Radio Revision: How lockdown exam preparation in Nepal took to the airwaves

28 October 2020 by

The Save our Future global campaign launched a White Paper at an Extraordinary UNESCO meeting last week, describing the greatest education emergency of our times. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the education of over 90% of the world’s students. It has exacerbated already existing inequalities and magnified the global learning crisis. It identifies, as a priority, the need to focus education technology where it is proven to be effective and most equitable. This blog details a simple but effective application of radio technology applied to meet demands from female students supported by a Girls' Education Challenge project in Nepal.

In early March 2020, the Nepal government closed all schools as one of the first steps to control the coronavirus outbreak. This was quickly followed by a nationwide lockdown and travel restrictions that came into effect on 24 March. With Secondary Education Examinations (SEE) just around the corner, Grade 10 students, in particular, were worried about how these closures would affect them. 

“At first I thought our exams would be postponed for a few weeks or so. But as the weeks turned into months, the level of uncertainty grew. We didn’t know if we should continue our preparations. I was afraid I would forget the syllabus,” 
said Laxmi, a student in Dhangadi.

Laxmi and her peers had good reason to be concerned. The SEE secondary level graduation examination is considered a significant milestone in any student’s life in Nepal and is notoriously difficult. Approximately 500,000 students take the examination every year with a pass rate of only 40%. The uncertainty of the rescheduling of the exams, together with the concern over the outbreak and the stress of lockdown was not good for the students. 

At the start of this challenging time, Mercy Corps Nepal’s Girls' Education Challenge project Supporting the Education of Marginalized (STEM II) Girls in Kailali conducted a series of assessments among its project participants – both school-going and out-of-school girls. The findings have been collated in a new report Impact of Lockdown: A Series of Assessments to Monitor the Wellbeing of Adolescent Girls. The report focuses on the impact of lockdown among adolescent girls and the new measures applied by the project in response to the findings. 

With the growing uncertainty, increasing threat of the outbreak and the subsequent extension of the lockdown, the series of four assessments primarily focused on the wellbeing of the girls. The series started with regular check-in calls but developed into specific needs assessments to ensure the wellbeing of girls while implementing immediate measures to address psychosocial needs, assess the feasibility of virtual and distance learning, and identify safety issues of adolescent girls. After the first rapid assessment, the second assessment was on psychosocial wellbeing, the third was on accessibility of internet and hardware for virtual learning and the fourth was on the requirements of distance learning.

The assessments revealed the uncertainty of the SEE as one of the major causes of stress among schoolgirls. As a result, the STEM II team accelerated its efforts to provide SEE revision classes to Grade 10 students. Among other goals, STEM II aims to improve educational outcomes of girls sitting the SEE, increasing female graduation rates.

The revision classes were disseminated through local FM stations as they are the most popular and accessible source of information in the region. The assessments found that distance learning through mediums like the internet and TV was not feasible, as many students lacked internet access and hardware like laptops, smartphones, and televisions. 

Distance learning via radio was a new approach in Nepal and delivering it on short notice was an uphill task. The project selected teachers for the four core subjects - Maths, Science, English and Nepali - and recorded 15 hour-long sessions for each subject. The sessions were aired through three local stations that covered two districts of Kanchanpur and Kailali, reaching more than 500,000 listeners. The project aired the sessions starting June 5 in coordination with the provincial government and Good Neighbors International

Although it is too early to accurately measure the impact of the radio class, many Grade 10 students have said it has helped them revise and understand content for the four core subjects. The students were able to utilise their free time during lockdown by listening to the radio to improve their learning. The radio classes were developed for easy understanding to accommodate all levels of students. The radio sessions served as revision classes helping students recall what they had learned in the academic year. 

"I used to get confused about grammar. But listening to the radio tutorials, it became easier. After the academic year was over, I had forgotten some of the content. By listening to the radio, I remembered things.” 
Laxmi, Grade 10 student 

“I found the science lessons easier to understand because they were in Nepali. The teacher repeated content and provided good examples which made it easier to understand.”
Mamta, Grade 10 student 

Distance learning through radio has shown tremendous potential in providing supplemental and alternative learning to vulnerable populations with limited access to information technology. Even as the national lockdowns are eased, the uncertainty over when and how schools will reopen continues, so provincial governments are placing even more emphasis on distance learning and the STEM-II project has received requests to share expertise to help shape more programs that can work as a stopgap measure to help students through this crisis.