Monday, May 13, 2013

A sober take on laptops for class one pupils

During the campaigns ahead of Kenya’s March 2013 elections, the Jubilee team manifesto highlighted the promise to provide laptops to every primary school class one pupil. 

Most Kenyans, including Jubilee supporters, must have imagined this was just one of those enticing electioneering slogans that would quickly be side-lined in due course. 

However, after forming the Jubilee government, the president reiterated both on the inauguration day and at the Parliament opening ceremony, that the laptops for class one pupils was still on the table and indeed money has already been allocated in the national budget.

There has been opponents and proponents in equal measure for this initiative. The opponents argue that the Kenyan public schools have more pressing needs such as expanding the number of classrooms and hiring more teachers, equipping pupils with text-books, desks, blackboards amongst others. 

Yet others have argued that buying laptops could be the easier part, knowing what to do with them given the lack of primary school ICT curriculum and ICT literate teachers will be the bigger headache.

Many people have shown reservations about the security and maintenance aspects of these laptops, how do you reduce the likely theft and breakage expected and who pays for these eventualities? The scholarly have cited cases in Peru, where such a laptop initiative has not delivered on the expected outcomes.

The proponents however argue that whereas the pressing needs exists, they can be addressed while simultaneously equipping the Kenyan pupil with the digital skills required to work in the 21st century knowledge economy. 

They argue that indeed with laptops, the need for and cost of traditional text-books could be reduced since pupils would use the digital versions on their laptops.  With regards to  ICT literate teachers, the proponents argue that laptops are simply tools like mobile phones that would not require extensive training on how to use and deploy.

Furthermore, the young pupils have a natural appetite for technology and can self-teach if necessary as demonstrated in Ethiopia.   As for security of the laptops, there exist technological mechanisms that could be deployed to protect the equipment.

The money required to buy laptops, assuming 800,000 pupils @ say Sh15,000 per laptop gives a figure of Sh12 billion per annum. And this would be spent only on the purchase of the hardware. The operational costs of distribution, digital course-ware, maintenance, training, pilferage (corruption) is not yet factored in.

This is a huge investment borne by the taxpayer who should be concerned and asking whether the expected outcome of this project will be realised given the existing risks, challenges and other national priorities. 

To put this figure into perspective, Sh12 billion x 2, gives you Sh24 billion, which is the initial cost of the Thika Super-highway.  In other words, if we the taxpayers skipped the laptop project, we could save enough money to put together another “Thika” Super-highway within the next two years.

However, we cannot ignore the critical and competitive advantage an ICT-ready workforce offers. The Asian tigers' economies of South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore are built on this promise of a highly competent ICT workforce. So rather than “save” the Sh12 billion, we should be thinking of how to best deploy this investment. Various options have been suggested and includes targeting secondary school Form 1 students rather than primary school class one pupils. 

In addition, the Government may opt for a computer lab per school rather than laptops per pupil. The argument being that the management and maintenance of the equipment is more assured and widely shared within the secondary school environments rather than within the individual student hands. 

What's more? There is extensive ICT Integrated curriculum and teachers at a secondary school level. With time and experience gathered at secondary level, the government can then confidently move this initiative down to the primary levels of education.

 J. Walubengo is a Lecturer at the Multimedia University of Kenya. Twitter @jwalu