Student housing key to reopening conversations

More than 60 per cent of schools worldwide have been closed due to the coronavirus. This has altered the way learning takes place in a big way. Consequently, many schools have taken advantage of the digital technologies available in the market and shifted to online learning.

Many primary and secondary school students have embraced online education to avoid a total shutdown. Universities have not been left behind either. Some institutions of higher learning in Kenya have gone as far as asking students to log in online and sit their papers from home. This adaptation to digital learning, laudable as it is, presents a challenge to the segment of the population not connected to the Internet. According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics census report, only one in five Kenyans have access to the Internet, and only 20 million own mobile phones. This alienates a significant majority of the student population from online or mobile learning.

Furthermore, the economic fallout of completely restructuring how universities interact with their students will be felt far beyond the walls of institutions of learning. Universities breed economic ecosystems consisting of multiple service providers who contribute to the health and wellbeing of learners. The retinue of service providers including cleaners, shop owners, restaurateurs and deliveries people who depend on the physical presence of students are already suffering with institutions of learning closed. Moving learning to a completely virtual environment would put many out of business for good.

Even with the uncertainty brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, there is still need to salvage the ecosystems created by institutions of higher learning. Hotels, restaurants and places of worship have reopened under guidelines and protocols designed to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Learning institutions too can adapt to the crisis. Classrooms, dining spaces and living areas are just some of the spaces that need to be reconsidered to meet social distancing guidelines.

An important facet of students’ ability to learn is where they live. Currently, students have three options for housing – commute from home, live in school hostels, or take up off-campus accommodation. Each of these presents unique challenges. Commuting from home might be unaffordable or impossible altogether for learners who live far from their schools.

School hostels are currently unable to meet demand and will be less adequate when social distancing guidelines are implemented. Off-campus housing doesn’t always put students in environments conducive for learning. Some new players in the student housing industry are already providing modern student accommodation that provides amenities such as round the clock security, reliable internet connectivity and recreation spaces. All these are essential to the peace of mind of today’s student.

To optimise learners’ output their accommodation should be pegged to certain standards.  Providing students with dwelling environments conducive for learning while also allowing them to explore their independence, as adults, should be a priority. Their living spaces ought to be designed to foster dignity and promote the ability of students to study and learn with ease. The ideal atmosphere young adult learners need should embrace the kind of architecture specifically customised to promote a sense of responsibility — through co-management with hostel owners —on the part of the student. The regulations currently being developed by the government and education sector experts ahead of reopening of schools should propose new standards and a compliant model of student housing. Inevitably, student housing will form an important part of the debate to reopen schools. Instead of a complete overhaul of the education sector, adapting schools and especially students housing, can be a way of giving students space to maximise their academic potential. The ‘Qwetu’ model of student accommodation offers important insights into how best to house students moving forward.

-The writer is media practitioner in Nairobi

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