Inclusive Education: A Hope Offered by Distance Education

By Dr. Pramod Dhakal

Nepal has made some notable gains in promoting basic literacy considering that some fifty years ago the country was near total illiteracy. Today, the awareness about the value of education is at all time high, exemplified by the fact that education has become the most prolific private-sector growth industry.  Nevertheless, this growth remains in and around urban centers where most of the universities and colleges are concentrated. Consequently, the educational bonanza has been largely enjoyed by the urban and relatively well-to-do families. That should partially explain why in South Asia, Nepal has the highest Gini Index (47.3), a measure of economic inequality, as per a World Bank report released in 2009.

Access to education among women, rural, poor and marginalized groups in Nepal remains significantly limited. UNESCO data indicate that 38 percent students in Nepal drop-out before completing Grade 5.  Among those who do not drop out, the repeat rate is as high as 20 percent. Only nine percent youth enter into tertiary level education. Further, the attendance of women in tertiary education is reported at dismal three percent. The educational figures for the rural and the traditionally marginalized population are notably worse. According to Nepal Demographic and Health Survey (NDHS) 2006, some 14.1% Brahmins attain higher education, while only 0.7% Dalits do the same (about 14% of Nepal’s population is Bhrahmin and 13% is Dalit). These data are indicative of the enormity of demographic divide and the work required be done to educate the population in Nepal.

Closing the Gap
“Education is the largest single contributor to break poverty, income gap, gender inequality and ethnic inequality, and also to improve nutrition, health and longevity of people”, declared 2005 OECD Report on Education. While the research unequivocally singles out education as the greatest good that could be delivered to people, there is not enough money in state treasury to build and operate traditional style institutions in sufficient number in every part of the country and make them affordable to meet the educational need of the population. Some unconventional and effective method in taking the light of education to the entire population of Nepal is, therefore, urgently required.

The advancements in instructional technology, telecommunication, and computing technology made in recent decades have so clearly demonstrated their potentials that taking higher education to rural, remote, and marginalized population, who are confined to the villages due to family obligations and social-financial challenges, has become economically and pedagogically viable for all nations, not just the rich. And for a country like Nepal that are facing a huge challenge in providing opportunity for primary and secondary teachers and rural workers to upgrade their education, skills, and careers, distance education is the most economical and viable option available. At a time foreign employment has become the most sought after option for young people, finding avenues for them to continue their education even in these circumstances has become a necessity. And for those who have remained in the villages, improving their knowledge and skills in health, productivity, management, entrepreneurship and sustainability have become urgent for the economic improvement of the country.

Unique Opportunity for an Open University in Nepal
A fact finding mission involving Canada Foundation for Nepal (CFFN) and Non-Resident Nepali Association (NRNA) came to identify in late 2009 that open and distance education is the most effective means in taking tertiary education to every part of the country and everyone in Nepal. These organizations subsequently brought forward an initiative to help Nepal build its Open University of Nepal (OUN) in view of a number of compelling reasons.

While the need is acute in the villages, those with the most knowledge and skills move to cities and increasingly to foreign countries. Consequently, Nepal faces critical shortage of qualified human resources within the country in building world-class universities. A distance university in such situation offers a great hope because it not only can reach the students in villages and towns, but also the Diaspora academics and professionals living in the cities and countries around the world. Having had partaken in the early feast of education and had experienced the hopelessness caused by poverty and remoteness, Diaspora Nepalese also long for an honour to their native land.  Their own struggles for education have made them discover that success is still possible even for the neediest of groups, if opportunity were to be presented. The strong desire they show for giving the gift of teaching to seekers of knowledge in Nepal is a testament to that. Therefore, the liability and hopelessness caused by mass migration of the educated may after all be an asset in the form of international expertise, experiences, and knowledge.  This is a tangible asset for incubating and lifting up the state of higher education in Nepal. Only missing link in making this happen is the presence of a distance university that links the learners and teachers living at distances. Therefore, OUN has become a necessity of time for Nepal to translate this hope into fruitful endeavour.

Promises of Distance Education
Distance education is not about computers and computer programs – supposedly replacing real teachers. It is about harnessing the knowledge and real teaching of real teachers who, unlike in traditional schooling, may be found anywhere in the world. In today’s context, it is about exploiting the power of computing and communication technologies in reorganizing of the relationships among students, teachers, space, and time such that the role of geography, wealth, personal constraints, and family constraints could be minimized in knowledge acquisition. It is about maximizing the benefit of international cooperation for the benefit of those who are not reached by the light of education due to circumstances beyond their control. It is about breaking the barriers that exist in front of economically struggling countries in taking high quality education to the masses of people.

No other mode of education bears the potential for causing viral effect in knowledge acquisition and in explosive growth of education in a country as does properly developed and delivered distance education. Although it has shown respectable maturity today, its promises are felt only in a handful of resourceful countries through a handful of reputed institutions. However, the trend is such that distance education is going to be the mainstream education system of the future society and the future world. And that is poised to happen in a near future – not a distant one. Therefore, the most opportune time for Nepal to pour warlike efforts in developing open and distance education is now.

Making it Happen
At a glance, it may appear that distance education is just a distant dream for a resource-strapped country like Nepal, where even the prerequisite technologies like electricity, Internet, telephones, computers, computer literacy, and even general literacy, have not properly reached to the urban and semi-urban population, let alone the rural and remote population. In fact, in a country which has not caught up with the fever of knowledge and innovation, making a technology reliant university of this scale is more difficult for Nepal to achieve than the difficulty there was for the then already technologically aspiring USA and USSR to conquer the space in the 1960s. However, Nepal’s need fall pale in front of the scale of educational endeavours that exist around the world.

To estimate the size of the problem, compare Nepal’s $0.6 billion government expenditure in education and sports with the education expenditure of $1.047 trillion made by the US Government for the Year 2010. The US budget will be incremented by $53 billion in 2011 and $63 billion in 2012. These yearly increments alone are near 100 times larger than Nepal’s budget in education.  The yearly budget of educational institutions located in City of Ottawa, Canada, with less than one million people is three times the Nepal’s national budget in education. Therefore, this problem of developing even the largest of university in Nepal amounts to an unaccountably negligible amount of the educational expenditure in the world scale.

Mobilizing both financial resources and human capital towards making the Open University of Nepal is after all not an infinitely large problem but a very doable sized problem. And the real problem is not that of money but that of courage to take up a mission of such scale, ability to develop plans for such complex endeavour, and skills to assemble human and technical solution to successfully execute it. When those conditions are fulfilled, the world will not remain as a mere spectator of Nepal. Coincidentally and fortunately, there exists sufficient dose of skills, knowledge and experience pool among Nepalese Diaspora for galvanizing institutional collaborations and international partnerships to make such mission possible.

Having had experienced too many revolutions of other kinds from the 1950s, Nepalese people desperately deserve an intellectual revival, which could be made possible through the utilization of Diaspora talent base. It is about time that NRNs translate their affinity to help Nepal establish Open University of Nepal as an institution of international reputation for quality and an instrument for spreading the reach of higher education all knowledge seekers of Nepal!

Please visit an informational website http://openu.cffn.ca that is currently evolving and learn more about our mission. The proponents look forward to having cooperation and participation from many generous individuals and institutions for educating rural and marginalized people of Nepal.

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