Modifying program activities during the nation-wide lockdown

By Shishir Pandey, Senior Program Officer at OLE Nepal | June 2020

For the program team at OLE Nepal, 2020 was the year we had planned to visit all of our laptop program schools in the far-western region of Nepal to assess their progress and to provide programmatic and technical support. It was also an opportunity for us to meet with new teachers and local educational authorities.

In early January 2020, as the news of the novel coronavirus was spreading, our team had just completed visits to 43 schools in Bajhang. Shortly after that, the government declared that the school year will end earlier, and hence the visits to the remaining schools had to be put on hold.

OLE Nepal launched a COVID-19 information page to inform and educate our users about the virus and the preventative measures as per WHO guidelines. This page was included in our free and open digital library, which has nearly 1,500 visitors per day. 

On March 24, 2020, after the second case of COVID-19 was recorded in Nepal, the government declared a two-week nationwide lockdown as a necessary measure to stop an outbreak. Without much notice, our offices had to be closed for safety, and we started our new work-from-home practice. The initial days were filled with online team meetings to discuss how we can prepare the new school year which was supposed to start in mid-April.

IMMEDIATE RESPONSE FOR EDUCATION

Within the first few days of the lockdown, different groups working in the education sector came together with the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MOEST) to discuss possible ways of continuing education while students remained at home. As an immediate response, OLE Nepal provided the links to all our online resources to the Center for Education and Human Resource Development (CHERD), who then published an official notice regarding the availability of digital resources for free, especially for parents, students and teachers. 

After several meetings and discussions with officials, OLE Nepal signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with (CHERD) on April 23, 2020, to collaborate to make digital lessons available to students, and immediately provided our complete collection of digital learning content to be uploaded in the CEHRD’s official education portal. OLE Nepal was the first organization to provide learning content to the government for free to share on their platform. 

WORKING AND TEACHER TRAINING FROM HOME

As the nation-wide lockdown was further extended into the new school year session, our training team started coordination with different local and central governmental authorities, as well as different organizations and education groups to explore how we could assist teachers and students who were stuck at home. We also used our social media channels to reach out to the teachers, students and interested groups remotely. 

It is important to note that most private schools in the major cities of Nepal had started online classes, however, most public school students did not have the same resources. In such cases, we found that teachers were taking the lockdown as an opportunity to prepare for when the schools eventually open for regular classes. With many teachers and organizations interested, OLE Nepal’s training team started to conduct virtual orientation and training on digital content, E-Paath, and digital library, E-Pustakalaya.

E-Pustakalaya Online Orientation by Mr. Ganesh Ghimire (OLE Nepal’s E-Pustakalaya Coordinator)

We approached the sessions in a different modality than a usual webinar. Our priority was to encourage hands-on practice and an interactive Q&A session, so we kept the number of participants to a maximum of 25 teachers per session. This allowed our trainers to address the queries of each teacher, without being rushed. The sessions were further divided into two days to ensure that the teacher would have time to go through the contents and come back with any questions that they may have for the trainers. During the two-day sessions, teachers were familiarized with digital content and ways and techniques of using these resources during this lockdown period. 

While some teachers were personally signing up for the training, we also collaborated with different organizations to reach out to more teachers and schools across the country. We organised separate orientation and training sessions for the teachers from Teachers Association from Bharatpur Municipality, Chitwan; Society of Technology-friendly Teachers in Terhathum; science teachers from Society of Technology-friendly Teachers in Sunsari; and Kehi Garoun (NGO) in Kathmandu. Two full-day teacher training sessions were also organised for 32 teachers from Manakamana Secondary School in Sankhuwasabha. The school was able to conduct the session via Zoom with the OLE Nepal team in Kathmandu, while maintaining physical distancing and safety guidelines. 

Adjusted teacher training modality

We have received positive feedback from teachers who have participated in our sessions, and have the highest regard for the quality learning materials developed by OLE Nepal. It was heartening to see teachers carve out time and resources for these training sessions, and their reaction and feedback. We even had teachers in remote schools sign-in for training using their personal mobile data services. Over 400 teachers from different schools from all seven provinces have participated in our virtual training sessions so far. 

As there have been numerous requests for such orientations from different organizations and teachers groups across the county, we will be conducting similar sessions in the coming days, even as the lockdown is being partially lifted. We are still accepting applications for online training sessions. 

We hope that this kind of initiation and collaboration with different organizations and teachers groups during this lockdown period when schools are closed, will create opportunities for teachers to reach their students.

WHAT’S NEXT?

Even though the lockdown has been eased in many parts of the country, schools remain closed at the moment as some schools (including a few of our program schools) in remote parts of the country are serving as quarantine facilities.

MoEST has issued new guidelines that suggest all the local levels to categorise their students based on their access to resources and technology, and instructed them to run the classes as per the categorization. In this regard, OLE Nepal has continued further discussions and coordination with the chief of Education Development and Coordination Units (EDCU) and head of the Education unit at the local levels across our program district to seek the possibilities of engaging teachers and students in the learning process. 

OLE Nepal’s leadership are also engaging in dialogue with the larger education community in Nepal on how we can collectively use the lessons from this type of lockdown to strengthen our education system with the help of technology. We will be reporting more on the progress and status of our efforts in helping support public education during this pandemic.

Developing the New E-Pustakalaya

## Introduction ##

Since OLE Nepal’s inception in 2007 we have strived to provide open and free access to quality education and innovative learning environments to children all over Nepal.  One of our core missions is to reduce the disparity found within the accessibility of learning tools brought about by geographic location, school type, and population group.  E-Pustakalaya, our free and open digital library, closed the gap by providing a collection of thousands of books, educational resources, course content, and reference materials directly to students and educators.  Not only did this library aid in providing quality educational content, it has aided in the development of reading habits early on and has sparked an inquisitive nature within students by providing the means to conduct independent research.  

## Current Technology and Architecture ##

The initial iteration of E-pustakalaya utilizes FEDORA (an acronym for Flexible Extensible Digital Object Repository Architecture), a digital object repository architecture designed to achieve scalability, stability, flexibility and extensibility, while at the same time providing for interoperability between systems. FEDORA is positioned within a larger open-architecture framework in which the total functionality of a digital library is partitioned into a set of services with well-defined interfaces described in the image below.

Component Stack

Component Stack

Integration Architecture

Integration Architecture

 

Fedora Commons is developed on the top of a Java application and is popularly deployed through Tomcat. The front-end interface and querying of items in Fedora Commons is handled by FEZ and PHP.  Currently we are using Fedora Commons 2.2 deployed in Tomcat 4.1.12 and Java 6. We have tinkered CentOS 6.4 to orchestrate the deployment.

## The Switch ##

It has been over eight years since E-Pustakalaya’s initial launch and we are currently in development of a new E-Pustakalaya powered by DSpace: an open source repository software originally written by MIT and HP Labs and is currently developed by DuraSpace.  The main reasons for our switch are as follows:

  1. The Lack of Support for FEZ and front-end responsiveness

The FEZ interface is currently being loosely maintained at Github and lacks the proper support and documentation we require for the expansion of features like document streaming or a responsive interface.  For instance, a more responsive, dynamic web interface would improve the user’s experience by providing a dynamic view through various multimedia features rather than a static ones.  These features are implemented through languages like CSS and Javascript to facilitate a vibrant interface and make media queries possible which would have been very difficult to implement within the FEZ interface.

  1.   We wanted a more optimized database

Within the old E-Pustakalaya we utilized PHP to directly query for the desired items and their metadata within a relational database.  These queries eventually proved inefficient as several parts had to be queried from a relational database of millions of items that did not have a back-end search engine that provided an inverted index like Solr.

  1.  DSpace showed up with all the solutions

We chose DSpace because it met the standards of scalability, flexibility, and stability we set for the previous iteration of E-Pustakalaya, while also providing a greater environment for the expansion of features.  It provided a robust front-end interface that supported the implementation of the responsiveness that we sought for and had a sophisticated querying system that could handle our immense library.  DSpace also allowed for the same wide range of file formats to cover educational content  from books, videos, and recordings.  

## The Structure ##

Now within the library are millions of items of various file formats.   DSpace records the metadata for these items and then the file formats are converted into bitstreams.  The meta data and bitstreams are tied to the item which then gets grouped into a designated collection. These collections are then organized into general communities.  Take for instance a community was labeled “Literature,”  within this community some example collections could be the genres within literature, for instance: fiction, nonfiction, or children’s books. Within these collections the books would be the items and the metadata would hold various recording information like the authors,  release dates, and other descriptive information.

DSpace

Source: DSpace 6.X Documentation

To query these items from the collections or communities, DSpace utilizes Solr Discovery to facilitate faceting and search result filtering. Solr provides the inverted index to provide speedy access to content metadata and data while simultaneously recording usage statistics. To carry out these tasks DSpace has a multicore setup of Solr which includes a “search core” that deals with the data about the communities, collections, and items, and a “statistics core” that deals with view counts, searches, and user data. The search core effectively finds the item with its indexing and then queries for the relevant bitstreams tied to the item within a Postgresql database.  Solr also allows us to create custom metadata which helps its effectiveness in indexing.  The interaction between Solr querying and the traditional Postgresql database facilitates the fast querying and filtering of items while only querying for relevant bitstreams from a relational database.

The front-end web interface of the new E-Pustakalaya is generated through XMLUI and is based on Apache Cocoon, which primarily utilizes Java, XML, and XSLT.  We have heavily customized the original Mirage2 theme to match the end product designs that were decided upon by OLE designers.  Through Apache Cocoon each page is created through a pipeline where every aspect is “added” to the page separately and work independently from each other.  We have customized the built-in aspects to provide the desired document streaming for books, audio files, and video files. This is accomplished by incorporating open source add-ons like pdf.js and video.js which are HTML5 based interfaces that we provide within the server so that the end-user can access the educational content directly, without the need to install plugins within their browser.  We have also added a commenting feature using Disqus so users have the ability to comment on each item, which can facilitate discussions between students and educators.

Current E-Pustakalaya Home Page

Current E-Pustakalaya Home Page

 

Multiple Document Streaming

Multiple Document Streaming

 

Commenting Features

Commenting Features

Overall DSpace provides an extremely robust and flexible database that can handle virtually any file format that we would ever need.  Its use of Solr Discovery makes queries fast, reliable, and highly customizable.  An upgrade from the previous database which utilized PHP to run queries from a SQL database.  Even on the front-end the aspect style formatting of features allows us to freely customize specific aspects without the worry of affecting another feature.

## The Challenges ##

Our development team, consisting of a systems engineer, a software developer, and a development intern, is relatively small given the scale of the project.  DSpace out of the box did not natively support many of the features already adopted within our own repository.  For instance, the aforementioned document streaming modules are built up of third party add-ons; pdf.js provides the module for viewing pdf files and video.js provides the modules for streaming any file format compatible with HTML5.  Video.js actually grants us with a high level of flexibility on which file formats we can use for videos and recordings, but for now we have chosen to stick with mp4 and mp3, for video and audio respectively, as they are widely used and are compatible with almost all browsers.  

DSpace’s ability to use Solr Discovery is heavily reliant on the metadata tied to the items as these are how items and their bitstreams are easily indexed and queried.  The process of transferring items from the previous data base might have to be done manually as the formats of the databases do not currently provide an obvious solution for their automatic transfer.  We have discussed plans on tiered transitions where we would transfer over parts of the database at a time rather than a full scale transition.  We will of course also be looking into how we can automate some of the processes for the eventual transition.

There is also the challenge of localization and maintenance.  Since OLE is planning on distributing this library format to remote villages in Nepal; access to internet may not be possible and some features of the repository may require an internet connection to work such as the commenting features in Disqus.  There is also the somewhat steep learning curve of customizing the XMLUI interface as it is based on XML, XSLT, CSS, and Java which would require a working understanding of those languages for any form of customization.  We have talked about writing a comprehensive guide on the customization of popular features  the repository and to also provide references to the original DSpace documentation if further customization is desired.

## Looking Ahead ##

As of writing this blog the team is still currently in development of the new E-Pustakalaya and is making steady progress towards the end goal of providing a necessary platform to bridge the gap on the accessibility of quality educational content.  The current local instance of the E-Pustakalaya has the core database established that allows for multiple file streaming on a vibrant, newly designed web interface.  The whole team is very excited about continuing in the development of the new E-Pustakalaya and are enthusiastic about what the end product can help achieve.

Pustakalaya in our hands

It is very hard to tell when and how the idea to create a mobile application for our E-Pustakalaya started. However, it certainly was the advantage of applications alike these being handy, easy and accessible that attracted us towards creating one for our E-Pustakalaya. This application would give direct and free access to the massive collection of books for avid readers and book enthusiasts. It would satisfy our goal of making the books available to many users as possible.

So it started and we developers of OLE Nepal got a new thing to learn about. Oh yes! We were all very excited about the app. Utility software we used for app development – Android Studio, was in beta version, but this Integrated Development Environment (IDE) was a great tool and we coded our app in this version. We remember there being two or three design proposals for how the app would look like, before we finalized one.

First, application programming interface (API) was created which would be used by our application to connect with the server and extract the required information to be displayed on the app. The development of the client side (mobile) application was conducted simultaneously. The difficult part was to understand the database of the books in E-pustakalaya. It really took us significant amount of time to figure that out.

After a months time, we had one more friend joining our team for its development. Now there were three excited ones ready to bring the app down to the android mobile. The application was growing faster and smoother. It started to babble and communicate with the server for what it required. It was definitely growing beautiful.

Almost ready to be deployed to the play store, we had developed a fully functional E-pustakalaya app which could now get the E-pustakalaya library to small handheld android devices (by padilla). Users now would be able to explore the library under seven different categories, Arts, Literature, Course Materials and number of subcategories under each of them. Also the list of the books were sortable ascending or descending based on author, date and name.
 

Category

Categories with expandable Subcategories

We also added a search feature to the app which would be beneficial for users to find the books using keywords. Home screen displays three other useful categories which would show featured, user downloaded and latest books from the library.
 

Main page

Main page view


 

The user interaction of the application is practically standard which assures our users an easy navigating system. We had options on how to access the library online via “pustakalaya.org”, offline via school server  and some other internet protocols which could server the library content. Now, there is one more easy option added to the list.

 

Settings

Settings

 

A single banook selected can show you important details including name of the book, author’s name, book size (units referring memory size for storage), brief summary about the book, etc. A download button is shown if the book is not already downloaded, else option to open or delete the book are shown.

 

Book Details

Book Details Section

Thanks to all our OLE Nepal team who helped us test it, by allowing to install the application on their devices and to spot any bugs. Moreover, there were many fixes and improvements during the testing phase which made the app more mature in compare to other android applications on the galaxy of Google play store.

There are plans to upgrade our app with more interesting features in coming days. Do explore our “E-Pustakalaya” app and give us feedback on interesting features that can be added to the application.

E-Pustakalaya Yearly Maintanence

The E-Pustakalaya team has planned to start the new year by introducing new features to our website and upgrading much of our system. Some of these features are easily noticeable by users while, some will be running in the background (I don’t want to ruin the surprise but we are hoping that it is what our users want.).

With the constant expansion of our content and features it is only natural that our system would require further upgrades. We want to make sure that these changes will appear on Jan 1st hence, we will be closing down our regular service for a week (26-31 Dec). This year we have had a lot of feedback from our users most of them have provided us with suggestions about certain features that would add to the overall user experience. We value the feedback we get and we will be trying to include all these features and much more by Jan 1st.

This festive season as Nepalis celebrate Christmas, Tol Lhosar, Tamu Lhosar and the start of Year 2012 we hope our maintenance work will not dampen the holiday spirit.

Wishing and thanking all our users the very best we leave knowing that we will see you all at the start of 2012!!!

Learn English Kids

OLE Nepal recently signed an agreement with the British Council to host ‘Learn English Kids (LE Kids)’ interactive software in the E-Pustakalaya. LE Kids teaches fundamentals of the English language to children and adults through the use of audio visual effects and flash animations.  In this regard, it is similar to OLE Nepal’s E-Paath activities, but the scope of LE Kids is not qualified to any curriculum. The partnership has expanded the reach of LE Kids to nearly 3400 students in 34 schools spread across ten districts in Nepal where OLE Nepal has implemented ICT-integrated classes using the OLPC model. By integrating the LE Kids in the digital library hosted in local servers, schools no longer require Internet connectivity to benefit from these activities. OLE Nepal has always emphasized the need for quality learning materials like LE Kids in order to realize a meaningful impact on children’s learning through computers. By making these activities freely available to everyone, the British Council has done a great service to students and learners who otherwise would have been deprived of this great tool to improve their English language skills.

LE Kids provides its users with a multitude of options such as solving puzzles, painting, reading, playing games and listening to songs. All of these choices enable people to learn day to day English. This can be something as simple as knowing English terms for food items sold at shopping centres or teaching comprehension skills with its various read and solve quizzes.

LE Kids also contains two person general knowledge quizzes. These quizzes allow healthy competition among children, teach children (and adults) interesting facts about our changing world and also enable and encourage kids to share their computers. This will be very useful for students in rural schools where even with the generous numbers of XO laptops provided by OLE Nepal there is a need to share. Some of the quiz questions also explain why an answer is incorrect. For example a question regarding the largest lake in the world has as an incorrect option the deepest lake in the world, lake Baikal. Thus, even while answering incorrectly children can learn a new fact as well as understand that there are differences between similar concept words such as ‘large’ and ‘deep’.

My favourite section in LE Kids is the Short Story section. The user has fifty two stories to choose from. Apart from being able to read along with the stories some of them are also interactive. The ‘Spycat’ story for example allows the children to solve the clues that Spycat discovers. This technique allows children to remain engaged with the story and not lose focus.

We can say with certainty that both students and teachers will greatly benefit from LE Kids activities as content to build English language skills is scarce. One can access LE Kids from the E-Pusatkalaya homepage. It is conveniently located in the upper right hand panel of the homepage under the title ‘अंग्रेजी भाषा सिकौँ’ (‘Learn English Kids’ in our English interface). Any one who has tried LE Kids will find it fun and appealing to the intellect.

Young Adult’s Literature: Seminar


As mentioned in an earlier post (http://blog.olenepal.org/index.php/archives/377), OLE Nepal has started the initiative to create content suitable for Young Adults. As a first step, a seminar was organized on the 22nd December, 2010 in Kathmandu to discuss the various issues, problems, and challenges faced by young adults in everyday life. The seminar was attended by eminent authors, artists, teachers, students, social workers, parents and others related to the literary field.

The program began with OLE Nepal’s Founder and Executive Director Mr. Rabi Karmacharya welcoming the guests and giving a brief introduction on OLE Nepal’s pioneering activities in ICT-integrated education. This was followed by a short demonstration of the digital library, E-Pustakalaya. Then Prof. Churamani Bandhu, a prominent writer and a member of OLE Nepal’s digital library advisory panel, presented a paper on the state of young-adult literature in Nepal. This was followed by another panel member and prolific author, Mr. Vinaya Kasajoo, shedding light on the importance of young-adult literature, as well as on various issues such as youth psychology, emotional state, and socio-psycho-economic factors affecting the youth of today. Then the floor was opened to all participators to share their thoughts on what the writers should address on this new genre of literature.

Founder and Executive Director Mr. Rabi Karmacharya welcoming guests

Mr. Ganesh Ghimire describing features of E-Pustakalaya.

All participants agreed that there is a dire need for literature content that is created for young adults. Several participants suggested that topics such as one’s growing sexuality and experience with drug usage during adolescence should be addressed in stark contrast to the traditional approach in Nepali society of not discussing such issues. Many youths today are addicted to drugs such as marijuana, brown sugar, lsd, sniffing glue (huffing glue) and acid. This has come about due to consumer goods such as glue being easily available in the market and pharmaceutical products being sold without prescriptions.

The older generation seem to have been caught unaware of this development. They tend to regard cough medicines as only medicine and do not recognise the danger of their children ingesting such pharmaceutical drugs in large quantities. While Young Adults tend to be aware of a drugs ability to get them high they do not understand the dangers that come along with ingesting products which is easily found in their household medicine cabinets. Regarding sexuality, participants opined that since girls discover that their physical changes occur faster than that of boys their age, it is important to make girls aware that such changes are not unnatural. Without much information nor adults who they can turn to for answers, girls are more likely to be introverted as well as become victims of bullying and eve teasing. These changes, coupled with the existent gender discrimination girls face in Nepal, means that adolescence is the most difficult period for a girl to come out of without being mentally and emotionally scarred.

Prof. Dr. Churamani Bandu presenting his working paper

As marginalised genders’ get empowered it is also important that we prevent violent backlashes against them. Young Adult literature should deal with complicated issues such as third gender and importantly how they fit into our society. YA literature is a new genre thus, it has the capability to break away from the traditional boy-girl relationship or the old concept of what it is to be a woman or a man. It was also made clear that while presenting such social issues, literature should create an atmosphere which is not too far from reality. Old authors may not understand how new technologies and greater access to consumer goods have affected today’s youth. New age problems such as cyber bullying, perils of amateur pornography and sharing others’ private information on social networks need to be kept in mind.

Mr. Vinaya Kasajoo moderating the seminar.

Others pointed out that there is a real need for historical fiction. Many young adults struggle with identity crisis; on the one hand they believe they are adults, yet adults around them treat them as children. This coupled with a lack of historical knowledge tend to have negative affect on teen aspirations and spirits. Few teachers present in the seminar felt that knowledge of historical figures should be depicted in the literature so that young-adult readers not only feel a sense of patriotism, but also have proper role models they can look up to. Further, such historical content will help put the achievements of young adults in perspective.

Participants of the Young Adult Literature Seminar

Many of the social workers present pointed out that teenagers tend to be rebellious by nature. They tend to commit illegal acts by making graffiti in public areas, using firecrackers and attempting other acts of vandalism. This type of rebellion is caused by their frustration at not being taken seriously by adults in authority. It has been found that a well reasoned response go further than just telling teenagers what it is they can and can’t do. In this way literature should allow them to better deal with these emotions and show them alternative paths where they could direct these energy for constructive purposes.

The information and suggestions collected at the seminar will be used in the young-adult literature writing workshop that will soon be organized by OLE Nepal.

Nepali Young Adult’s Literature: Content Creation Project

OLE Nepal has started an ambitious project to create content relevant to Young Adult (YA) in Nepali literature. Over the span of two years we spent collecting and archiving work of Nepali literature, we realized that there was a real dearth of literary materials for YAs between the ages of eleven and eighteen. After a number of discussions on this topic, E-Pustakalaya’s Advisory Panel met on November 30, 2010 at OLE Nepal office to plan the content creation process to meet the literary needs of teenagers in Nepal.



E-Pustakalaya Advisory Panel meeting to discuss Young Adult literature workshop

From L to R: Bishwambhar Chanchal, Vinaya Kasajoo, Geeta Keshary, Churamani Bandhu, Rambabu Subedi and (not seen Dhruva Ghimire)

The panel decided that we need to better understand the social and psychological issues relevant to Nepali youth before starting the content creation process. OLE Nepal will be organizing a day-long seminar on December 22, 2010 at the Russian Culture Centre to discuss the areas that should be addressed by this project. With our target audience narrowed down to students who have just finished their School Leaving Certificate exams (grade 10), we hope that the literary that will eventually be produced will address key social issues regarding this challenging period in a teen’s life.

The seminar will be attended by authors, illustrators, teachers, authors and students. Two papers, one on the importance of YA literature in Nepal and another one on current styles and popular techniques used in YA literature around the world, will be presented by Prof. Churamani Bandu and Mr. Vinaya Kasajoo respectively. After the paper presentations, participating teachers and students will discuss their real life problems while dealing with or being an adolescent. We believe this preliminary seminar will provide the necessary literary spark and base to aspiring authors present at the seminar. They will then be able to bring these ideas with them to the writer’s workshops conducted at a future date.