not, have-less and have-more. Among those who have access to the internet, some have access to "good" internet, other use data to access. Some have additional mobiles and laptops to use; whereas some have to share these devices. Other issue they highlighted is virtual nature of online education, in which they could meet with their friends. These children were happy to meet their friends and teachers from their own room in screens and talk to them. They mentioned that they sent homework to teachers through the internet. However, many of them desired for the real world. They missed playgrounds, and passing their home work in papers to teachers. This shows that children know about the benefits of online media. What they seem unaware is about its risks. So, while transiting to digital, children need to have digital media literacy. They should be aware not only about the opportunity of being digital, but also the risk associated with it.
Digital Basics To be digital literate is to be aware of the basic nature of the medium, its benefits and risks. This literacy is the most for digital citizens as it makes people critical about digital technologies. Children need to know these aspects of digital media: medium, economy, safe use. Children should be informed about medium specific principles and features of digital media. Scholars have discussed some features of digital/social media. First, once content is put on the internet, it remains there for "forever". It means that if somebody uploads content on the internet (blogs, websites, and social media), it is difficult to take out from the internet. Second, people can search for the content using search engines, so the content can be accessed by audiences not targeted. Third, the text and pictures can be altered, and manipulated by others. Children need to know how the websites, platforms and apps earn money. Often people believe that content on the internet should be free or is free. But free means that we are paying through other means that is our own data. They should be informed that 'If you're not paying for the product, you are the product'. Children should be taught that these service providers are collecting data about us and they can use the data to target advertisements. It also means that in this brave new world of digital, one thing that is in crisis is our privacy. That means all data related to our online usage is often stored somewhere and even if we delete our content; it can be retrieved, and analysed. We leave digital footprints, which are valuable to those who provide online services and this is the main aspect of digital economy. Similarly, children should be taught about the safe use of the internet. Especially small children should know that it is wrong to put private information on the internet as this information can be used by others and they should not talk to strangers online. Children should be aware that a lot of content online is not true. They should know that they should think before they click any websites as the content might not be suitable to them. As the content remains on the internet "forever" somewhere, they should carefully use the internet: they should never post embarrassing photos and content, which might haunt them in future. Likewise, they should know about online bullying— the use of the internet to threaten and harass others—and instead of this, they have to respect each other online.
Way-out It is the duty of family members, community and schools to make children aware about the risks. Though schools are planning to start physical classes, as children know how to use online, it is likely they will use it more. They will use it more as they are aware of the benefits of the internet. Now children should also know more about the risks. For this, family members, community and schools should discuss both benefits and risks of online education. This can also be integrated in the curricula of schools.
(Maharjan is a senior researcher at an academic NGO Martin Chautari and writes on issues related to media and technology.)