Before the exploit of modern humans touched my mountain village, we walked barefoot on its trails, forests, and terraces, even to go to Baglung Bazaar for writing School Leaving Certificate (SLC) examination. I felt sophisticated in buying my first toothbrush while taking tuition classes in Painyupata for SLC. Radio and/or wristwatch were off-access even when studying at elite Tri-Chandra College in Kathmandu. It was a matter of status when my brother bought a radio after becoming a clerk of our village school. But no one today walks barefoot in my village, no one wears the worn-out clothes like we did, no one walks for days to go anywhere useful, and almost everyone today carries a mobile phone. Today, our village home has electricity, television, toilet, and tap drinking water. These amenities are coming near the reach of other villagers and young folks know more about technology than my brother, a school principal. The coming of the information age and globalization is changing the face of my village. However, this globalization of new era has pushed us towards greater dependency and vulnerability. Unable to find their means of survival in the country, village youths are taking menial temporary jobs in Middle East and elsewhere. Local production is diminishing and goods are imported, including food stuff. If someone were to block the supply (e.g. fuel) for ten days, most people of urban cities in Nepal would not be able to eat and there would be massive riots turning upside down. Perilous is this magical modern world for a small and poor country like Nepal that is still struggling to develop its capacity to ensure even basic survival of its people in case something unwanted happens. Should not it necessitate us to seek new ways for our survival?
Ways may be abound for the seers but the most readily achievable ordinary opportunities of extraordinary significance at present exist amidst an upheaval brought by science, technology, telecommunication, and the Internet. They have created a medium where information spreads swiftly like virus. If that potential were to be used to propel the entire Nepal into learning and innovation, our children could be competing with the world before we are dead. Some people familiar with the power of Internet often mistake it for Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge. Our awaiting for the Internet, which is governed by the Market-God, to grant us miracles may however be rather wishful.
The problem being is that whatever flows in the Internet is a mixture of both elixirs and toxins. Internet today offers a vast amount of useful information mixed with many times more noise that steals the life and time of many people who would otherwise be tremendously productive and in pursuit of scholarship. A medium meant to be unleashed for education and innovation is fanning out human energy to many untenable and addictive directions. Parents, teachers, educational institutions, and governments are, therefore, in a dilemma as to how to capitalize on this viral medium while ensuring that no one is harmed. Attempts to filter out the noise have been unsuccessful technically and have created uproar about intellectual freedom. Besides, high end knowledge content is neither free nor easily accessible. This is where many opportunities rest.
Throughout history, societies on the rise have given the highest value to knowledge and learning. In the last century alone, the pace at which number of libraries, the content inside them, and the seekers of knowledge who used them grew in the industrialized countries at an immensely inspiring pace. Yet the new generation of people who seek to find all knowledge through devices on their fingertips are not visiting and utilizing that vast content. The new generation expects to use the magic of search engines on the Internet but what they find there may not be all that in-depth or relevant to their level or interest. Their expectation is an expansive pasture of knowledge accessible through personal gadgets when they want and where they want. Unfortunately, that expected pasture is not in existence today. Most interestingly, the pasture offered by the free market through the Internet today is comparable to a wild jungle where you are not sure whether your grazing cattle will come back safely or not. Parents, teachers, educational institutions, and governments fear whether the market forces alone could take our society to a desired destiny. In a free market, the sum total of personal wills so thoroughly overwhelms the public will that it is impossible to filter out the vulgar and the sheer noise. Therefore, the need of our time is an alternate pasture of knowledge, which has no limit to its vastness but it is fenced to ensure the safety of its users. The metaphorical fence is nothing but a simple gate of public scrutiny so that the public pasture is governed by the will of the public and where public interests get precedence over individual interests. The purpose is not to censor the intellectual discourse but to integrate a mechanism to maintain the quality of knowledge content produced by the discourse and made available to the public.
Nepal would, therefore, receive applause from the whole world if it were to undertake a mission to build this safe pasture of knowledge that is accessible to all people equally and that contains what used to be in libraries, research laboratories, schools, universities, professional archives, public institutions, Creative Commons, Wikipedia, open content projects, and other humanitarian initiatives. The content available in this vast pasture would have gone through public scrutiny for its usefulness and authenticity so that all children, parents, teachers, schools, universities, and the governments could immerse here without any need to police or be policed. This will be a platform for weightlessly flowing knowledge and producing new knowledge at a meteoric speed.
On another note, the unprecedented transition experienced in the system of teaching and learning has forced traditional universities to adapt at a rate for which they were not designed. The rapid changes in tools, technologies and professions that occurred in recent times were unknown at a time traditional universities were designed. The open and distance education movement was born to facilitate lifelong learning among working citizens, and people who are left out of opportunities, and adapt to changing nature of skill requirements. However, they did not know how fast and how massively communication technologies would evolve to alter human habits, as observed in the last decade. Today, not only the century old institutional architectures and designs of traditional universities are burdened by their own illustrious legacy but also the newer open and distance universities. Their situation is like that of the houses made in Kathmandu some decades ago, neither obsolete enough to be demolished nor appealing enough to the people who have seen the new. New houses are more appealing and to the taste of people because of the incorporation of the most recent advancements in materials, tools, technologies, practices, and know-how in their architecture, design, and construction. This analogy applies to institutions as well.
That the information, communication and pedagogical tools, technologies, know-how, availability, cost, and the mindset of the young people have evolved dramatically in recent years, the universities and other educational institutions are in need to revamp themselves but they are constrained by their old architecture and design. To compensate for their shortcomings, old universities seem to be busy making money through sale of affiliations to ever mushrooming private campuses of ever distant geographies. It is like selling more houses of the same old design to compensate for their architectural shortcomings. Existing in this context is the opportunity for building a futuristic university by incorporating the latest and best tools, technologies, practices, trends, and know-how in its architecture and design.
That Nepal had been missing the boat in building its open university for long, it has gotten this marvelous window to build a fresh university with the best fitting institutional architecture and design for the future. Such a university would be a matter of envy to the world, a model to be copied by other countries. While the world is expending its time and energy to tame the unruly Internet and build ever wider information highways, Nepal could make an one time investment of a fraction of its one-fiscal year expenditure on public education to initiate a simple move that will bring extraordinary outcomes for a long time to come. It can offer an expansive and safe pasture of knowledge accessible to all people equally and a futuristic university to serve people of all geography, age, wellness and preparedness-level and thus break the inequality in access to education. This will not only repair the sagging face of public education in Nepal but also make it possible to economically take quality education to every homes and communities of Nepal, including the places like my village.
The implication of building such institution would be a resilient and prosperous Nepal. With mass learning and innovation opportunities, Nepal can become self-sufficient within a short span of time and there will be no gap in accessing opportunities between rural and urban folks. Through massification of learning and innovation the country will become the centre of scholarship and innovation, the tapobhumi – land of austerity – for people in the region and beyond. And the institution to propel people in learning, knowledge, skills, and innovation irrespective of their geography, age, gender, occupation, and preparedness will be the proposed Open University of Nepal, which will reinvent the public education at a time education has turned into a commodity to be bought and sold in the market.