Ut Prosim Beyond Boundaries: Global Outreach During the Pandemic

How an online service-learning based professional and technical writing course served rural communities in Nepal to enhance digital literacy.

Ut Prosim Beyond Boundaries: Global Outreach During the Pandemic

How an online service-learning based professional and technical writing course served rural communities in Nepal to enhance digital literacy.


Ut Prosim Beyond Boundaries: Global Outreach During the Pandemic is an exhibition curated by Dr. Sweta Baniya, Laura Gautier, and Scott Fralin to present an example of Virginia Tech’s motto Ut Prosim in action. In this exhibition, we curate our experiences of an online service-learning-based Professional and Technical writing course at the Department of English that aimed at serving rural communities in Nepal to enhance digital literacy.

This exhibition curates the multimodal and digital works produced by the students, including their reflections on learning from the partnership. The exhibition will also illustrate the stories and experiences of Dr. Sweta Baniya, her student Laura Gautier, and the community partner Ravi Kumar. The students created a varied range of user documentations, mobile application prototypes, and web interfaces that focused on empowering the rural population by enhancing digital literacy in post-pandemic Nepal. Below we share information on the class followed by our reflections, along with student experiences.

English 3814: Creating User Documentation

In Spring 2020, the global pandemic created chaos across the globe, isolating us from others and forcing us to adapt, be flexible, and try to remain sane in difficult times. Developed countries quickly transitioned to online work, teaching, and learning, entering a whole new digital landscape. However, for some rural populations in Nepal, this was not an easy transition to make. This was mainly due to the lack of access to the online world and to the lack of knowledge when it came to the use of digital products.

With the aim of supporting the rural Nepali community, Dr. Sweta Baniya’s fall 2020 class, ENGL 3814: Creating User Documentation, centered around post-pandemic digital literacy and international service-learning. The purpose of the class was twofold: to fulfill the learning outcomes of the class on preparing audience-centered documentation in varied environments and to calibrate this documentation for rural Nepali audiences to support the volunteer-based Nepali non-profit, Code for Nepal.

Creating User Documentation is offered through the Professional and Technical Writing Program at the Department of English. This class introduces students to the knowledge and skills necessary for communicating information to diverse audiences. Students learn about user documentation according to three main forms--procedures, processes, and narrative--and develop an understanding of the variety of technical tools and best practices available to them when creating user documentation.

Dr. Sweta Baniya’s Fall 2020 course incorporated service learning, which allowed the students to work across several contexts, with diverse audiences, and on projects of civic significance. This course allowed students to create digital rhetoric-based artifacts such as websites, user documentation, and instructional videos targeted towards enhancing the digital literacy of the rural audiences of Code for Nepal.

a screenshot of a class ession taking place via zoom.
English 3814: Creating User Documentation class meeting via Zoom. (Photo: Dr. Sweta Baniya)
Two women sitting on the floor of a classroom compare the screens of two smartphones.
A class in Nepal participating in a Digital Literacy workshop organized by Code for Nepal. (Photo: Code for Nepal)

There was one caveat for the class: the course was not asking for any extra hours of service. Instead, the service was incorporated into the regular assignments that the students completed throughout the semester. The assignments were designed in collaboration with Code for Nepal to ensure that they fulfilled the requirements of the class while also meeting the needs of the community members and the rural Nepali audience.

The students of the class came from varied disciplines and majors such as Professional and Technical Writing, Computer Science, English Literature, and other STEM fields, resulting in an interdisciplinary environment within the class. The interdisciplinary nature of the classroom created a unique praxis where students brought their expertise from their varied disciplinary backgrounds and implemented projects that would help the Code for Nepal in reaching its goals of digital literacy.

Code for Nepal

Code for Nepal is a volunteer-based nonprofit organization that focuses on increasing digital literacy among women and the rural Nepali population. In doing so, Code for Nepal organizes various workshops at various schools and communities in Nepal. Targeting women between the ages of 15 and 30, Code for Nepal provides these women with training that will make them serious contenders in the competitive job market. Code for Nepal played a significant role in the disaster relief efforts deployed during the aftermath of the 2015 earthquake. Dr. Sweta Baniya has been partnering with Code for Nepal since 2018 in service-learning projects and currently serves the organization as an advisor.

The organization is run by volunteers and it heavily relies on the generosity of global supporters who offer their skills and time. All of Code for Nepal’s digital products and programs have been created by volunteers to increase digital literacy, the use of open data, and civic technology in Nepal. As a volunteer-based organization, Code for Nepal has limited resources and capacity, but the organization keeps on striving to create open-source and freely available products, making them easily accessible especially for the rural Nepali communities. Code for Nepal partnered with Virginia Tech’s class, where students created various digital literacy-oriented user documentation as well as prototypes of products that have the potential to help a lot of people in Nepal.

Service Learning is Addictive - Laura Gautier

A woman looking into the camera for a portrait type photo.
Laura Gautier, secure computing major, class of 2023.

My name is Laura Gautier, and I am a junior in Secure Computing. I chose to come to Virginia Tech because of our motto, Ut Prosim, and because working to make the world a better place resonated with me. However, after a few semesters here, I did not know how I could give back to the community or what that process looked like. During Fall 2020, I signed up for a course titled “ENGL 3814: Creating User Documentation” as I was curious about the process of writing technical documentation. I imagined that at the very least, I would leave this class with information that would prepare me for my future career in computer science or as a future developer of programs that need technical documentation. However, I did not know that the class incorporated service-learning as well as digital literacy. In fact, I was not aware of what these terms actually meant until I was introduced to the concepts and learned that service-learning meant learning by serving a community. This added to my excitement in the course as I saw it linking to my desire to give back to the community.

Service-learning is about helping others. It is a mutually beneficial experience where students learn from the service they provide to a community that they are not a part of. For this course, we met people from Code for Nepal, a non-profit organization that helps Nepali women gain digital literacy skills and creates open-source projects that draw attention to various problems in Nepal. Digital literacy is the ability to understand and communicate using digital information technologies. When we met with Ravi Kumar, we found out that a lot of Nepalis struggle with digital literacy and it was shocking for us as most of us grew up surrounded by technology.

So, our work as students was to implement the lessons from the class when creating user-based documentation that focused on enhancing digital literacy for Code for Nepal audiences. These documents were targeted towards school teachers and students in rural Nepal that Code for Nepal serves.

This was a unique challenge for us as students. Instead of having a course where we were given an assignment, we completed it, and submitted it, we were creating something that would be used by someone 7500+ miles away in Nepal. The projects that I spent weeks on were not going to be stored away on some laptop or flash drive to be forgotten. They were going to help someone. Knowing that someone would be using the assignments that I produced meant a lot to me very early on. It gave me a purpose.

We started our first project by learning how to write technical documentation. We then learned how to conduct user analysis of the audiences, and finally, we chose a digital product to write. After my analysis, I chose to write about how to identify and report phishing scams on Gmail. This topic would inform the audience about basic digital security and the mechanics of navigating Gmail.

I remember that my initial draft was very rough, but thankfully, I was able to get feedback from Dr. Baniya as well as Code for Nepal on how to improve and refine it. In the end, I was happy with my final written documentation. In those first few weeks, I quickly learned that I thoroughly enjoy the service-learning aspect of this class, though I could not quite figure out why yet. Regardless, I knew I liked it and wanted to keep going, and when I began to work on my second project, I finally began to pinpoint what about service-learning I enjoyed.

In our second project, we were tasked with creating an instructional video. As I was working through this second assignment, I started brainstorming similar projects I could develop in the future to serve various communities locally and globally, and that is when I finally understood why I liked service-learning so much. Service-learning to me is addicting. It is a cycle of wanting to serve the community, create something with a purpose in partnership with the community, getting positive feedback on it, learning from it, and establishing a mutually beneficial relationship. It is something I definitely want to continue in the future.

In our third project, we were told to work in groups to develop a digital product prototype with documentation that we would pitch to Code for Nepal who will later implement this. My group constructed a Wix website that took the documentation created by students in the course and put it in one centralized location. In this process, we also received extensive feedback from Code for Nepal as well as Dr. Baniya. Each documentation topic was created for Nepali teachers and students, so the audience would mostly remain the same, however, we were sure to compensate for Code for Nepal and casual viewers interested in digital literacy. We were proud of our final website. Personally, I was proud to have created something that would be of real use to another community.

I will never forget my experience in class. It was almost like an internship, but it had the purpose of serving a community which is in need. It was also mutually beneficial for us as students because we were exposed to something we were unfamiliar with and we worked for an international audience, supporting them in the ways that we could. Furthermore, this class is something that I can add to my resume. I can implement its lessons in future work settings as well as to serve communities in need. Service-learning is in the spirit of Ut Prosim, and I would be shocked if I did not see more classes adopt this teaching style. I am somewhat surprised that I have never heard of service-learning courses before, but I hope to take more in the future. Service-learning courses include an aspect of meaningful output that a traditional course cannot achieve. Service-learning courses allow students to engage in serving another community that they would otherwise not be associated with, something that traditional courses rarely, if ever, offer.

class assignments

There are millions of existing tutorials online that answer “how-to” questions. While it might not be intentional, these tutorials are often made with expectations that are too high for many in rural communities. They expect their users to have an understanding of standard software conventions, know where to find the software they need, and how to find the tutorial in the first place. Being a Nepali, I (Dr. Baniya) understood this problem for rural Nepalis and heavily considered it when I developed the course assignments. Thus, the students in my class were taught to create projects that specifically targeted the rural Nepali audiences. Each assignment was designed to meet the course requirements of the class as well as the needs of the teachers and students in the rural Nepali communities.

Assignment 1 Creating digital literacy User Documentation

This assignment asked the students to identify a digital product and create step-by-step visual instructions that would teach users how to employ that digital product. This assignment was accompanied by a user-analysis that asked the students to conduct user research and to understand the context of their audiences. The students researched the social, political, and economic contexts of users based in Nepal and also got insights from Code for Nepal while working. This assignment met the course objectives of generating a step-by-step guide while also providing very contextual documentation for Code for Nepal’s audiences. These user-based documentations ranged from various digital products such as Zoom, Slack, PowerPoint, Google Docs, and so on.

First page of a how to use Excel's basic functions written documentation.
How to use Excel's basic functions!
First page of The benefits and challenges of virtual you written documentation.
The benefits and challenges of virtual you.
Zoom user manual for teachers and students
Front page of Zoom user manual for teachers and students.
Instruction page from zoom user manual stating: Before you begin make sure you have the following, a cellphone, computer, and email.
Interior of Zoom user manual.

Assignment 2 Instructional Video

Students had the option to work on the same topic they had for assignment 1. Assignment 2 asked students to create video documentation, where they were required to produce a script, storyboard, and a video that included visual modeling and step-by-step instructions. The video needed to consist of at least 7-10 steps. The purpose of this assignment was to pair print-based user documentation with an instructional video. This allowed students to learn how to create multimodal products and how to recreate print-based user documentation in the form of an instructional video.

a screenshot of microsoft paint tutorial video.
How to use Microsoft Paint instructional video.
screenshot from a virtual you tutorial video
Virtual You instructional video.
screenshot from a wix tutorial video
Wix instructional video.

Assignment 3 A Digital Literacy Prototype

The third assignment was a collaborative project that provided students with the opportunity to a) design their own digital product prototype and b) produce user documentation on how to use that product. The students were divided into four different interdisciplinary teams. Collectively, students designed a mobile-based game that was targeted towards raising awareness about increased cyber-crime and cyber-harassment in Nepal. Three groups designed web-based prototypes, two of which were targeted towards raising awareness of COVID-19. The remaining group curated all the user-based documentation and instructional videos.

mockup images of an app intended to help Nepalis find resources about cyberbullying, cyber harassment, sexual assault, and hacking.
Mockup images of an app to help Nepalis find information on specific topics.
Web page screenshot showing page that compiles all the assignments from this class.
Final project that compiled all tutorials made by students in the class into one place. Click to visit.
Covid-19 resources web page.
Web page focused on COVID-19 resources for Nepal.

Creating Intersections for moving beyond boundaries - Dr. Sweta Baniya

Portrait of a woman looking into the camera.
Sweta Baniya, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Rhetoric, Professional & Technical Writing

I position the power of writing, communication, and digital media technology for engaging with the local and the international community to address the issues of lack of inclusivity and social injustice in my classroom. COVID-19 has definitely challenged us to think of different ways of teaching and navigating the disaster and the digital world. I also struggled with figuring how to make my class experiential, meaningful, and engaging given the situation of the pandemic.

One pedagogical approach I always strive to accomplish in my classroom is to encourage students to do the things that they are passionate about and to create things that they are proud of. I believe this notion allowed me to overcome the obstacles I encountered while designing my class. As a researcher and a teacher starting a new job, in an effort to continue my work of community engagement, I created this unique international partnership with Code for Nepal to serve my community back home in Nepal. In this process, I got support from the Director of Professional and Technical Writing, Dr. Jennifer Sano-Franchini who was very enthusiastic about my class. The volunteers of Code for Nepal and the dedication from my students are not to be forgotten as well.

My larger goals as a researcher and scholar are to be able to serve the community and to give back to where I came from (Kathmandu, Nepal) and where I currently reside (Blacksburg, Virginia). I am invested in bringing into light the unique aspects of the global culture that are often overlooked, ignored, underrepresented, or misrepresented. I have worked with Code for Nepal since 2018 in various capacities, and they have invited me to become their advisor and volunteer. As their advisor, I suggested and brainstormed this collaboration with Virginia Tech.

The biggest part of this collaboration is the students as they contribute their knowledge, labor, and expertise. The students bring their cultural and racial consciousness to propose solutions to the global inequalities during the pandemic brought on by the digital divide. The solutions students brainstormed and designed were unique and very contextual towards supporting Nepali communities. It was shocking for a lot of students to even know that such a digital divide exists in the world. This also gave them ideas to think locally, where they critically thought about their own community, their family and elderly relatives, or their young siblings, all of whom are struggling due to the digital divide created by the pandemic.

The students addressed the issue of digital literacy by understanding the cross-cultural issues of social injustices regarding gender, race, languages, and cultures by learning the rhetoric of inclusivity in technical writing. Moreover, a lot of students may not have enough funding, time, and resources to participate in programs like Study Abroad. Hence, my class provides some experiential learning to the students as they interact with an international community. This experiential learning not only gave them a strong grounding to create user-based documentation but also made them aware of various social injustices that they as technical communicators can tackle. The students in the class had the exposure and experience of working internationally in a real-life work environment and making digital service-learning that created intersectional possibilities beyond boundaries.

In an attempt to understand the implications of this class from the students’ perspective, I also conducted an IRB reviewed study in which I conducted student interviews. I received a $2000 Faculty Undergraduate Research Fund (provided by CLAHS) that help me recruit two undergraduate students, Ashley Brien and Kylie Call, from the same class for helping me conduct the interviews. The study reveals that the students at Virginia Tech uphold the motto of Ut Prosim and they believed that this class provided them with an opportunity to implement that motto in real life. The students also were inquisitive about what happens next and slightly upset about not being able to see how their work will be used. As you can read below, Code for Nepal is working to make ample use of the documentation produced by the students. Currently, Ashley, Kylie, and I are working on a manuscript on this project which will be published by a journal in the field of technical and professional writing (upon review).

Organizing service-learning partnerships is a challenge. Organizing an international service-learning partnership is a bigger challenge because of geographical differences, differences in time-zones, cultures, and contexts. This sort of partnership and program needs careful attention as well as planning and collaboration. Organizing service-learning is time-consuming and sometimes leads to frustration because it might result in additional work for students. With that in mind, it was important for me to communicate to my students that they are not doing any extra hours of service. There are various criticisms regarding service-learning, such as how a community can be easily manipulated or how these kinds of partnerships are not always mutually beneficial or sustainable. Sometimes, it is not something that a student at that moment wants to invest time and energy into. With these criticisms in mind, I, as a scholar-activist who acts as a mediator between the community and the students, always thrive to make this partnership mutually beneficial. It was important for me not to ask too much of both students and the community partner. Therefore, in an attempt to create this balance, I believe my class became an example of what I would like to say Ut Prosim in action would look like. My course created intersections among the students, community, and the university and it gave our students a chance to serve an international community. Not only that, but it also opened up the boundaries of what students can do to serve their own communities.

Collaborating with the University - Ravi Kumar

Portrait of a man looking out of frame.
Ravi Kumar, co-founder of Code for Nepal, talking to a group of students and teachers at a workshop in Nepal (Photo: Code for Nepal)

I have been with Code for Nepal since 2014. I am a founder of and a volunteer for Code for Nepal that works to increase digital and data literacy. Nepal, like many low-income countries, has a low-level of digital education. Many Nepalis, especially in the lower-income bracket, might have access to a phone with an internet connection but lack the skills to fully take advantage of the digital tools available to them.

Even before COVID, the Code for Nepal team saw firsthand how teachers in public schools in remote parts of Nepal struggled with digital literacy. Some people, for example, owned laptops but did not know how to use them. These people showed a strong interest in being able to better use their laptops and the Internet to enhance the learning experience of their students. Due to the pandemic, when suddenly every activity had to be digitized to minimize the spread of the virus, many communities were left behind. Rural Nepali communities were definitely one of them.

As all the volunteers of Code for Nepal, including Dr. Baniya, were brainstorming ways to support the Nepali community, we thought a partnership with Virginia Tech’s technical communication students would be beneficial.

Dr. Baniya’s students would be learning technical communication skills that were dedicated to creating user documentation which we thought could be used for supporting teachers and students in Nepal. While brainstorming and planning the class together, we thought that this class could create digital literacy-oriented resources and prototypes of products that could help us to create much-needed resources during this very difficult time.

I and some of my colleagues from Code for Nepal engaged with students throughout the semester in many capacities. The first time I engaged with students regarding this project, I felt optimistic about our ability to co-create products that would help the larger community. Students asked thoughtful questions. For example, a student asked questions about the approach they should take to determine the needs of the users. They were enthusiastic about supporting us as well as the communities we serve.

With the group of youth or teachers and girls in rural communities that we engage with, documents like the ones developed in Dr. Baniya’s class would be very helpful. We will be using these products to build the capacity of youth and teachers and students alike in rural settings and increase awareness about basic cybersecurity which is critically lacking.

We are working to promote the user documents and share them with public school teachers and students. We are also hoping to organize a hackathon to further develop the mobile-based application and web interfaces that were created by the students.

The products the students have created will help build the digital skills of those in Nepal who are eager to learn how best use the technology available to them. The materials developed are largely timeless so, over the next few years, we intend to use these extensively in our projects. Currently, we are working to give scholarships to over 500 students and professionals from Nepali backgrounds to learn data-related skills. Our plan is to promote these products created by the students to these fellows as well. In an effort to give back to the students of Virginia Tech, we are also offering some fellowships to the students of Dr. Baniya’s class last semester who are willing to take courses from DataCamp. With the work students did for us and our community, we are also giving back to them acknowledging contribution.

What do students think of this class?

This word cloud was created based on the themes uttered by the students in their reflection videos about the class.


Thank you students of 3814: Creating User Documentation class for your labor, time, and expertise.

Dr. Jennifer Sano-Franchini, Director, Professional and Technical Writing Program, Department of English.

Code for Nepal and their volunteers

The University Libraries at Virginia Tech for providing this space for curating this exhibition.

Consent Information: All students consented to share their name, quote, and voice in this exhibition and were notified that their video recording and the material they produced in the class will be made publicly available. All the students also consented for recording of the video as well as public sharing of the video.

For more information about this exhibit and exhibits in the University Libraries contact Scott Fralin, safralin@vt.edu.