For nearly four years, the Government has been struggling to integrate digital technology into early years of primary schooling.
Digital learning, it says, will improve an education system suffering from quality of teaching and inadequate learning resources.
But according to the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), as elsewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa, Kenya’s basic education system has many challenges that include poor infrastructure, overcrowding, sharing of core textbooks and low access to basic sanitation.
“For instance, Grade 1 classes exceed 50 pupils in about half of the countries with data, while about one in three primary schools do not have toilets,” says Unesco, in an evaluation study, School resources and learning environment in Africa, that was conducted last year.
In this regard, Kenya is one of the countries where many pupils in the primary school cycle face multiple barriers to education. They just don’t miss adequate classrooms but also learning resources -- core textbooks, furniture and other basic equipment are in short supply.
This sort of situation brings up the question as to why the government had been too keen to equip pupils with tablets, instead of first providing adequate school buildings.
But on this matter, the government seemed to have obtained a wide public support as most parents, more or less, saw the opportunity of their children becoming digital natives and taking a long shot towards entering the world of artificial intelligence and robotics.
Nonetheless, whether the plan to provide pupils with tablets in Kenya was an election gimmick or not, it piggy-backed on similar projects in developing countries, usually copied from the industrialised world.
According to Michael Trucano, a senior education and technology policy specialist at the World Bank, in recent years distribution of tablets in schools has been going on in Rwanda, Jamaica, Ghana, Nigeria, Malawi, Senegal, Colombia, Brazil, Kazakhstan, Peru and Liberia.
As if referring to the Kenyan context, Trucano argues that in most developing countries, tablets are seen by some people as powerful and iconic symbols of modernity.
“As such, their purchase and use within schools is seen to be representative of a forward-looking, modern educational system, and their existence and use can play a key role in helping to introduce and advance specific education reforms,” says Trucano.
Quoting a study commissioned by the Vancouver-based Commonwealth of Learning, an intra-governmental organisation whose members are the ministries of education of more than 50 countries, Trucano says there is a misconception that by simply giving students tablets, educational access issues will be resolved and transformation will occur.
According to the study, Large-Scale, Government-Supported Educational Tablet Initiatives, there was no evidence of significant improved learning occasioned by tablets.
“Overall, it was obvious that the initiatives focused on the hype around tablets and not on their use as a tool to achieve an educational goal,” said researchers.
The study was done in 11 countries by Prof Rana Tamim, the dean of education at Zayed University, United Arab Emirates, and his collaborators -- Dr Eugene Borokhovski, Dr David Pickup and Dr Robert Bernard -- from the Centre for the Study of Learning and Performance at Concordia University, Canada.
However, the prevailing scenario is that in most developing countries, and Kenya in particular, tablets are deemed to be the focus of attention with the promise of changing the teacher’s traditional role of the ‘wise man on the stage’ to the guide on the side-walk.
Consequently, the Commonwealth of Learning is in agreement with Trucano that most governments in developing countries are not asking: “What challenges are we trying to solve, and what approaches and tools might best help us solve them?”
Instead, they seem to tell the public that tablets in schools are the solution to existing learning challenges.
Granted that persons unable to navigate through a complex digital landscape will no longer participate fully in the economic, social and cultural life around them, that aspect is different from thinking that computers, tablets, e-readers and other information communication technologies used in education can induce significant improvements in student achievement in reading, mathematics or science.
In this context, disappointing findings were reached less than two years ago in a comprehensive study covering 31 nations that are members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
The study concluded that countries which have invested heavily in ICT for education have seen no noticeable improvement in student performance in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results.
According to the study, Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection, digital reading requires the same skills as reading a printed page. Intensive use of ICT in schools was closely associated with significantly poorer student performance.
“ICT is linked to better student performance when computer software and internet connections help to increase study time and practice,” said the report.
Commenting on the issue, Andreas Schleicher, the Director for Education and Skills at the OECD secretariat, said if governments and parents want students to become smarter, there is need to think harder about the pedagogies we are using to teach them.
“Technology can amplify great teaching but great technology cannot replace poor teaching,” says Schleicher.
But perhaps the most disappointing finding of the study that Kenyan education stakeholders should notice is that technology is of little help in bridging the skills divide between advantaged and disadvantaged students.
“Put simply, ensuring that every child attains a baseline level of proficiency in reading and mathematics is not just expanding access to high?tech devices,” says Schleicher.
So far, one interpretation is that building deep, conceptual understanding and higher-order thinking requires intensive teacher-student interactions, and technology sometimes distracts from this valuable human engagement.
At the home front, the only major study to examine the potential of ICT interventions to improve literacy within early grade classrooms in the country had been conducted in Kisumu County. Its findings showed that educational technologies can only be effective if they were to be used on top of a well-designed literacy programme.
The study, Does technology improve reading outcomes? Comparing the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of ICT interventions for early grade reading in Kenya, was conducted by researchers from RTI International and funded by the USAID through the Kenya Primary Math and Reading (PRIMR) programme.
“Our results suggest that there may be limited value-added to the ICT component,” said Benjamin Piper and his associates in the study.
In their assessment, the researchers found that cost-effectiveness of such programmes could be made much lower without add-ons of e-readers.
Nonetheless, although e-readers, tablets and laptops seem not to have significant superiority over conventional, analogue pedagogies learning tools, they ultimately have the advantage of being fashionable as well as reducing weight of school book-bag.
But that is for the Kenyan government to decide as to whether such gains should override the need for a general healthy and friendly learning environment that is lacking in many primary schools and in a country where over one million children are still out of school and many more in makeshift shelters.