COVID-19, a highly infectious respiratory disease has disrupted business as usual everywhere including the education sector.
In March 2020, the WHO identified COVID- 19 as a pandemic after it spread to more than 100 countries. On May 5, according to the WHO, global cases over time stood at 3,489,053 and deaths at 241,559.
Schools are closed in 191 countries affecting at least 92 per cent of learners. Regular learning in classrooms has paused as many learners and educators have been forced outside their usual classrooms.
In Kenya, like many countries globally, institutions of learning are closed indefinitely due to the uncertainty of the disease trajectory and caution against infection and transmission.
The closure occurred three weeks before the end of the school term for public schools, whereas universities, colleges and tertiary institutions were at different sessions in their academic calendars. The Education Cabinet Secretary Prof. Magoha immediately proposed distance learning as a viable solution to ensure continuity of learning.
Distance learning includes instruction delivered through radio, TV, YouTube, and Education Cloud. The Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD) was tasked with approving digital content, as Prof Magoha called on media houses and telecommunication firms to provide educational solutions.
At face value, the proposed solution seems innovative and in lock-step with calls globally for remote learning, homeschooling and a semblance of a seamless transition from brick-and-mortar institutions to learning anywhere and everywhere through electronic media and technology.
For learners in this country attending private schools and those considered affluent, this smooth transition to remote learning might be their reality.
However, the current educational context in the country raises access and equity questions on the proposed solution.
Such questions range from the availability of resources (e.g., internet, laptops, smartphones, electricity), curriculum content, meeting special education needs, monitoring student progress, pervasive inequalities, to privacy concerns on the use of video conferencing platforms (e.g., Zoom) flagged for a myriad of challenges especially with young learners.
Complicating this scenario is the parallel existence of the newly rolled out Competency Based Curriculum (CBC) and the 8-4-4 system.
While most teachers and parents are familiar with the 8-4-4 system, many educators, parents and students are still navigating the steep learning curve with CBC. Therefore, the education scenario appears dire in the face of a pandemic for millions of learners.
In this article, I will unpack these inequalities and provide a few recommendations that may contribute to the conversation on distance learning in Kenya.
Needless to say, educators, learners and parents are anxious about the future. At the forefront of these concerns are questions about the primary and secondary national examinations.
These examinations are critical gatekeepers for candidates as they determine learners’ advancement to secondary and post-secondary institutions. Therefore, the recent reassurance from CS Magoha regarding the intactness of the examination schedule may have quelled legitimate concerns from learners, parents and educators albeit for the moment.
In considering the big picture, however, this pandemic may have provided an opportunity for the education sector and key stakeholders (i.e., parents, learners, educators, policymakers) to ask different questions, evaluate missed opportunities (e.g., one child, one laptop initiative) or infrastructures that would have alleviated some of the glaring inequities during this crisis.
This crisis has provided an opportunity for the education sector to reassess the basics in the education system; a solid foundation is required as we ensure access and equity for all our learners and embrace the needs of the 21st century.
The 2010 constitution of Kenya recognizes that every person has the right to education and highlights that any person with any disability is entitled to access educational institutions.
Access to education is a basic right. According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics census report, estimates show that there are 20 million mobile users.
In contrast, 23 per cent use the internet, 10 per cent of the population uses the computer, 16 per cent has access to radio and 40 per cent of the population has access to television.
Moreover, these estimates vary further among rural and urban populations. For instance, only 27 per cent of households own a television set in the rural areas. Clearly, these estimates illuminate low percentages of people with the resources necessary for learners, educators and parents to launch into distance learning.
It is prudent for stakeholders to evaluate current data on mandates drafted in the constitution and propose solutions based in reality to avoid haphazard utilization of meagre resources.
For example, an assessment of the policy actions (2013-2017) included in Vision 2030 that include the development of basic education infrastructure would provide a good starting point.
What progress has been made in ensuring all schools have energy sources installed? How functional are the Education Management Information Centers (EMIS)? EMIS centers were tasked with providing accountability and transparency in the education system.
What is the status on ICT integration in teaching and learning? What about education in arid and semi-arid lands? Answering these questions provides the education sector with a baseline of a clearer picture of the country’s ICT infrastructure on the ground and would alleviate time-wasting reinventing the wheel.
The crisis has thrust certain stakeholders in the limelight. All eyes are on KICD as the institution scrambles to provide digital content for learners across the country. Telecommunication giant Safaricom has provided free 100MB Education Bundle for access to Viusasa, Longhorn e-learning and Shupavu Web.
While a segment of the population benefits from their educational products, a majority of the learners feel neglected and locked out of accessing a basic right. It is also important to realize that quality learning involves more than completing a worksheet on decontextualized math facts or disconnected questions on a content area.
Distance learning unveils the question of pedagogy as a vehicle to access quality learning.
So, what is to be done?
First, prioritize learners at the margins. Arguably, it is easier to start with learners who can access the digital content and resources at hand, whether this means accessing the internet, television or radio.
However, in order to tackle the current illusion of distance learning in the country, it is imperative to start with learners at the margins facing the real threat of being locked out of accessing education.
Studies show that when education is designed for learners at the margins, all learners benefit as we consider the myth of the average or middle-class learner.
In this case, this includes a large population of learners. Learners are at the margins either due to their (a) socioeconomic status, unable to afford internet access, laptops or electricity, (b) disability status, requiring specialized instruction and services (c) living in hard-to-reach areas with limited connectivity to resources such as quality instruction, radio or television.
In this scenario, the Ministry of Education should invest, mobilize resources and build the needed infrastructure for these learners without any further hesitation. The laptop initiative can be resuscitated as we embrace the challenge and opportunity.
Second, engage multiple stakeholders. With all hands-on deck, the EMIS should be actively engaged with school administration and personnel in providing comprehensive information about the counties on various aspects related to schools vis-a-vis distance learning.
By virtue of the local context, this information can provide relevant information that can guide the ministry in drafting localized solutions. The education sector is already working with telecommunication and media houses to provide learning to learners.
In addition to these two avenues, universities and TVET institutions cannot be ignored either as sources of expertise in developing solutions, but as sectors that need support navigating the pandemic and incorporating distance learning.
Third, strengthen teacher training. Inherent in the discussion on access to education, is the importance of quality curriculum and instruction.
Further, distance learning calls for different instructional practices from those involved in face to face teacher-student interactions. Therefore, teachers need different tools and training when providing students with content.
For instance, teachers can deliver instruction through video modelling or video-based instruction.
This option still requires internet access, but in this case, learners can access learning materials and also work offline reducing the amount of time online.
Arguably, content transfer does not equate to learning, and this should challenge teachers and curriculum developers (e.g., KICD) to remember learner engagement is important.
Professional development is definitely required on pedagogies for the CBC, learner engagement and progress monitoring. Additionally, the ministry of education should evaluate staffing in schools. In overcrowded schools, providing additional staff or building schools is a much-needed investment.
In the short term, teachers should not be ignored when looking for solutions and the ministry will be well served by involving teachers’ expertise at this time.
Fourth, communicate up to date information adequately. Recently, the ministry of education and KICD communicated the radio and television education programming in mainstream newspapers. This is one excellent outlet that provides parents and learners of resources at hand.
However, the ministry should ensure this information reaches the masses. Either through using multiple outlets, messaging through text messages, using social media, posters, liaising with EMIS in counties and communicating up-to-date information again with priority given to learners who will likely miss out on this information.
Currently, for a majority of leaners in the country, distance learning is an illusion. A large percentage of learners are unaware of distance learning solutions. The Ministry of Education has an uphill task of making it a reality for many learners and ensuring access to education.
Some of the existing infrastructures and frameworks can provide a place to start building and strengthening the required foundation for success.
COVID-19 provides an unprecedented challenge and also an opportunity to harness the potential all around. Kenya has harnessed technology in inspiring ways, meaning the education sector with determined investments, and bold strategic plans can meet the challenge and opportunity strategically.
The last thing the education sector can do is miss out on this opportunity to rethink the education system in the country.
Dr Elisheba Kiru is an education researcher at ACAL Consulting Covid-19 Think Tank