As an academic working at a university in Kenya, I have witnessed first-hand the massive disruption to learning caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The situation is not unique to Kenya. Universities in neighboring Uganda, Rwanda and Ethiopia are also affected.
Kenya has more than 70 universities, 38 of which are public and 35 private. Over 500,000 students were enrolled in the last academic year. Public universities take the lion’s share with more than 400,000 of these students.
While public universities face overcrowding, insufficient faculty, and degraded facilities, private universities have lower student-to-staff ratios and have better facilities and equipment.
But all universities have been affected by the pandemic. An entire year of learning was lost due to the government shutdown and universities were forced to quickly switch to online learning, for which they were not prepared.
Online learning also has its own challenges. Classes that require practical work for students – such as natural, health and physical sciences – have been severely disrupted. They rely on the physical demonstration of concepts, for example through laboratory training, fieldwork and academic trips to industries.
The exams are also taken online. For the institutions that attempted this, the result was revealing. Many students did not register, were unable to access the portal, and did not download their scripts. They complained about poor network connectivity, high data costs, and a lack of stable power and infrastructure to conduct exams virtually.
Surveillance was also a challenge. My university required students to turn on their webcams and speakers to avoid cheating. Due to these challenges, some universities have been forced to offer special exams and even revert to physical exams.
The COVID-19 pandemic is not going away anytime soon. It is expected that learning restrictions will continue and students will be required to work from home.
Although Kenyan universities face enormous challenges in going digital, they need to adapt quickly and become innovative in order to achieve their goals with minimum disruption.
There is an urgent need for a new approach to current models of teaching and learning. Universities can reduce digital disruption by delivering interactive content and courses accessible through learning management systems.
The government should offer tax incentives to allow universities and students to access subsidized datasets and provide more funds for infrastructure development. This includes good electrical connections.
Universities must provide effective and efficient digital platforms that support virtual learning. Additionally, online modules should be easy enough for students to follow, provide learning guides, offer homework, and give feedback to users.
Finally, the use of core technologies, software and applications – such as WhatsApp, email, Zoom, FaceTime, and Blackboard – that allow asynchronous participation and teleconferencing facilities should be used to enhance the experience of online learning.
But Kenyan universities face an uphill battle.
In Kenya, internet connectivity is still weak. Only 40% of the population uses the Internet. A recent survey of 12 universities found that only 19,000 out of 500,000 students were enrolled in open and distance learning.
Only a handful of universities have a well-developed IT infrastructure and staff to manage such systems.
The country also suffers from frequent power cuts. This situation is aggravated by the lack of back-up generators or alternative energy sources. Without electricity, no work can be done. During the online exams at my institution, an extended power outage resulted in the postponement of an entire exam session.
For e-learning to be successful, massive investments are needed in digital platforms, cloud-based systems and automation. The existing IT infrastructure needs a capacity upgrade. Investments in digital infrastructure must go hand in hand with staff retraining.
A huge obstacle to achieving all of this is the lack of funding.
Public universities are grappling with declining funding. In fiscal year 2021-2022, the higher education budget was reduced by $ 37 million.
Government austerity measures, staff layoffs, a job freeze and increased student enrollment will put further strain on university finances. Private universities are also grappling with declining student numbers.
Universities need to adapt and explore other ways to raise funds and reduce costs.
The good news is that while it is initially an investment to upgrade the online ecosystem, adopting online education can lower costs and increase financial resources. For example, more students can enroll in programs, thus increasing the income of universities.
When developing programs, it is also important to remember that a one-size-fits-all approach to e-learning will not work. Students come from a variety of economic backgrounds and different remote geographic locations. Online platforms must be personalized to meet these constraints. For example, South Africa has many educational sites that allow access to all students. An encouraging step in Kenya is the provision of discounted data plans to support e-learning.
A blended approach – involving a mix of physical and online learning – might be a good solution. Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University in Kenya, where I work, has a blended learning approach – where traditional classroom training is complemented by online learning. This involved customizing the university’s digital platform with Moodle, an online learning management system. Teachers and students were then trained in its use. I have found this to be very beneficial for the faculty and for the students to do well.
For online exams and assessments, software, such as Respondus LockDown Browser, must be used to secure the exam environment. This identifies candidates, detects voices, stops printing, copying, visiting another URL and accessing other applications, and prevents the user from exiting a quiz until they are be submitted for rating.
Public-private partnerships should be used so that students can access affordable data and good devices. For example, the South African government has issued a tender for the massive supply of laptops for students. Universities should also take advantage of their connections to provide students with subsidized software, laptops and data, as is the case at the University of Cape Town.
Above all, higher education institutions need to develop their digital infrastructure. This must go hand in hand with securing stable power sources and backup systems to provide an uninterrupted online learning environment.