Educationist using tech to prepare graduates for jobs

Dr Esther Gacicio. [File, Standard]

When Dr Esther Gacicio first launched Elimika, an online training programme for primary school teachers, the uptake was disappointingly low.

This was in 2009 at the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD). Kenya was yet to host the first of the four sub-marine fibre cables that ushered in an unprecedented leap in internet access and digital innovation.

"Back then, we did not have wide-spread internet access like we do today and many learners in some parts of the country had to travel long distances to use cyber cafes for their lessons," recalls Dr Gacicio. From her quiet office in Westlands surrounded by a battery of young people hunched over keyboards, Dr Gacicio glees at the experience of launching an essential service in a market facing demand constraints.

"At the time it flopped because, besides the challenges of Internet access, devices were also costly and there was some technophobia that made it difficult for many to adapt," she adds.

Labour market

More than a decade later, Dr Gacicio is at the forefront of developing an e-learning curriculum that is targeted at providing individuals with the skills and knowledge to compete in the post Covid-19 labour market.

Dr Gacicio is the co-founder of E-Learning Solutions Limited (ELS), a Nairobi-based firm that works with employers and stakeholders in the education sector to develop online training programmes for today's dynamic job market.

"From our experience, the typical training programme has some limitations in terms of the amount of time learners get," she explains. "The amount of engagement between learners and instructors is limited and this often leads to poor outcomes."

Dr Gacicio holds Master's and Bachelor's Degrees in Education from the University of Nairobi and Moi University respectively and a graduate diploma in Leadership Development in ICT and Knowledge Society from Dublin City University, Ireland.

She previously served as a Senior Assistant Director at the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD) where she oversaw the design, development and sourcing of education technologies.

Through ELS, Dr Gacicio is aiming to address the yawning gap between the cadre of skilled graduates that enter the job market and the requirements of employers. "One thing employers will tell you is that in Kenya, we are not short of good resumes," she explains. "People write very good CVs but when the person and the CV appear in front of you, they are totally disconnected," she explains.

A recent report by consulting firm Deloitte warns that advances in artificial intelligence (AI), cognitive computing and automation mean future employees will require extra skills than their predecessors to remain competitive in the labour market. According to the report, close to half of the jobs in the US for example face potential automation by 2030.

"Now, possibly more than ever, there appears to be an impetus for employees to bring their "soft" skills - such as creativity, leadership, and critical thinking -to work," explains Deloitte in the report.

"While traditionally referred to as "soft skills," in reality these capabilities are critical to delivering business value and adapting hard skills as workforce needs change."

This gap informed Dr Gacicio to launch ELS in a bid to prepare graduates with soft skills in anticipation of the job market. "People have good hard skills and execute what they are trained very well, but when you put them in the job market, they miss so many things," she explains.

"For instance, interpersonal skills. Many can't work well in a team, they lack presentation skills, flexibility and adaptability and these things are not taught in school." Through her firm, Dr Gacicio works to roll out self-paced and interactive courses on smart hacks for life. Learners are instructed on must-have skills in today's world of work and given the option to pursue their training further if they so wish. The programme is targeted at interns, those in the last year of college studies, graduate trainees, new employees, people already in the workplaces and those interested in upskilling.

Dr Gacicio says the pandemic has provided a valuable lesson on the crucial need to ensure that individuals are adaptable to unforeseen shocks that can disrupt the market and demand new ways of doing business.

Earlier this month, Education Cabinet Secretary Ezekiel Machogu asked heads of technical and vocational educational training (TVET) institutes to develop a plan of phasing out business courses from the institutions in the next three years.

In a circular last month, Machogu stated that the colleges needed to focus more on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses.

"As you are aware, the government of Kenya has put in a lot of emphasis and resources towards the support of Stem courses in all Tvet institutions," he said.

"In view of this, it is of paramount importance to ensure that the country derives value for money from the huge resources invested in TVET for support of Stem subjects," he said. The news has however elicited sharp reactions from various quarters with stakeholders across the board urging the government to approach the policy change with caution and wide consultation.

"Some years back there was a similar policy where the government was saying that we will only hire teachers for science-oriented courses and everyone went to train as a STEM teacher at the expense of the other subjects which are equally important," notes Dr Gacicio.

"If you are trying to train a welder, for example, he will also need business skills. So, removing those modules from the curriculum is a disservice to this person," she explains. "These skills are interdependent to form a complete person because we do not want to produce robots." According to Dr Gacicio, policymakers can draw lessons from the tech boom the country witnessed in the 2000s.

"In the 2000s, technological innovation and software development really took off in Kenya but when these entrepreneurs launched start-ups they realised they did not have the requisite business acumen," she says. "That is why entrepreneurship became a big thing and we started offering modules in business studies which are still going on to date."

With close to one million students in Kenya completing their form four exams each year, Dr Gacicio says her target audience is wide and there is much work to be done.

Apprenticeship hub

ELS has formed partnerships with higher learning institutions including Riara University which recently graduated the first cohort of students from the ELS apprenticeship training hub. The firm is also reaching out to human resource practitioners and employment agencies that head hunt for top talent.

Dr Gacicio says education sector officials need to reach out to other stakeholders in the private sector to ensure that changes to the curriculum take into account the changing nature of the workplace. "We still have some bit of silo mentality where a lot of stakeholders involved often don't seem to be talking to each other which slows down any industry-wide interventions," she explains.

"I would propose a scenario where all the stakeholders come together at one table. We've all talked about the skills that are lacking and the challenges this brings in the world of work but there is less discussion about the solutions," she explains. Another challenge is putting in place the proper regulatory mechanisms to ensure learners get value for their money in the training programmes available in the market.

"My hope is that we can instil these soft skills into our curriculum because they are integral in the formation of complete social individuals who can contribute positively to society," she explains.

"We are living in unprecedented times; the social fabric is tearing and in the next few years, we will have a 'crazy' society. These skills need to be re-integrated into society."

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