An article by Oscar Ochieng and Winnie Ogejo, Assistant Programme Officer in the Futures Programme at IEA-Kenya.

In early 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic plunged the world into an unprecedented education crisis that left 1.6 billion learners out of the classroom, from pre-primary to college. This situation forced countries to find alternative modes of delivering education. The World Bank estimates that 53% of learners in Low-Income-Countries have no reading proficiency by age 10. Prolonged school closures are likely to magnify the already existing inequalities.  Literacy, digital, and general skills gaps widen and further threaten the academic and professional prospects for young people. According to a Save the Children report, over 9 million children could miss out on education permanently due to the pandemic.

Education Technology (EdTech) in Kenya

In response to the education crisis, countries like Kenya are leveraging technology and remote learning to continue education amid school closures. Education Technology (EdTech) is a combination of IT tools and educational practices used to facilitate and enhance learning. With the growing reach of mobile technology in Kenya, EdTech has the potential to reach out-of-school children and youth. It provides opportunities to learn under challenging circumstances. EdTech can help empower young generations, bridge gender gaps and prepare students for the workforce. The EdTech industry has been rapidly gaining ground in countries like Kenya and India. In these countries, efforts to improve the failing education system have led to a spike in digital learning solutions. The sector is predicted to triple in value worldwide to $ 350 billion by 2025. The breadth and depth of the transition to distance education have been immense. Although the majority of students are engaged in remote learning, many households encountered challenges.  Access to appropriate digital devices, good internet connections, electricity and proper study spaces are some of them. Also, there is a significant disparity between rural and urban households.

Less than 10% of pupils in Kenya have access to digital learning materials, such as computers, iPads and laptops. Only 18% have access to the internet for learning, and only 26% have access to electricity in rural areas. The numbers show blatant disparities in home learning. Even when the infrastructure for remote learning delivery is available, acceptance from public schools’ students is low. This situation has to do with insufficient technological capacity and lack of educational and instructional design for effective learning methods. Radio is still the only medium that reaches rural areas more effectively than urban ones. Access to computers, television, and the internet is considerably lower in rural contexts.

Innovation thanks to the pandemic

 In the wake of the pandemic, the Ministry of Education took several steps to promote learning continuity. It included education programmes broadcasted via television and radio, as well as on YouTube. In partnership with the Kenya Publishers Association, the government made electronic copies of textbooks available for free on the Kenya Education Cloud. Key notable innovations in education in the past year were:

  • The Kenya Education Cloud: a government initiative aimed at offering comprehensive basic education virtually;
  • Ubongo: is a multi-platform education content that helps kids learn and leverage that knowledge for a better future.
  • Eneza Education: a phone-based platform for students and teachers to access and use learning materials;
  • e-Limu: a mobile app created to reinforce learners’ literacy skills through videos and games;
  • Tusome: a national literacy programme that uses digitized teaching materials and a tablet-enabled feedback system.
  • M-ShuleeKitabu, and Longhorn Publishers’ e-learning platforms have also been implemented.

Through the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority and in partnership with Telkom Kenya, the Government of Kenya also deployed Google’s Loon Balloons carrying 4G base stations over Kenyan airspace. These are all noble measures designed to make sure that no student is left behind. Yet, access to these services is patchy and not enough children benefit, neither in urban nor in rural areas.

Despite governmental efforts, the ongoing school closures are deepening educational inequality. It is evident that learners from well-off families can cope better with the challenges posed by the crisis. They have access to the internet and can afford to pay for virtual tutors. For others, the situation is bleak. That includes students with learning disabilities, who were already marginalized before the outbreak and never included in digital learning strategies, and those living in remote areas.

How to close the inequality gap

So, how can Kenya support already marginalized learners during school closures to enable them to keep up? If the country cannot solve this puzzle, the inequality gap in education will only widen further.

To reach the most vulnerable and excluded children, Kenya must adopt multiple learning modalities, ranging from television and radio to mobile technology (WhatsApp/SMS), that are available to all. With over 59% of the population having access to radios, it would be possible to reach learners left behind by new technology if lessons are provided through this medium. Besides, the government, together with relevant stakeholders, should make internet-enabled devices and data more affordable. Low digital and literacy skills, plus the low number of mobile phone ownership, limit mobile internet adoption.

Key stakeholders in the education sector, such as teachers, learners and parents, need to be trained in the new learning modalities. With the recent move to EdTech solutions, teachers must upskill and reskill continuously.

School closures and home confinement have fundamentally transformed how students, teachers and parents engage with education and learning. It has prompted the world to reimagine teaching and the organization of learning.

Yet, we have also realized that human contact is at the heart of education. Technologies cannot replace the experience of being in school and the human interaction it is based on. It will take a while for technologies to supplant traditional knowledge-based teaching. Teachers remain central to the educational process. Beyond the usual curricula, there is meaningful learning that happens in schools, such as play, sports, art, and extracurricular activities. Much of this personal development and social learning cannot be delivered remotely. As a human experience, learning is rooted in social interaction and processes.

Click here to access the article on Southern Voice website.