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As the world continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic, not a single sector has been unscathed. Transportation in large parts of the world is shut, businesses of all kinds and scales have halted work, governmental and non-governmental agencies have been reduced to working from home, even health institutions have limited their services, focusing on battling the Covid19 outbreak while postponing other services.

Amongst these, education is another sector to be severely impacted by global lockdowns. Schools, colleges and universities are, for the large part, closed which has affected more than 90 percent of students across the world. While some institutions have started online learning, it is unclear how universally and effectively this can be emulated.

Not so long ago, a few days of closure caused by Nepal bandas and chakka jams would get us panicking. This would set the entire academic calendar on a backlog. Teachers would rush to complete courses within the stipulated timeframe, often at the cost of quality learning.

The lockdown in Nepal has gone on for over a month. While there are talks of the lockdown being gradually lifted, there is no saying when schools may begin running as normal once again. It just so happened that for a lot of institutions, the lockdown has largely coincided with the break that comes at the end of the academic year. Had the outbreak happened during June or February, the situation would have been vastly different. But with many experts saying that a second wave is likely even after the current pandemic has simmered down, it is best to be prepared.

What does this mean for educational institutions? How can they manage alternatives for in-school classes? Should they shorten the curriculum or adopt online methods of teaching and learning?

While e-learning does not have a long history in Nepal, some colleges and universities, including the likes of Kathmandu University, have transferred their coursework online. Based on my experience of attending three weeks of online classes at KU, I can say that shifting to e-learning has its own set of opportunities as well as challenges.

Firstly, not all students have access to high speed internet. Even those with high bandwidth internet have found that service is getting interrupted or slowing down due to high collective consumption as more people are using the internet to work, socialise and entertain themselves under lockdown. While data packages on mobile networks are relatively faster, they are also far more expensive for students to regularly afford.

To add to this, many university students don’t have laptops and have thus far relied on their friends’ laptops or desktop computers in cybercafes or libraries to finish assignments. To expect that they can follow the entirety of an online course on their mobile devices may be too much to expect.

Such hurdles notwithstanding, managing classes and initiating meaningful learning programmes in the virtual realm is a whole other ballgame. Learning is much more effective when students can engage in hands-on activities and participate in discussions and group work. In live classrooms, this is still relatively easy. But in online spaces, it is not always possible to do practical assignments and interaction between students is significantly limited, causing the learning environment to become dull and monotonous.  Additionally, teachers cannot observe students’ behaviour or make assessments as easily in online classrooms. This deprives the teacher of the ability to respond to students’ moods and needs and improvise to enhance the quality of the session.

Despite constraints, shifting learning to the online space also presents us with a host of opportunities. It can eliminate problems of access imposed by physical distances. A lot of students enrolling in undergraduate programmes leave their home towns across Nepal to come study in Kathmandu. Thousands of students can enroll in online courses of their choice without having to leave their homes.

The quality of learning itself may also improve as students who are inhibited by verbal interaction can present their queries through writing. They can also support themselves by googling the meaning or context of parts of online lectures as they are happening.

In the last decade, many students have also started taking up part-time jobs to support themselves. Online courses can reduce the hassle of travelling all the way to academic institutions to acquire learning, helping them manage their time better. For the institutions themselves, having online classes as opposed to in-campus classes can reduce infrastructural costs of setting up classrooms, investing in furniture and paying exorbitant rents. By going online, Nepali educational institutions can also broaden their student base to include prospective students from outside Nepal.

The coronavirus pandemic has pushed us out of our comfort zones, compelling us to broaden our horizon and come up with more innovative solutions to the numerous problems it has brought along. While the debate on mainstreaming e-learning has dragged on for a whole decade, the pandemic has forced educators and the government to seriously consider online learning as a viable option.

Implementing online learning effectively will require greater coordination, expertise, initial investment and commitment from academic institutions as well as regulatory bodies. Our nation’s ability to adopt this mode of educational transaction in the near future will have a significant impact on students’ career, the reputation of academic institutions and the nation’s economy.