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Kenya’s university students and lecturers face huge challenges moving online

Many of Kenya’s university students won’t have access to computers. AS photo studio/Shutterstock

For over a decade Kenya has made moves towards e-learning for university students. This is all the more important now, as universities have closed indefinitely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But questions remain as to how effective it is. Jackline Nyerere shares her insights.

What types of e-learning do Kenya’s public universities offer, and how widespread is the use?

In 2007, Kenya’s universities were compelled by the government to introduce e-learning under the country’s Vision 2030 strategic plan. The idea was to increase the number of people that could access higher education, given that capacity was a major issue: the demand for university spaces was far higher than what was available at the time. The government also wanted to ensure higher education institutions were keeping up with technological innovation.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, universities have closed and it’s not clear how long this will last. E-learning has become crucial. Lecturers have been asked to complete their syllabuses and continue to teach, and administer tests, remotely.

But Kenya isn’t ready. A recent survey I carried out in 12 public and private universities in Kenya that offer open and distance learning programmes, showed that students preferred face to face or blended methods of teaching and learning. Just 19,000 out of 500,000 students were enrolled for open and distance learning. This points to the challenges that students face in online or distance courses – they prefer to enrol in regular programmes.

Less than half (about 45%) of students enrolled in distance learning programmes accessed course materials through their university’s online platforms; the rest either received them through email or in hard copy. And, to my knowledge, there are no programmes on offer that don’t require face to face meetings, for introductory lectures or exams. This shouldn’t be the case for e-learning programmes. All students should be able to access all material on a university portal. Physical meetings shouldn’t be necessary.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted these issues. I’ve seen lecturers quickly turn to online courses to learn how to use digital methods, and many use meeting platforms – like Zoom or Skype – that are not very well adapted to large online classes. They’re also not very good at encouraging students to participate.

What challenges do institutions, lecturers, and learners face in adapting to e-learning?

Unfortunately, Kenya’s public universities aren’t ready to fully adopt e-learning. Eight years ago I carried out a study on open, distance, and e-learning in two public Kenyan universities to understand the issues that were causing low student enrolments in the programmes. I found that some of the major challenges include instructors who don’t have the skills to teach; scarce electronic content; a lack of internet connectivity; limited access to computers; students with limited computer literacy, and frequent electricity blackouts.

Very little has changed since then. Even though computer literacy has improved tremendously, we still have major capacity challenges in using interactive online tools for teaching and learning, and access to the internet is also a big issue.

For institutions to go digital, they need to have invested in online teaching and learning platforms, digital libraries, and internet access. The problem is, public universities have suffered from severe cash flow challenges attributed to a sharp fall in enrolments over the past three years and inadequate public funding.

Students also need to be equipped for it. Some institutions, such as Kenyatta University, have invested in tablets for all students registered in its overseas and distance learning programme. But only about 66.7% of students in my study had access to personal computers. The rest relied on telephones and cybercafes where they downloaded materials and study offline. This adds to the costs that students will incur as they study.

But there’s also a wider ICT infrastructure challenge that Kenya faces. Kenya has widespread internet access, attributed to the mobile phone: internet penetration stands at about 90%. But a significant number of students who live in remote areas have no internet access. They are cut off from their universities. For those who may be able to access the internet, it’s at a high cost: about US$4.90 per GB in Kenya compared to countries like Egypt where it’s about $1.20 per GB. In addition to this, even though 75% of Kenyans have access to grid or off-grid electricity, supply isn’t always reliable.

These challenges means that probably only students in urban areas will benefit from the transition to online learning.

What needs to be done to ensure this system of learning is more efficient?

The government needs to invest in, or direct universities to increase their investment, in e-learning resources – both physical and human. This investment can be achieved through providing students with data bundles or subsidising access to online learning resources, such as digital libraries.

The government and universities must also develop online platforms that promote active learning and broader interaction. These platforms already exist in some universities, including Kenyatta University and the University of Nairobi, and have tools for interactive forums, chats, sharing materials and assessments. They can however be enhanced by adding voice and video components to complete the online classroom experience. Each institution must also have an organisational structure, the necessary expertise through training on online delivery, and a dedicated budget to run these systems efficiently.

Finally, lecturers and students need the technical skills to function in this new environment: this means sustained support before, during, and after delivery. The future of learning is likely to become increasingly digital, regardless of the pandemic. Institutions should therefore invest in e-learning – not just as a temporary measure to cover the remainder of the syllabus, but as a major component of teaching and learning going forward.

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