August Analysis: Gender and Social Inclusion

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Digital Divide in the age of technology

The COVID crisis has significantly impacted the education system in Nepal. The government has imposed online teaching and learning, but very few have the access to internet and computers. Even schools seem to struggle with the access of the digital infrastructures. After the decline in COVID cases and transmission, the government eased lockdown and the schools reopened for a short duration in September.

Estimated 8.2 million students were distanced from their education due to the lockdown. The government did prioritize the education during the COVID emergency response through remote, virtual and e-learning. To minimize the impact of COVID on students, schools launched different strategic programs and methods like distance learning from radio and TV, with the collaboration with government, non- government and educational institutions. More than 100,000 children from five districts were benefitted from the distance learning launched by the coalition.  But, as Nepal is a country with around 6 million school-going students, the class divide have increased after the lockdown. The government’s lack of accountability in providing access towards virtual learning system has further increased the digital divide among the students of government schools and marginalized communities. Even the students from areas with negligible COVID spread – like mountainous, rural and other remote areas – are distanced from their education. The education sector in Nepal has always been centralized and discriminatory as there remains a gap between the education system of city and rural areas. In most places, online education has been a very ineffective substitution for physical education.

Students returning home from school in Melauli Municipality-7 of Baitadi. The schools, which have been closed for a long time, have resumed operations. Photo: RSS

The lockdown has boosted the digital infrastructure and technological empowerment through distance learning, but the access to digitalization is a centralized phenomenon. Even though the internet penetration rate in Nepal is 72%, out of which 55% have access to wireless services and 17% to wireless internet, it remains too centralized. A recent survey showed, among the 29% households that have access to distance learning, only half were using it. Around 40% students of lower classes and 20% of upper classes are not in contact or reach of the school administration. The major reason for the digital divide is the lack of proper technological knowledge and groundwork for e-learning. According to UNICEF Nepal, out of 10 only three children have access to online education.

Also the government decision to start online registration for the COVID vaccination has highlighted the problem of digital gap among the marginalized communities. This decision has questioned the equitable distribution of vaccination for the vulnerable groups. Many people with limited access to internet and technology found themselves left out and discriminated by the government. The ineffective management of vaccination centers and certification is an evident issue of the vaccination program and now the digital divide directs towards an unequal distribution of the vaccine and marginalization of the vulnerable communities. The current status of digital infrastructure, framework and digital literacy is questionable in terms of access. Thus, the government must ensure the technological accessibility with easier process in order to make the vaccination equitable and successful.

Also, the marginalized communities and people from remote areas face additional difficulties and are in a more vulnerable position when it comes to the digital gap. The digital infrastructure and access in the remote and geographically vulnerable regions still face lots of challenges. So in terms of both the vaccination program and the education system, the rural and marginalized communities are experiencing neglect from their government. The technological boom is evident during the pandemic but we should be aware of the inequality it might bring.

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