New beginnings in Nepal

Inaugural meeting at Hotel Vajra, Kathmandu

Inaugural meeting at Hotel Vajra, Kathmandu


The list of remarkable things about Nepal is remarkably long.

You could start with the physical: It has 8 of the 10 highest mountains in the world with elevations ranging from 66 meters to 8,848 meters above sea level. It is a biodiversity hotspot deriving from the multiple ecoregions–arctic to tropical, including mountains, hills, and savannas. There is a corresponding diversity of flora and fauna, with gorgeous butterflies and birds. There are many cultural groups and over 125 languages spoken. The architecture, the food, the music, the arts, the history, the religions, and more are fascinating. The traffic in Kathmandu is a story in itself.

Teach for Nepal, from the website

Teach for Nepal, from the website

However, I experienced something perhaps even more remarkable. I was fortunate to be included in a group of young Nepalis who hope to build a movement to make education in Nepal more progressive, specifically to make it more relevant to people’s lives, more connected to community, and more supportive of inquiry that leads to sustained learning and creativity.

The group has the tentative name of Progressive Educators of Nepal Network (PENN). We met last Tuesday for early morning breakfast at Hotel Vajra in Kathmandu.

King;s College events

King’s College events

Those present represented four organizations. Shisir Khanal and Swastika Shrestha came from Teach for Nepal. Like Teach for America and similar organizations, TFN engages university graduates and young professionals who are committed to reduce education inequality. They emphasize community-based education, teaching in rural, public schools. Fellows work for two years, typically living in a community and staying in a home there.

Children as innovators

Children as innovators at Karkhana

Umes Shrestha and Narottam Aryal came from King’s College, a new college whose objective is making world-class education available to Nepali youths at home at an affordable cost. King’s College seeks to make its teaching more relevant for students and more inquiry-based.

Karkhana, meaning “factory,” is a company emphasizing experimentation, collaboration, and play for both makers and teachers. It started as a Saturday morning hacker hang-out and evolved into an innovation focused company that combines education and design of new products. See for example, the recent Kathmandu Mini Maker Faire. Pauvita Gautram represented Karkhana and its inquiry-based learning approach.

KLL mapping as service learning

KLL mapping as service learning

Kathmandu Living Labs (KLL) is a not-for-profit civic technology company. It has been mapping all the educational institutions, health facilities, road networks, tangled mesh of gallies, religious sites and other geographic features of Kathmandu Valley using OpenStreetMap. Secondary and college-level students participate through mapping workshops. Nama Budhathoki represented KLL and its effort to extend youth mapping work to education for full civic engagement. See KLL goal statement.

In November, this network of people, organizations, and interests will host a month long project to foster the development of educators who can become leaders in community–based education. I’ll lead initial workshops on progressive education, inquiry-based learning, and community inquiry. We’ll also travel to village sites to explore community-based education, then bring those experiences back to Kathmandu for a national meeting.

The work of this group can be important for Nepal, while also serving as a model for others. More to come on this exciting project.

Can anything be done?

Earthquake response in Nepal

Earthquake response in Nepal

When we think about problems such as intolerance, economic justice, or climate change, should we focus on the local or the global? the short-term or the long-term? the social or the technical? Questions such as these recur in ways that often lead to discouragement, including the feeling that nothing can be done on any problem at any level.

Naomi Klein discussed this in last June’s College of the Atlantic commencement address, Climate Change Is a Crisis We Can Only Solve Together. She writes, “the very idea that we—as atomized individuals, even lots of atomized individuals—could play a significant part in stabilizing the planet’s climate system, or changing the global economy, is objectively nuts.” There must be “a large, organized, and focused movement.” And yet, she goes on to say, local activism is critical: It’s winning big fights, showing us what the future looks and feels like, and inspiring bigger examples. In short, we need both.

What Klein says makes a lot of sense. But it’s often hard to find examples that bridge between the local and the global, the immediate need and the needed long-term change, or between social and organizational work and technological fixes.

Open air mapping, when buildings were unsafe

Open air mapping, when buildings were unsafe

Yesterday at MIT, Nama Budhathoki gave an inspiring talk on the work of Kathmandu Living Labs. It was titled: Nepal’s Digital Innovation for Social Good: Looking Back to the April Earthquake. His project offers such an example.

KLL uses online mapping to address a wide variety of social challenges. This can be seen most dramatically in the timeline of KLL’s response to the April 25 earthquake in Nepal. For an excellent summary of their work, see Naomi Bloch’s article GIS & the Global Community: Humanitarian Mapping.

Through KLL, a farmer in a remote Nepalese village can integrate his local knowledge of a field or stream with that of an engineer at MIT. People in Nepal, despite their own challenges, can become among the largest contributors to relief efforts following Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. Detailed information about a school can be used to influence government policies and actions. This connecting across levels or communities is something many people talk about but few have shown how to achieve.

There are many reasons for KLL’s success, including the dedication of Nama and his team. But what also seems clear is that KLL offers remarkable models for how people can work together to achieve common good.