Social Entrepreneur Rabi Karmacharya Reports Progress in Innovating Nepali Schools

Blogging from the Global OLE Assembly in Kathmandu, Nepal – Richard Rowe, founder of the Open Learning Exchange, puts a lot of emphasis on the need for social entrepreneurs in developing countries to catalyze a transformation in their schools. In each country where OLE is established, you will find a social entrepreneur leading the local OLE Center, bringing novel learning approaches into schools, and working with their government to scale up those innovations proven to improve children’s access to quality education.

Rabi Karmacharya, executive director of OLE Nepal, embodies this social entrepreneurship. As he opened the Global OLE Assembly here in Kathmandu this week, he denounced the fact that, while new technologies are readily used to improve finance and other business sectors, “it is unfortunate that we cannot use technology to improve the standard of learning in our schools.”

In Nepal, as elsewhere, if educational technology is used at all, it is usually targeted more at institutions of higher learning. Its use in primary schools is negligible, Rabi said.

He acknowledged that technology is only a means and not an end – then he cited some of his own “ends.” They are as sweeping as improving the quality of education and reducing the dramatic inequality between one child’s access to education and another’s. They are also as intensely practical as enabling teachers to professionally develop and collaborate with each other to improve children’s learning.

In other discussions at the OLE Assembly he and his OLE Nepal colleagues put the magnitude of the problem in stark terms. Even in the third and fourth grades, many Nepali school children “really don’t know how to read,” they said.

Over the past two years – a period Nepali Director General of Education Mahashram Sharma told the Assembly had been “remarkable” – OLE Nepal has distributed 2,000 laptops to teachers and students in 26 schools in six districts and trained 125 teachers.

But laptops make up only part of the picture. As Rabi put it: “We do not believe that handing out laptops is going to improve the quality of education. The challenge lies in successfully integrating technology into the classroom so teachers can do more and students can have a more meaningful education.”

OLE Nepal has developed content and learning activities that can be used whether a student is online, on a computer that is offline, or simply on paper. The Center works closely with Nepal’s Curriculum Development Center to align the content with government standards. In addition to such learning activities as games that teach pronunciation or addition, the Center has been making Nepali language literature available online – often for the very first time.

“Content is at the core of all the work we do,” as Rabi often says, and the current global trend toward free and open educational software and content is key to enabling OLE Nepal to do its work. The fact is that with 6.5 million primary school children in Nepal, buying 6.5 million software licenses “would be beyond what we could afford,” he said. By contrast, once OLE Nepal makes a learning activity or text available in its digital library, it is freely available to anyone who has the means to access it.

Even as he speaks of millions, though, Rabi says OLE Nepal has a very phased approach. “We cannot massively deploy from the start.” The focus so far has been on grades 2, 3, and 6. Curriculum development and content aggregation in OLE Nepal’s digital library have primarily targeted literature (to develop a reading culture in the children), art, Nepali, English, math, and teaching support materials, such as lesson plans. Interesting to note: Among the guidelines to teachers is often the advice that laptops should not dominate a lesson, but perhaps take only 20 minutes out of a 45-minute session.

Teacher training is another emphasis of OLE Nepal’s work, and the Center has been working with the Department of Education to train educators to teach in a new way. As described by Dr. Prativa Pandey, chair of OLE Nepal’s board of directors, the idea is to rely on teachers to drive education but empower students to engage in self learning as well. The kind of creativity this fosters in children is exactly what the nation of Nepal needs to build a future generation of entrepreneurs and leaders, she said.

Partnerships have been critical to OLE Nepal’s progress. In addition to its partners in the Nepal government, OLE Nepal has been strongly supported by the Danish Government and has also begun working with such partners as the World Food Programme. Internet access by the schools is made possible in part through a wireless network put up by Nepal Wireless entrepreneur Mahabir Pun.

Where does it all lead? Evaluation visits to schools began in September and will take place again in February-March, with a report expected in autumn 2010. With the documentation of the merits of OLE Nepal’s approach in hand, the Center and the government will decide whether and how this novel approach has improved students’ chances of getting a quality education – and whether the innovations that OLE Nepal has introduced into some schools and districts should be expanded to many more.

Early indications are coming in from teachers, who are asking to continue and expand their use of the program. What’s more, there are signs from the students themselves, Dr. Pandey said. On two visits to a local school – one when laptops were first in use and another six months later – she saw a marked increase in students’ confidence, she said. And this is the kind of confidence that leads to a higher level of learning, with children thinking for themselves and becoming more creative.

Even Nepalis living overseas are weighing in. Technicians tracking the online use of the OLE Nepal library and learning activities have found that many in the global diaspora are using the Nepali content to teach their children as well.

Visit OLE Nepal’s digital library, E-Library (E-Pustakalaya), at www.pustakalaya.org. Visit OLE International’s homepage at www.ole.org.

About the Global OLE Assembly
The Open Learning Exchange (OLE), an emerging global network dedicated to educating the world’s children, is holding its first meeting of educational innovators from across the developing world in Kathmandu on November 2 to 7, hosted by OLE Nepal.

Among those attending have been Mahashram Sharma (Director General of Department of Education); Lawa Dev Awasthi (Joint Secretary of Nepal’s Ministry of Education); Haribol Khanal (Executive Director of Nepal’s Curriculum Development Center); Prativa Pandey (Chairperson of the Board of Directors of OLE Nepal and Chair of the opening session); Richard Rowe (Founder and CEO of OLE International) and members of his team; Kedar Bhakta Mathema (Former Vice Chancellor of Tribhuvan University and the Chief of the advisory board of OLE Nepal); Rabi Karmacharya (Executive Director of OLE Nepal) and members of his team; and representatives from OLE Centers and partners in Bolivia, the Dominican Republic, Rwanda, and other countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and North America.