Following the lead of other urban areas in the country, schools and colleges in Inaruwa municipality of the eastern Nepali district of Sunsari have also started running online classes. But this municipality of around 65,000 people is poorly equipped for it. There is no reason to believe it can effectively run or sustain online classes.
Dipesh Dhakal, an accounts teacher at the local Janak Smriti Secondary School, doubts the feasibility of online classes. He himself runs a few online classes for his students every week, and is unhappy with the outcome. “The main problem is the internet. Nepal Telecom is under government possession and yet charges heavily. The speed is also not good enough to handle online classes,” Dhakal rues.
For one thing, Inaruwa lacks stable internet connection. Worldlink and Y Zone, the two major internet service providers (ISPs) in the area, have only just started optical fiber-based internet.
Next, measured against the average income of the people here, the ISPs are charging too much. A high-speed connection is expensive even during normal times. Now under a lockdown, buying an internet package has become harder still. Worldlink charges Rs 5,000 for three months, or Rs 15,000 a year, for a 25Mbps package (unlimited), the most common household package. Dhakal says many people in the rural areas in and around Inaruwa simply can’t afford them.
Worldlink local representatives refrain from commenting on the rates and service quality. When pressed, they answer that, “everything is mentioned on our website.” The other local ISP, Y Zone, too, refuses to comment.
One option for students is to buy mobile data, but that is even more expensive. The two major data sellers, Nepal Telecom and Ncell, have packages that are costlier than those provided by the ISPs. Moreover, their packages are designed for social media use on mobile phones, not for full-fledged online video classes. A Zoom Cloud meeting consumes anywhere between 500 MB to 2 GB of data an hour—and thus not feasible for mobile phones. Also, there is shortage of top-up cards for mobile SIMs during the lockdown, and online top-up is not a convenient method for most people.
Most students of schools and colleges in Inaruwa come from adjoining villages, where the quality of the internet is worse still. It is impossible for them to take part in online classes. Villages in the surrounding Ramdhuni-Bhasi Municipality and Koshi Rural Municipality don’t have broadband internet.
Problems don’t stop there. While most college students may have smartphones with limited mobile data, lower secondary or primary-level students rarely have them. And students from the villages don’t have laptops to take advantage of online classes. As a result, only about half of the students show up in the few classes that are being run online.
“There are 50 students in my class, but only 25-30 join the online Zoom meeting,” says Karlos Shrestha, a grade-9 student at Janak Smriti Secondary School. “My friends from villages cannot join because it is difficult to do so on a mobile phone. And they don’t have laptops.”
As a result, only a few schools and a handful of faculties of colleges are running online classes in Sunsari district. Yet those few benefiting from them are excited. “These things are new, and hence excite many students,” says Dhakal, the accounts teacher. “Yet online classes will be fruitful only with a wider participation.”
Shrestha, the student, thinks difficult subjects like mathematics can be interesting to learn online with the use of all education outlets at the teacher’s disposal. “We get our homework, and submit them, through email. Sometimes we get assignments where we have to memorize stuff,” he adds. “As everything is new, we sometimes face new difficulties.”
The excitement of a handful of students aside, most schools are struggling to run even traditional classes with their limited resources. It is beyond their capacity to arrange online classes. As there is no way of predicting the length of the lockdown, teachers cannot work towards developing online curriculum and gathering teaching material accordingly. Hence only a few higher secondary schools and undergraduate colleges are running online classes.
Nimesh Bhattarai, a BTech student at Sunsari Multiple Campus, says he finds online classes ineffective. “Our college has started online classes. But there is no real teaching, and even less understanding,” he says. Bhattarai adds that the best way to explain difficult topics is still face-to-face communication in front of a real classroom.