The coronavirus pandemic has struck one of its most pernicious blows to the global education sector with unimaginable consequences.
Since the beginning of the year, more than 160 countries have shut their learning institutions, throwing more than 1.6 billion learners out of school, according to Unesco.
National and international examinations have been cancelled, teachers, especially those in private schools, have been sent on unpaid leave, academic calendars dropped and schools turned into isolation centres.
For millions of learners, especially those in poor and developing countries, learning stopped indefinitely. Yet for others, education went on as if it had never been halted.
In many poor countries, including Kenya, where all learning institutions have been closed since March 15, many learners have taken advantage of the Covid-19 holiday to take up menial jobs to help their parents make ends meet.
Others have been reduced to caring for their younger siblings or sick relatives. Others are lying idle in the villages and others have delved into crime or other antisocial activities.
The more affluent are busy with video games and endless hours on television. Yet in developed countries - such as South Korea, US, China, Singapore and the UK - learners are busy at home with e-learning in full throttle.
Schools have been closed countless times in the past, especially as a result of wars, famine, epidemics such as the SARS or the Ebola, but the closures have generally been restricted to specific regions and for a definite period.
In contrast, the Covid-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 270,000 people globally and infected more than three million others, is global in its reach and damage and equivocal in its subsistence and seeming invincibility given that no vaccine has been found.
It is because of the uncertainty about how long the pandemic will last that the concept of e-learning has assumed a new urgency and relevance, if only to keep learners active, preserve what has been learnt so far and to provide a sense of academic continuity.
In Kenya, many institutions, especially private schools and universities, have scrambled to ensure learning continues through the use of electronic technologies to access the educational curriculum outside the traditional classroom.
Yet, instead of serving as a panacea for the academic disruption, e-learning has stoked controversy and bitterness among parents because it has exposed the huge economic disparities in homes that enhance social inequalities.
Most universities have been rolling out online courses but students and lecturers have resisted the programmes owing to the digital divide across the country.
“Most students do not have laptops or money to buy internet bundles to sustain a three-hour course. Others live in far-flung areas, where the internet is a huge challenge. So what is the point of starting a class where you have only a handful well-off students logging in? What happens to the rest?” posed Dr Richard Bosire, the chairman of the Universities Academic Staff Union (Nairobi chapter).
Dr Bosire’s concern cuts across almost every university in Kenya, where learners come from diverse backgrounds.
Learning institutions such as those in South Korea and Finland prioritise ensuring that every learner is facilitated to log in to the lessons so that no one is left behind.
Ideally, e-learning is suitable for the mature learner who is highly motivated and is able to work independently, based on the assumption that they have access to and can afford to bear the cost of the internet, electricity and a corresponding digital gadget.
Younger learners are erratic and easily distracted and would have to be supervised. However, e-learning is a huge challenge if the internet is not strong enough, devices have to be shared among many learners and homes are crowded and noisy.
E-learning is also much easier in social sciences, business and humanities and a lot difficult in the sciences.
In the basic education sector, millions of learners in public primary and secondary schools are accessing radio and TV lessons by the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development.
However, the obvious challenge is that though the lessons are appropriate, the institute is only able to devote two lessons per class per day, which amounts to only one hour of learning for each class.
Private schools, as would be expected, are doing better with most of them having established online portals where students can engage with their classmates and teachers in interactive lessons.
Most of them have better infrastructure, fewer learners and are better resourced. Yet even in these institutions, the lessons have come at a huge cost to parents and bitter disputes over school demands for extra fees.
Many private schools have given in to demands by parents for fees discounts.
Controversies over fees, infrastructure and access to digital gadgets notwithstanding, e-learning is inevitable, and while it might not completely substitute the traditional model, it cannot be ignored or dispensed with.
Educational author Donna Abernathy said presciently: “Online is not the next big thing. It is the big thing now.”
While e-learning serves as a useful substitute for the classroom, it can only work if it is continuous and goes hand in hand with the traditional teaching model in a hybrid system, rather than if it is just introduced during situations that call for school shutdowns and is then abandoned when normalcy resumes.
“It is absolutely essential to actively embrace virtual learning to ensure learning is not interrupted. We will not return to any old normal. We will be living in a hybrid learning environment that combines the regular and virtual schools. Any school or system not embracing e-learning and its hybrid potential alongside regular learning will fail to meet the aspirations of its students,” says Mr Nicholas Wergen, the European Education Director of the Inspired Education Group, which runs and builds schools in Europe, Middle East Africa, Australia and Latin America.
While it would be an uphill task to ensure every Kenyan learner has access to electricity, internet and digital gadgets to enable them benefit from e-learning, Covid-19 has made the point that e-learning is inevitable.
Technology is developing at a dizzying pace and is expensive, yet it is not the only hurdle that should be overcome if e-learning is to take root in Kenya.
Teachers have to be trained to embrace a new learning environment in which they can offer high quality curriculum-appropriate digital learning content.
If teachers are not equipped with digital skills, their learners will obviously be worse off.
A great starting point towards a hybrid learning model would be the revival of the collapsed Digital Literacy Programme, which was meant to provide laptops to every class one child from 2013.
This would blend seamlessly with the rural electrification project which is said to have connected 95 per cent of schools to the national grid.
E-learning has to be introduced systematically to ensure it does not worsen inequalities to education access, in addition to locking out millions of learners due to poverty.