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The man behind STEM online teaching

By Joe Ombuor | June 23rd 2020
Dr Tom Okaya. [Courtesy, Standard]

Racial slurs by white students at a university in Europe prompted Kenyan scholar Dr Tom Mboya Okaya to take a refuge online while teaching there for two years after the completion of his PhD studies.

“I would see that they had reservations about my competence on the basis of my accent and colour whenever I appeared in front of them during lecture sessions contrary to how they perceived white lecturers and that made me uncomfortable, hence my preference to do it online,” he reminisces.

Though he felt demeaned at the time, Dr Okaya who today serves as a Teachers’ Service Commission (TSC) director in charge of teacher management in Kangema Sub County, Murang’a County does not regret the experience that he describes as a blessing in disguise.

“The online experience and knowledge I gathered have proved relevant in this COVID-19 era when the closure of learning institutions has pushed e-learning to the fore,” says Dr Okaya who for 16 years was the national trainer and coordinator for Science. Technology, Engineering, Mathematics (STEM) and Physics at the Nairobi based Centre for Mathematics, Science and Technology Education in Africa (CEMASTEA).

No sooner did learning institutions close with Kenya’s first confirmed COVID-19 case in March than Dr Okaya started as a pilot program, STEM online lessons through Zoom platform, which he describes as learning management system that unlike radio and television, allows for a closer teacher-student interaction mirrored on a typical classroom situation.

Explains Dr Okaya: “The rationale behind the introduction of STEM online lessons that eventually will include non-STEM subjects was not only to reinforce the existing initiatives but to increase the learners’ voices, interaction and engagement during learning such as question and answer sessions on top of online chat.

He says 48 teachers were initially identified after calls were made to STEM schools principals through their WhatsApp platforms. “The teachers initially demonstrated low technological capabilities and difficulties in managing the Zoom Platform but now there is evidence of technological advancement. They are able to effectively manage an online environment as their technological skills grow in the use of virtual whiteboards and sharing of videos,” enthuses Dr. Okaya.

He says while a traditional class features a single teacher, a Zoom online class involves the teamwork of at least two to three teachers including an expositor, a chat manager and a host using the five E (engage, explain, explore, elaborate and evaluate) instructional method as the preferred teaching approach.

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“We have witnessed growth in school representation from 16 schools at the end of April to more than 150 within weeks as County representation increase to over 40 with students from Sub County, County, Extra County and national schools,”  says Dr Okaya.

Advantages according to Dr Okaya include a virtual meeting of teachers to prepare lessons, rehearse the slides and allocate themselves various tasks pertaining  to lessons.

But his dream is much more elaborate. “My vision goes beyond the classroom. I envisage a time when we shall be able to convert our stadiums into classrooms using technology,” effervesces Dr Okaya, peeling off his classes to emphasize his point.

“Take Nyayo stadium for instance. With multiple screens for zoom, it can be an ideal classroom catering for several schools in Nairobi. That would be cheaper and more convenient as many parents cannot afford zoom facilities,” he argues

He says Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and mobile telephone providers can help make mass e-learning a reality by coming on board as facilitators.

He gives the example of Kwale County where an international NGO is projecting STEM Online lessons to group learners while ensuring adherence to the desired guidelines such as social distancing

“The concept of sim-cards specifically configured for the purpose as has happened during general elections can come in handy to avoid abuse. This is the time to be innovative to reach many students in disadvantaged situations who cannot access e-learning,” says Dr Okaya.

 “The concept of sim-cards specifically configured for the purpose as has happened during general elections can come in handy to avoid abuse and the inconvenience faced by teachers using their own smartphones that disconnect internet the moment they ring with incoming calls. This is the time to be innovative to reach many students in disadvantaged situations who cannot access e-learning,” says Dr Okaya.

Dr Okay has been recognized by the Royal Academy of Engineering in the United Kingdom for his efforts to promote engineering in public schools through the online STEM teaching initiative.

The physics and mathematics teacher holds a PhD from Melbourne Catholic University in Australia and a Masters of Education degree from New South Wales University also in Australia. He had his undergraduate Bachelor of Education (B.Ed) training at Egerton University.

Besides STEM, Dr Okaya is credited with the introduction of robotics in Kenyan schools during his stint at CEMASTEA.

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