At first glance Elangatawuas Primary school in Kajiado West Constituency in Kajiado County looks like your typical, rural public primary school. It is located more than 30 km from the nearest tarmac road, so the pupils have to walk pretty long distances across the sun-baked, rocky terrain to get to school. And as is often the case in such far-flung schools, many of the pupils are in tattered uniforms and barefoot.
However, a look at the school’s learning process reveals a sharply contrasting image of an institution that’s technologically advanced. On day one, DNW arrives when class is in session and Standard Five teacher Elizabeth Partet is conducting the science lesson from a 7-inch tablet. Each of her pupils also has a tablet on which they are following the class notes she had prepared earlier.
The situation is quite similar to that in Standard One in the schools in which the government launched the pilot e-learning programme about month ago.
But the pupils of Elangatawuas Primary School have been using tablets for nearly a year, and their tablets were not donated by the government, but by a private firm, Technology Partners Ltd, in a pilot programme.
After a while, the Standard Five pupils break for lunch and have to report back an hour later for their afternoon preps. Mrs Ann Chahira, the school’s deputy head teacher who also doubles up as their class teacher, walks in to take a roll call to ensure that all the students have reported back. And instead of the traditional register book, she uses a tablet.
Notable, the shouts of “Present teacher!” that are synonymous with roll call in schools across the country are not heard here. Instead, every pupil has a smart card, which they tap on Ms Chahira’s tablet to register their attendance.
Mrs Chahira explains that the smart card-based attendance monitoring programme, alongside other online learning tools, were donated by a foreign organisation called iMlango. “iMlango also provided us with a fully equipped computer laboratory and satellite Internet connection,” she reveals.
Speaking to DN2 via Skype from his office in London, iMlango’s Director, Mr Adam Smith, explained that he brought together a number of international organisations to develop a programme specifically for African schools.
“Each organisation was passionate about transforming the way education is conducted in African schools. Avanti, for example, provides satellite Internet connection while Camara, supplies and Installs computer equipment in schools and Squid manages our operations in the country,” he said.
iMlango’s impact on Kenyan Schools is something the Ministry of Education can draw lessons from. Mr Smith says the programme, which is partly funded by the United Kingdom government through its Department for Internal Funding, has been implemented in more than 200 rural schools in Kenya, inducting close to 200,000 students to e-learning.
“The first thing I’d like the government to note is that while implementing their digital learning programme, they should realise that they cannot work alone. At some point, they’ll need to fully draw in private players like us,” Mr Smith said.
He further believes that the government would realise its digital learning agenda sooner if it abandoned the idea of issuing gadgets to every student.
“Digital learning isn’t all about laptops and tablets. At iMlango, we focus more on opening computer labs that can be shared by all classes. That way, we’ve been able to minimise costs and cover more schools,” he said.
With its attendance monitoring system, iMlango has been able to generate data whose patterns provide crucial insights. For instance, Mr Smith says that from their analysis, the average student attendance is usually 80 per cent. However, it fell to 60 per cent in the third term, during which many areas in the country were — and still are — ravaged by drought. He added that this is the kind of data that the government needs to tap into while formulating education policies.
A BOON TO HOME SCHOOLING
Also keen to provide education, especially to those who are home schooling, is Ms Jane Muthiga, who uses a totally different approach. She’s the co-founder and director of Elimu TV, a free-to-air television channel.
When you walk into Elimu TV’s offices on Thika Road, you might be forgiven for thinking you have walked into a school. A huge timetable hangs on the wall and the teachers who do not have classes are chatting in the staffroom.
“We have a staff of six permanent teachers and about 20 part-timers,” says Mr D. W. Wainaina, the Principal of Elimu TV.
Unlike your regular school, however, when class is in session, the teacher’s audiences are scattered across the country, following the lesson from home via their television sets or on YouTube. The teachers interact with their students in real time through social media and text messages.
Ms Muthiga explains that Elimu TV was started to cater for students in informal schools and out-of-school youths. Most of their students sit the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) as private candidates.
“Students who learn by themselves at home are a demographic that the government’s policies on education have habitually side-lined, including the recent push for the uptake of digital learning,” says Ms Muthiga.
Home schooling, she says, will grow over time, especially with the increased adaptation of technology in learning. She adds that students will be able to learn entire syllabi without the need for teachers. They will thus learn faster, covering coursework in shorter times.
“It won’t be odd to find 10-year-olds ready to sit the Kenya Certificate of Primary Examinations (KCPE). The government should stop being rigid and put in place policies that support the integration of technology in home and alternative schooling,” she asserts.
Ms Muthiga’s company puts a lot of effort in the generation of digital learning content.
“We invite teachers from all over the country to create content in our studios, which we upload on our website portals. We produce between 400 and 500 minutes of content in a day,” says Mr Frederick Uhuru, the cinematographer and video editor at Elimu TV.
VIDEO LESSONS ON DEMAND
Ms Muthiga adds that Elimu TV will soon be able to provide video lessons on demand, with students being required to pay Sh20 to gain access to content for a week.
“She says the government should direct most of its efforts, not towards providing pupils with tablets, but towards enabling their teachers to create content.
“It [the government] should set up 24-hour digital centres in every county which teachers can visit and create their own content, which they can then disseminate and sell via Internet platforms. This will allow teachers to remain relevant even after they retire,” she says.
The generation of content is perhaps the biggest bone of contention between the government and private players in the sector. For instance, Ms Muthiga accuses the government of monopoly, saying it is focused on generating all learning content through the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development.
“The government has no business generating learning content. Instead, it should give guidelines to private content creators in order to create competition in the sector and thus foster innovation,” she argues.
But for all its hitches, all the players in digital learning agree that it holds a promising future for the country’s education.
Mr Smith, the iMlango director, says that academic performance has improved remarkably in the schools where his organisation has set up computer labs. This is corroborated by Mr Joshua Meikan, the Standard Eight class teacher at Elangatawuas Primary School.
“By using a KCSE revision app called Msingi Perks that’s installed in Yazmi’s tablets, we are confident that our candidates will perform better in this year’s KCPE because their scores have been constantly improving in successive internal tests,” says Mr Meikan, adding that the greatest improvement has been recorded in mathematics.
The prolonged drought that hit Kajiado County has seen pupils drop out in large numbers from many schools in the region but in Elangatawuas Primary School, the number of pupils has actually increased by a small margin, Mr Jeremiah Lanoi, the school’s head teacher, says.
“This term we have about 20 more pupils than we had last term. Using technology in learning has helped us to retain pupils and when they go back home, they spread the word to their peers, who in turn request their parents to have them admitted to this school,” he says
On day two DN2 arrived at the school at 1pm, when the pupils were on lunch break. However, most of them were loitering about the school compound sheltering from the sun under the trees in the playground.
“Many of the children here come from poor families and cannot afford lunch,” offers Mr Lanoi. “We used to benefit from the government’s school feeding programme but the government provided a only a paltry Sh200,000, which is not enough to take us through an entire term. When the money is finished, our pupils usually have to do without lunch.”
Saidimu Sais, a Standard Five pupil, shows of his technological skills during break-time as he engages his desk mate, Lilian Pempa, in a science game on a Yazmi Odyssey tablet.
“I love learning with computers, it’s really fun! I wish they would allow us to carry the tablets home so that we could do our homework on them,” says the 11-year-old.
Mr Mware, the technology Partners Ltd CEO, says the government should not confine its e-learning agenda strictly to primary and secondary schools.
“We are trying to bring more tertiary institutions on board to use our satellite technology in their distance-learning programmes. The government can advance its digital learning agenda by setting minimum technological requirements for mid-level colleges and universities,” he says, adding that private primary and secondary schools should not be excluded from the government’s digital agenda.
Why satellite technology is the way to go
Mr Leonard Mware, the CEO of Technology Partners Ltd, says his company partnered with Yazmi, a US-based satellite solutions provider, which donated the tablets to Elengatawuas Primary School.
“Yazmi provides satellite connectivity which, unlike GPRS and other cellular-based networks, can beam content to millions of devices without the satellite getting clogged or its system being slowed down,” offers Mr Mware, adding that the government could learn from their satellite model and avoid relying exclusively on GSM networks like it currently does.
Mr Mware notes that adopting the satellite model to transmit data will not only guarantee speed and efficiency, but also save on data costs. At Elangatawuas Primary School, for example, the reception of cell phone signals from major telecommunications players like Safaricom and Airtel is virtually non-existent, yet the pupils experience no connectivity problems with their satellite-enabled devices.
He adds that whereas we have problems with terrestrial network coverage, satellite connectivity will reach every corner of the country without problems, which is important if we are to have equitable access to education.
Meanwhile, Mr Alex Kinuthia, a technical specialist with Technology Partners Ltd, says that one doesn’t require a special satellite-enabled device to access Yazmi’s e-learning platform. All a tablet or computer user has to do is buy a registered dongle which, when attached to their device, enables them to access content via the satellite.
“Another reason why the government needs to embrace the use of satellite in content distribution is that it allows for multicasting of information. This means that different content can be beamed to different devices at the same time. For instance, it can ensure when it comes to learning mother tongue, content in the Turkana language is broadcast only to pupils in Turkana County, while pupils in Bungoma County receive Luhya lessons at the same time. It is also possible for one teacher to teach classes in different schools at the same time.”