Computing idiocy

Published On: August 14, 2017 12:15 AM NPT By: Hitesh Karki

In their acclaimed book Why Nations Fail Daren Acemoglu and James A Robinson cite an example of a health organization called Seva Mandir working for the betterment of healthcare facilities in villages of Rajasthan, India. “In 2006 Seva Mandir, an NGO, together with group of economists, designed an incentive scheme to encourage the nurses to turn up for work in the Udaipur district,” write Acemoglu and Robinson. The idea was simple. The nurses were supposed to time-check thrice a day via a biometric device, thereby ensuring their presence at the center throughout the day.

The first few weeks showed a sharp increase in nurse attendance. But after a couple of weeks, the number dwindled and in the weeks that followed, the biometric devices apparently started malfunctioning. 

Although computers were first used in Nepal back in 1972 for population census data processing, it took a while to get going. It was only in 2001 that Nepal formulated its first information technology policy. But this was a fruitful decade for growth of IT sector and it saw the proliferation of software companies, with many private sector entities going digital.

The public sector too took advantage of computers. The use of IT in education was perhaps delayed. A real boost in IT use in education came as late as 2013 when the government launched “ICT in Education: Master Plan 2013-2017”. Under this scheme, two computers and a printer were provided to each of the more than 3,000 public schools. Prior to that, Formative Research Project had provided 62 schools with a computer and a printer each.

With such initiatives, Nepal saw some growth in technology use and its application in education. The use of high-tech computer labs is common in private schools and city-centric public schools. Traditional noticeboards have been replaced by social media like Facebook and Twitter. 

On the face of it, the IT seems to have made a big impact. But how big is it?
On a recent trip to Tasrpurin, Dhading, I had an opportunity to meet around 18 computer teachers from five different schools. The schools had varying student numbers, from 200 up to 700-plus. Two schools of these schools had two computers each, primarily used by principal and computer teachers. Three other schools had more computers and dedicated computer labs. All the schools had purchased these computers under a government-funded scheme whereby public schools were to raise a certain amount and government would chip in with the rest, as a part of the master plan. Other schools had machines donated by business organizations, and still others had gotten them courtesy of international donors. 

The interaction with computer teachers brought startling revelations. Computer was one of the highest scoring subjects compared to other subjects, the teachers said. They attributed this ‘achievement’ to breakdown of scores: 50 percent marks were allocated for theory and the remaining 50 percent for practical learning. Students would do relatively well in theory. Since schools did not have enough functional computers, teachers did not hesitate to award scores of above 40 to each student in theory. Unfortunately, most students who scored over 70 would not have used computers at all.

These teachers who were complaining about lack of internet also told me that they did not have much confidence in machines. They said they were part of a generation that grew up fascinated with land line phones and it was only recently that they started using smart phones and internet. They never had an opportunity to be familiar with these machines. They were teaching computers in schools as they were asked to, not because they were qualified for it.

The impact of IT in education has been one of the most researched and discussed topics. There are many findings which say simply equipping schools with technology would not result in fruitful outcomes. Instead, the results could be detrimental.

Such was the case in these schools in remote Dhading. Students, on paper, had good understanding of computers but in reality they could hardly use the machine.

Of course, the Ministry of Education’s master plan is a step in right direction. Other projects such as School Sector Reform Plan (SSRP), Social Sector Reform Plan and Education for All have also emphasized the use of IT in education reform. But their implementation has been dismal. We need not look beyond the plans’ real implementers, the teachers. No matter what kind of tools we equip them with, until the teachers can use those machines confidently, it would be a wishful thinking to assume students would benefit.

One of the teachers confided that whenever he had to do practical classes, he would plug out monitor cable from the CPU. Then he would tell students there is a problem with the machine and that he would therefore make it a theory class. This was easy, for he only had to follow textbook instructions. 

I cannot help but draw parallels with what had happened in Seva Mandir

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