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Despite laptop failure, Jubilee dreams digital dream fizzled before realisation stuck in state bureacracy

Class One pupils from Getembe Primary School in Kisii follow instructions from their teacher in a pilot programme with the tablets in 2016. [File, Standard]

In the months leading to the 2013 General Elections, the Jubilee coalition duo President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto put up a spirited promise to digitize teaching and learning in Kenyan schools.

The pledge rode on their digital slogan that was the campaign jingle in the run up to the elections.

In their commitment, the duo promised to provide all learners joining Grade One with a laptop to aid the digital take-off.

With less than a month to the end of their second term of the Jubilee government since the promise was made, questions have emerged over the project.

The project, with an initial budget of Sh24.6 billion, had weathered many storms, changed names from laptops project to the Digital Literacy Programme (DLP), and undergone numerous budgetary reviews as the government fumbled with its implementation.

Tender cancellations and protracted court battles also marred the project’s inception.

But even with the challenges, the government picked itself up and constituted a multi-stakeholder team led by Dr Fred Matiang’i and the ICT Authority (ICTA) to give the initiative a fresh stab.

Two public universities were finally picked to roll out the much awaited DLP project, whose budget had now dropped to Sh19 billion.

The consortium of Moi University and JP SA Couto was picked to implement the digital learning programme in 26 counties.

The consortium of Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology and Positivo BGH picked to implement the project covering 21 counties.

Power to schools

Overall, the DLP was premised on several pillars, among them provision of electricity to schools through the rural electrification programme and establishment of a secure storage room for devices in the institutions.

Key was purchase and distribution of learner devices (tablets) for all Standard One pupils, provision of teacher devices (basic laptops) for Standard One teachers and a local server to connect all devices into one network.

Most importantly, however, was making available a suitable learning and teaching content through the Kenya Education Cloud (www.kec.ac.ke).

But stakeholders argue that the project that has shifted face from laptop, to tablets and now computer labs has had little to no impact in changing how teaching and learning is done in many schools.

Perhaps the strongest of criticism to the Laptop project is its inability to be a leverage when schools were shut down for nine months during the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The global coronavirus pandemic exposed the flaws of the noble project that was supposed to integrate ICT in schools and provide solutions in times of lockdown.

With eight years into the project billions pumped into the project, teaching and learning in public primary schools still came to a halt during Covid 19, with the government turning to radio programs to leverage the situation.

If all had gone as promised by Uhuru and Ruto, children who joined Class One when Uhuru came to power in 2013 would be in Class Eight in 2020 when Covid-19 hit.

Being the pioneer lot to have benefitted from the laptop project it would mean in the same period learners in all classes would by then have their own laptops; assuming the government was supplying to every student entering Class One in the subsequent years.

This would in turn mean schools could have used the devices in teaching and learning when schools closed in March;

Instead, the change witnessed is dismal to none; schools, teachers and learners are still dependent on the traditional learning materials, textbooks and handwritten notes and handmade charts hanging on classroom walls.

The big question was, what happened to the more than one million learning devices that were distributed countrywide with pomp and vigour? 

Initial promise

The government on the other hand has termed the project a success and celebrated its work in initiating a digitally propelled learning environment; but in fact, the government has repeatedly failed in its initial promise according to various interviews in this report. After 2013, the Uhuru administration took a sluggish approach in the execution of the hyped laptop project.

The Ministry of ICT undertook the procurement and distribution of the digital devices for deployment to schools. While the Ministry of Education was tasked to identify schools, and ensure readiness, train the teachers and jointly oversee and supervise the distribution of devices to schools.

Today, reports by education officials to parliament and accounts of dozens of teachers and other stakeholders show that the laptop project met major gaps in efforts to mount it.

The first gaps identified in the laying pipe of the project was the lack of electricity in schools and teachers who had zero or little training of using ICT at a personal level and in class.

From the monitoring and evaluation undertaken for the Digital learning conducted by the Education Ministry in 2015, it was established that teachers lacked adequate ICT skills to integrate the digital learning solution in teaching and learning.

Ironing out these issues took up to three years before the project finally took off; first, the Jubilee government set out an ambitious plan to connect schools with electricity.

This was done between 2013 and 2015 through the last mile project.

A document presented to parliament in 2020 by the Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha shows that during the said period some a total of 20,622 schools have also been connected to the national electricity grid.

The Education ministry in preparation also undertook a digital learning pilot in 150 schools who were given the digital devices and further trained 60 000 teachers in the use of ICT in teaching and learning.

After laying ground work, in 2016 the ICT Authority announced consortium of Moi University and JP SA Couto had won the tender to supply the tablets to schools in 26 counties whereas that of Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture & Technology and Positivo BGH was awarded one lot covering 21 counties.

The Learners were provided with the famous luminous green learners’ digital device pre-installed with interactive content for lower primary, grades 1 to 3; while teachers will get a blue teachers digital device. In addition, each school would receive a projector, server and router.

While appearing before the Senate Committee on Education in 2017, ICT Cabinet Secretary Joe Mucheru said 21,637 public primary schools were supplied with 1,168,798 devices, accounting for 99.6 per cent of the contracted 21,729 schools in Phase One of the project.

A June 2020 report shows that devices had been installed in some 21,638 public primary schools, representing 99.6 % of the contracted 21,729 schools under DLP Phase I.

A total of 1,169,000 devices had been installed for both regular and special needs education. By this time, some 331,000 teachers had been trained on ICT integration with 218,253 teachers trained on CBC and other 93,009 teachers trained on use of ICT and device utilization.

On power connectivity, some 22,927 schools had been connected to power out of which 19,042 public primary schools were connected to national grid and 3,239 public primary powered by solar.

Weighing in on the project, head teachers reveal how the tablets have since remained locked in storage rooms and unused. Sometimes there were no storage rooms or lockers. Sometimes devices were stolen. “The gadgets are there but they have not been used effectively, because there is lack of expertise on how to use them,” Kenya Primary Schools Head Association chairman Johnson Nzioka said.

Training plan

Nzioka in an interview with The Standard said that teachers were trained once and only two teachers were trained in each school.

The plan was that they would act as trainers in their individual schools thus creating a pool of ICT propelled teachers.

However, Nzioka admits that the uptake of ICT solutions in teaching and learning among many teachers in public schools still remains sluggish.

“Some of those who benefitted from the training are now retired leaving a big gap in the trying to incorporate ICT in teaching and learning,” Nzioka said.

Appearing before the Information Technology Committee in the Senate Magoha said the Ministry has continued to collaborate with the various stakeholders in the Programme, through the TSC to increase the teachers’ competencies in handling the DLP solution at the school level.

The Education Ministry in 2020 launched an online training for teachers in ICT to fill in the critical and missing gap of incorporating digital learning in schools. By the time of publishing this report, ICTA had not furnished The Standard with updated data on uptake of the programme.

Another gap, according to interviews with head teachers was the lack to continuously supply the gadgets, as the government only supplied the tablets only once. This means devices initially acquired for use by one class is now shared with other classes in the following years.

“If the gadgets are to be used right now, then the pupils in three classes will share devices meant for one class,” Nzioka said.

Also despite the government tactical move to first connect schools with electricity before rolling out the project, head teachers said most of the schools remain in darkness.

CS Magoha in response to questions by Senators in 2019 admitted power connectivity challenges to schools include: power disconnection- with some institutions disconnected from power due to non-payment of power bills, faulty solar systems while some schools are yet to be connected to power.

Thus making difficult the use of the devices.

Head teachers revealed that the government provides Sh3 to every child enrolled in school to cater for electricity each year.

“You can imagine a situation where a school has about an enrollment of 3,000 students, then the head teacher has only Sh9,000 for electricity each year. The average amount of the bill each month is Sh24,000 —  this definitely means the school cannot sustain the bills,” Nzioka said. By 2020, report shows that some 746 schools had power disconnected due to unpaid bills and other related issues.

The head teachers had earlier proposed a waiver on the cost of electricity in schools but Nzioka said that this is yet to be granted.

“Schools are greatly distressed by the high electricity bills for schools connected to the National Grid, and failure of solar batteries that has led to lack or intermittent power supply,” Nzioka said.

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Tablets to computer labs

In 2018, a report by then Education Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed to conduct an assessment on the curriculum found out national implementation of the digital literacy program stood at five per cent.

However, various officials mandated in its implementation faulted the report as the government opted for laboratories in the second phase of the digital literacy program.

In 2020, the Education Ministry announced it intends to establish computer laboratories (smart classrooms) under the Digital Literacy Programme in all public primary schools in Kenya.

The labs are to serve those in Grade 4, 5 and 6 respectively and is projected to cost Sh1.5 billion to construct computer laboratories in the 23,000 public primary schools.

The theme of the Phase II of the Digital Literacy Programme (2019 – 2022) is “Using to Learn” a contrast to the theme in Phase 1 which was ‘Learn to Use’

This is meant to expose learners to technological tools for learning to enhance creativity and innovation.

The second phase was to see schools connected to the internet to enable teachers and learners to benefit from the wider scoop of the devices.

CS Magoha in a document responding to the Senate Committee on Information Technology said government is at the moment developing a Schoolnet Strategy aimed at delivering internet connectivity to schools.

The bandwidth connectivity recommended to schools is minimum of 10MB to enable effective download of content. 

Over 1000 schools [one school per ward] have been identified under phase 1 of Schoolnet connectivity project being implemented by UNICEF.

In the document Magoha notes that they experienced challenges in cost implications of establishing Internet connectivity to schools and Logistics considering that some intuitions are located in remote hard-to-reach corners of this country.