Compared to neighboring India and China, Nepal was a late entrant to the information revolution that swept the region in the 1990s. With limited infrastructure, an unstable political system and no skilled labor force, the country was forced to stand by and watch while others tried to make sense of the changes the new technology was pushing.
Now, two decades later, Nepal is no longer on the sidelines. From education to business, healthcare and entertainment, the country is enthusiastically embracing information technology, with young people leading the charge to make the country more technology-friendly.With the explosive growth in smart phone and mobile Internet market, more and more people are now connected to the information superhighway.
Although there are still many areas where Nepal could improve access to technology and make it easier and cheaper, the gains made over the years are encouraging and show that the country has significant untapped potential.
Nepal’s education sector has suffered years of neglect, inadequate funding and political meddling. Schools in poor, rural areas lack basic physical facilities and trained teachers. The government allocates and distributes funds for these schools every year.This year’s budget allocated US$ 8 billion for education – up 25% from last year, and 17% of the total budget. A great step forward, but lax oversight and an inability to root out corruption has meant that large amounts of funds simply disappear before being put to good use. In urban areas too public schools lack proper facilities and funding. In the capital Kathmandu, alongside gleaming private schools that boast of the highest quality education money can buy and teachers from the best univerisities stand dilapalated public schools whose students struggle to compete with their private school counterparts.
Private schools are limited outside urban areas and in any case are beyond the reach – or pockets! – of many families. This public-private school gulf further perpetuates the divide between the haves and have nots in the community. While the public schools wait for government and public attention, their students are denied quality education.
This is not to say that all rural public schools are poor performers or that private schools are always the best option. However, the disporportionate number of rural public schools that fail should set alarm bells ringing in Kathmandu.
Universities and Political Meddling
Public universities too are neglected in Nepal, their fate is similar to public schools. Students routinely complain of lack of adequate laboratory materials, too much politicization of university affairs and also that the curriculum does not keep pace with the new technology. Private universities are trying to fill the gap, but for the majority of students, these instutions are prohibitively expensive and their desire to stay urban-centered keeps them out of the reach of students in rural areas.
Among all the issues plaguing Nepal’s public education institutions, direct or indirect political meddling has perhaps had the most negative impact. Even primary schools are not left untouched. Political parties and their youth wings recruit students – usually those in high school and university- and use them as pawns to further their education and social strategies. Under-aged students are often forced to take part in political events without their parents’ or guardian’s consent.
Technology to the Rescue
According to the Nepal Telecommunications Authority, there are more than 6 million GSM mobile phone subscribers in Nepal. Take into account other kinds of service users and the country has about 7 million mobile phone users. This is much higher than the number of households with access to the internet (about 630,000, 2009 data).
The other interesting aspect of Nepal’s mobile phone users is that they are not centered in any one part of the country. The market has shown growth across the whole country, even in rural areas without proper roads and means of transportation, although compared to urban areas the rate of growth there is much slower.
This presents an opportunity for mobile education in Nepal. Education institutions – profit seeking or non-profit – can develop course materials and send them via text messaging to subscribers. Incoming messages are provided free of charge while outgoing messages are charged at less than a penny by most mobile phone service providers. Charging a flat rate fee for the course or selling advertising can generate revenue for the institutions.
The messages, 160 characters long (a typical tweet is 140 characters) may not be suitable for subjects requiring analysis or calculations like economics, pure science or mathematics, but for basic courses in English, civics, history, and geography, they can be a great boon. With the mobile internet – although this may not be feasible for those in rural areas or with financial constraints – the institutions can provide an option for students to take online courses, as a supplement to the text messages.
Educational messaging can be of great service, especially to students in rural areas who have little or no access to the internet or a library. The messages can supplement their outside reading and learning requirements. They can also be a way to spread awarness about diseases, social issues and natural disasters in hard to reach areas.
No More Strikes
In Nepal with its political uncertainities, strikes -known locally as banda – are a common occurance. Political interference in the education sector means that even schools and universities are victimized. Cathy Cavanaugh, associate professor at the university of Florida and a former Fulbright scholar, has noted that Nepali students are losing precious school hours due to frequent strikes:
“In recent years, dozens of strikes have brought school, work, and travel to a standstill around Kathmandu. It does not take many unanticipated days out of school to amount to a significant proportion of the school year. And it does not take many missed school days to noticeably impact student academic performance. American researchers recently studied this impact by investigating the effect of snow days on student learning outcomes, finding that as few as 4 days of school missed in a year because of snow storms reduced student exam scores.”
Cavanaugh suggests implementing mobile or online learning to compensate for school hours lost due to strikes.
Given the fast growing telecom market in Nepal and the ready availability of trained professionals, mobile learning is not an impossible goal for the country. It is an investment in the country’s education sector and could produce great results – but is the Nepal’s physical infrastructure dependable enough?
Market growth and investment from the private and public sector in technology education has strengthened information technology’s soft side in Nepal while the backbone – the infrastructure – still remains on shaky ground.
Poor voice quality, frequent dropped calls, and technical problems plaguing the masts are the most common problems facing Nepal’s mobile phone service providers. The ten year long conflict also dealt a severe blow to the already fragile infrastructure. Now with the country’s industrial sector in shambles and the economy sliding, the country is slow to invest in strengthening existing structures and building new ones. On the policy level too there are roadblocks which can mainly be ascribed to the unstable political environment and lack of consistent leadership.
Mobile learning through text messaging, and online courses present a broad window of opportunity for Nepal’s educational institutions and also for the government. It can supplement classroom instruction and also provide a way for students to minimize the loss of hours caused by frequent strikes. For the government, this could be a great way of strengthening public schools which could even sell advertising to raise extra revenue.
Private educational institutions too can use mobile learning to supplement classroom learning and as a revenue generator. It would be a great leap forward if the private and public sector enter a partnership and push mobile learning as a national priority, subsidizing the service for rural and financially disadvantaged students.
As the country’s history has proven, education is the best and most effective way to strengthen the people. Mobile education presents a fresh opportunity to focus on education, an opportunity Nepal must not ignore.