By Shehu Shagari Awandu, Head/Chair, Department of Biomedical Sciences, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University of Science and Technology
As an academic working at a university in Kenya, I’ve witnessed at first hand the massive disruptions to learning caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. The situation is not unique to Kenya. Universities in neighbouring Uganda, Rwanda and Ethiopia are similarly affected.
Kenya has over 70 universities, 38 of them public and 35 private. Over 500,000 students were enrolled in the last academic year. Public universities took the lion’s share with over 400,000 of these students.
While public universities are challenged by overcrowding, inadequate numbers of lecturers and degraded facilities, private ones 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 government closure and universities were forced to quickly transition to e-learning, for which they weren’t prepared.
E-learning has its own challenges too. Courses that require student practicals—such as the natural, health and physical sciences—have been heavily disrupted. They rely on the physical demonstration of concepts, for example through laboratory training, fieldwork and academic trips to industries.
Exams also went online. For institutions that attempted this, the outcome was telling. Many students didn’t register, couldn’t access the portal and failed to upload their scripts. They complained of poor network connectivity, high cost of data and a lack of stable power supply and infrastructure to conduct the exams virtually.
Invigilation was also challenging. My university required students to switch on their webcams and speakers to prevent cheating. Due to these challenges, some universities were forced to offer special exams and even revert to physical examinations.
The Covid-19 pandemic isn’t going away any time soon. It’s expected that restrictions to learning will continue and that students will have to work from home.
Though Kenya’s universities face huge challenges going digital, they must quickly adapt and become innovative so that they achieve their targets with minimal disruptions.
There is an urgent need for a fresh approach to the current teaching and learning models. Universities can reduce digital disruptions through delivery of interactive content and accessible courses through learning management systems.
The government should provide tax incentives to allow universities and students to access subsidised data bundles and provide more funds for infrastructure development. This includes good electricity connections.
Universities need to provide effective and efficient digital platforms that support virtual learning. In addition, online modules should be easy enough for students to follow, provide learning guides, offer assignments and give feedback to users.
Finally, the use of basic technology, software and applications–such as WhatsApp, e-mail, Zoom, FaceTime and Blackboard–that allow asynchronous participation and teleconference facilities must be used to improve the e-learning experience.
But Kenyan universities face an uphill battle.
In Kenya, internet connectivity is still low. Only 40% of the population uses the internet. A recent survey in 12 universities found just 19,000 out of 500,000 students enrolled for open and distance learning.
Only a handful of universities have well developed IT infrastructure and the personnel to manage such systems.
The country also suffers from frequent power outages. This is aggravated by lack of standby generators or alternative sources of power. With no power, no work can be done. During the online exams in my institution, a prolonged power blackout led to the postponement of an entire examination session.
For online learning to be successful, massive investments are needed in digital platforms, cloud-based systems and automation. The existing IT infrastructure needs an upgrade in capacity. The investments in digital infrastructure should go hand in hand with the retraining of staff.
A huge hurdle in achieving all of this is the funding gaps.
Public universities are grappling with a decline in funding. In the 2021-2022 fiscal year, the higher education budget was reduced by US$37 million.
Government austerity measures, staff layoffs, a freeze on employment and increased student enrolment will further strain the universities’ finances. Private universities are equally struggling with lower student numbers.
Universities have to adapt and explore alternative ways of raising funds and cutting costs.
The good news is that, though it’ll initially be an investment to get the online ecosystem up to scratch, the adoption of online teaching can reduce costs and increase financial resources. For instance, more students can enrol for programmes, thus increasing income for universities.
In developing programmes, it’s also important to remember that a one-size-fits-all approach in e-learning will not work. Students come from diverse economic backgrounds and different remote geographic locations. Online platforms should be customised to meet these constraints. For instance, South Africa has many educational sites that allow access to all students. An encouraging step in Kenya is the provision of discounted data bundles to support e-learning.
A blended approach–involving a mix of physical and online learning–could be a good solution. Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University in Kenya, where I work, has implemented a blended learning approach–where traditional classroom training is complemented by online learning. This involved the customisation of the university digital platform with Moodle, an online learning management system. Lecturers and students were then trained on how to use it. I found that it was very beneficial to the faculty and students are performing well.
For online examinations and assessments, software–like Respondus LockDown Browser – should 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 it is submitted for grading.
Public-private partnerships should be used so that students can access affordable data and good devices. For instance, the South African government has issued a tender for the mass supply of laptops for students. Universities should also leverage their connections to provide students with subsidised software, laptops and data as seen at the University of Cape Town.
Crucially, higher learning institutions must develop their digital infrastructure. This must go hand in hand with securing stable power sources and backup systems to provide an uninterrupted e-learning environment.