In Nepal, an online learning system introduced by the government during the pandemic should be expanded so that it enhances education for years to come.
When the Government of Nepal announced a nationwide lockdown on 18 March 2020 to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, teaching learning processes in the majority of Nepal's schools (both public and private) came to a complete halt.
Nepal had faced a similar situation in April 2015 when a strong earthquake struck western and central Nepal, leading to a complete closure of schools for at least five weeks in the affected areas. Nepal also faces seasonal, localized school closures in the southern plains during the monsoons (when school communities are affected by flooding and inundation) and in the northern mountains due to heavy snowfall and drop in temperatures in the winters.
None of these closures have been as devastating to teaching-learning as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Nepal has imposed the longest full or partial school closures in South Asia, seriously jeopardizing children's learning. Further, the negative effects of the pandemic on learning continuity have been closely associated with factors including students' gender, place of residence, type of school attended, disability, the majority of which are largely determined by a family's socio-economic status. The resulting learning losses are likely to lead to increased inequality, with significant implications for the country's human and socio-economic development.
Whilst the COVID-19 pandemic "shocked" education systems around the world, it has also provided a unique opportunity to rethink the modus operandi of teaching and learning worldwide, including in Nepal. On 30 May 2020, the Nepal Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MOEST) issued a Guideline for Facilitation of Student Learning through Alternative Means and established an online learning portal Sikai Chautari for learning continuity by bringing together audio, visual and e-resources. Although the portal has not seen the desired number of visits from students and teachers, its establishment is definitely a first step in realizing the government's objective of enhanced use of ICT in education.
The blending of online, digital and interactive learning materials in schools' everyday processes is bound to outlive the pandemic. Going forward, we propose several steps that Nepal can consider to enhance blended learning as it embarks in the implementation of its new school education plan through 2021.
Firstly, the learning portal needs to be upgraded by including a greater number of high-quality materials – audio, video and interactive – that are tailored to the requirements of teachers and students at different levels and grades.
Second, there is a need for regular updating of digital materials based on a careful review of the existing materials and feedback received from teachers and students. For this to happen, it is necessary to institute a systematic mechanism for collection of feedback and engagement of school level educators in the development and refinement of these materials.
The efforts made in introducing online learning during the pandemic should make a meaningful contribution to improving the teaching and learning process in Nepal.
Third, it calls for a dedicated unit with expertise to ensure the online learning portal can function sustainably and willingness to mobilize content, curriculum and technical experts, including from the private sector.
Fourth, there is a need to make the digital resources available through both online and offline means for broader access, especially in areas with poor connectivity.
The online learning portal can only contribute to learning when its prime stakeholders – teachers and students – have adequate information about it and capacity to use it. Collaboration and coordination with all three tiers of government in the federal structure is important for the development, use and improvement.
Ultimately, the goal of the learning portal is to move beyond a repository of subject-wise contents that students and teachers can access. It needs to be developed into a dynamic learning management system by integrating elements of tracking of individualized learning and assessment that can be managed locally. This will enable a creation of dynamic system for blended learning approach which will outlive the COVID-19 pandemic.
Priority in enhancing access of students and teachers to devices and technology is a must so that they can use the learning portal for more effective teaching-learning. The government has focused on enhancing access of schools to information and communication technology, which unfortunately has been of little use during the pandemic as schools were physically closed.
Therefore, concerted efforts are required to enhance the access and affordability of students and teachers to ICT both at home and in school. The efforts made in introducing online learning during the pandemic should make a meaningful contribution to improving the teaching and learning process in Nepal.