Jubilee’s laptop pledge doomed from the start

ICT CS Joe Mucheru when he launched the Digital Learning Program (DLP) at Nyamachaki Primary School, in Nyeri County last year [File, Standard]
During the launch of his presidential campaign in 2013, candidate Uhuru Kenyatta announced what many thought was the quintessential political promise.

That upon joining the equivalent of Grade One, every child in a public school would be given a laptop. Opinion was sharply divided on the issue. Some suggested that the idea be dropped.

It is almost five years since the Digital Literacy Programme (DLP) was launched. With more than Sh30 billion sunk into the project, this is the ideal moment to evaluate it. ICT is alluring, and an important marker of modernity. ICTs converge separated educational technologies -- books, writing, telephone, television, photography and databases, and crucially bridge forms of knowledge and literacy.

Embedding ICTs in public schools demanded a major redesign in educational infrastructure, teacher training, curriculum structures and learning materials, classroom practices and modes of assessment. The much hyped Jubilee pet project is in danger of collapse for not paying attention to these.  

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Among several objectives, the DLP was aimed at entrenching ICT in the teaching and learning process and management of education in primary schools. The most obvious pitfall with the DLP is that it was more political than pedagogic.

Would the project have been more successful if it was simply aimed at building ICT skills as a third life skill alongside literacy and numeracy, rather than the more ambitious aim of drenching the whole spectrum of learning with ICTs? Training for the DLP was disastrous, to say the least. When the government embarked on training the teachers, only three days were allocated for the exercise.

Three days is enough for techies already well acquainted with technology, not for elementary teachers, most of whom had never handled a computer, let alone a brightly coloured tablet.

Greater misfortune

There was no provision for a prerequisite training before the actual training and teachers would be driven, often reluctantly, to training venues on the actual day of training. Now, a few realities must be considered here. The bulk of teachers teaching entry level classes in most public primary schools are (mostly women) in their 50s, often preoccupied with their impending retirement.

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This category forms the bulk of trainees for the supposed entrenchment of ICTs in schools. A brief survey indicated that most of them saw their imminent retirement of more importance than acquiring skills which they felt were needless to them. In actual fact, after the three days, most of the teachers still considered themselves incompetent and unable to disseminate the content taught.

For every 50 teachers trained, only one made follow up with the expert trainers on how to use the gadgets for actual pedagogy in schools. Many of the trained teachers openly confessed that they simply stored the gadgets in schools and carried on with the traditional pedagogy. You can’t blame them.

Many who had never interacted with computers were supposed to master two software applications -- Netsupport and Lesson Planner -- in three days. As if that was not punishing enough, teachers were supposed to be so polished in them, that upon reaching school, they were to use some of the applications to create content for teaching and assessment. But that was just a symptom of a greater misfortune.

The trouble with the DLP had deep roots. As a multi-agency project, the initiative rightly involved the Teachers Service Commission (TSC), the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD) and the ICT Authority. The three agencies found themselves locked up in a struggle for control of the project, with some of these differences showing in how the project was implemented. The TSC did not incentivise teachers who attended the trainings, only offering bus fare. Some of the teachers saw deployment to the trainings as a kind of punishment.

Meanwhile, coordination among the agencies was poor, with the tablets  at times arriving on the last day of the three-day training. Worse, while TSC preferred to go with the popular political rhetoric of only providing the gadgets to Class One pupils, the other agencies had a different perspective of embedding the entire system with digital technologies. This multi-agency mismatch would compromise the actual roll-out with the agencies pulling in different directions. 

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With regard to content, there was, and still is, a clear mismatch between the content in the tablets provided and actual curriculum needs. First, it is not clear if the gadgets are aligned with the evolving curriculum that is supposedly being rolled out or the ‘old one’. But more important, the content supplied by KICD reduced the expensively assembled infrastructure to mere ‘presentational’ gadgets. There would be no difference had schools been issued with transistor radios instead.

Apart from one animational application, the rest of the content is basic non-interactive PDFs that could otherwise be rendered (best) in print. Dreadfully, the gadgets were supplied with a Windows Operating System, a web browser and nothing else.

Confused teachers

The tablets are practically useless insofar as word processing and working on basic numeracy is concerned - key skills badly needed at that level. The rudimentary content hardly matches the gargantuan amounts of taxpayer’s money poured there.

Thus, teachers are still confused on when or how to apply the green tablets in their actual everyday work. The intent of meaningfully helping learners acquire knowledge through ICTs has not been achieved.  

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Furthermore, experts have also questioned the quality of the supplied gadgets, especially after hundreds started falling apart before actual roll-out. Few will last beyond two years.

The promise of bridging the digital divide among Kenyans through the DLP project seems to be getting complicated. The infrastructure is tailored towards small classes, mostly 50 and below, and any attempt to connect more tablets to the content server collapses the entire system.

While the positive aspect from the project is that it helped connect many more schools to electricity, the actual arena of learning -- the classroom -- remains awfully neglected. In those congested public schools, where facilities are horrendous, the introduction of tablets was a little insulting, and not terribly exciting. But the greatest risk to the DLP remains political.

With billions invested, the usual hounds have smelled blood and bucks, and are lurking, bidding time for the ultimate slay.

- The writer teaches and researches on journalism and media studies

laptop projectdigital learning programmepresident uhuru kenyattajubilee party