• April 16, 2024
  • Last Update April 16, 2024 5:48 PM
  • Nairobi

Can’t think, Won’t Think?

Can’t think, Won’t Think?

We have now entered the third month since the first case of Covid-19 was reported in Kenya. The pandemic has badly exposed the inefficiencies and inadequacies of our leadership system as reflected in the kind of measures being adopted in efforts to mitigate the situation in various sectors.

Take the Ministry of Education, for instance. If you want to see the height of incompetence in leadership during this pandemic, look no farther than this ministry.

When the pandemic hit home, the ministry blindly rolled out online learning across the country with very little forethought and preparation. Lack of innovation on the part of education officials made them think that going online was the solution. The move was clearly a sign of laziness in thinking and a lack of creativity. Surely, what is so innovative about online learning in this day and age?

Their argument was that these programmes will help bolster the curriculum. That is a tired, lazy way of thinking. The truth of the matter is that such a move is doomed to fail because the task is too onerous for particular students.

There is enough evidence to demonstrate why the government’s online programmes will amount to nothing. First, in a country where nearly half the population has no access to electricity, there is no guarantee that online learning will work unless the focus is on the middle and upper classes. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that the people with access to electricity often experience power interruptions almost every time it rains. The blackouts sometimes last for days if not weeks.

Second, the kind of infrastructure required for the success of the programmes – smart phones, laptops, desktops and internet connectivity – has not been well thought out. And while it is apparent that half or even less of the population can access these infrastructure and services, their usage is not guaranteed. 

Third, the socio-economic situation of teachers and students is likely to hamper the administration of this programme. Even in areas where there is good network coverage, smart phones and uninterrupted power supply, it is imprudent to assume that learning will take place smoothly. For instance, how can a student in crowded Kibera make sure that everybody around them keeps quiet while learning is going on?

Lastly, there are students who come from areas adversely affected by floods, inter-community clashes, demolitions and livestock keeping as an economic activity. Such students find it easier to focus on their studies when they are away from home. Expecting students from such environments to learn via online platforms is unrealistic.

If the ministry was innovative, it would have come up with more intelligent ideas to apply during this pandemic period and beyond. For example, instead of rushing to reach students through the internet, they could have developed reading materials, especially story books for lower and mid-classes. A major problem with our education system is that we start bombarding young children with facts instead of letting them experience the world through stories. Children love reading for pleasure.

The reading materials should not be expensive. To realise this, teachers could be facilitated to produce manuals for such reading materials. Countries like Tanzania have done it. In the past, Tanzania never relied on textbooks; they used to rely on manuals. Better still, publishing houses could be asked to produce a book for every class to be read throughout the country. Teachers would then be asked to prepare reading guides, which would include questions like: Which character did you like most and why? Who did you hate and why? This could continue even after Covid-19. The books would be distributed through local administrators like assistant chiefs or local education offices. To me, that is innovative.

And by the way, we would not be re-inventing the wheel. In Argentina, for instance, pupils without access to the internet, television or radio programmes, are provided with learning resources like audio, video and books developed by local teachers and delivered to them at home. This could mitigate the challenges faced by learners in remote areas and the end result would be that all learners come out of this pandemic well equipped.

Unfortunately, our universities are not spared the mediocrity we have seen in the education sector since Covid-19 started. Like everybody else, they have gone the online learning way. There are two things they should have done. One, almost all the books we use at our universities are foreign. Instead of wasting time on online learning, why can’t lecturers be facilitated through their departments, colleges, schools, and faculties to write books in their fields during this time? This would ensure that by the time we come out of Covid-19, our libraries would have at least 20 per cent local books.

Universities should also produce books and other learning materials for schools. This way, they will break the wall between them and society. This wall has been created by university administrations’ requirement that lecturers write academic papers for promotion and career growth. When lecturers start writing books for schools, they will climb down from their ivory towers, engage directly with the public and who knows, the next time they ask for salary increase, the public may just support them!

Two, universities should use this time to think how to generate revenue. We do not know how long Covid-19 will last and nobody knows how long the Exchequer can sustain payment of university staff salaries. It should be remembered that the University of Nairobi, for instance, meets up to 60 per cent of the government capitation to pay staff. Other universities have already announced a 30 per cent pay cut for staff.

Yet this is just the beginning of Covid-19. If it drags on for another six months or one year, we can get to a point where universities won’t be able to pay staff. Instead of focusing on online learning, let the universities challenge their staff through the various departments, faculties, schools and colleges to come up with means by which they can generate incomes so that the institutions can be self-reliant.

Finally, students should be encouraged and supported during this time to help communities where they live cope with Covid-19 and the attendant challenges. This support can be given by the State, county governments, non-State actors, and parents. For instance, they can be trained and asked to volunteer in showing people in  crowded places like markets how to handle hygiene matters like washing of hands, and other mitigating measures such as social distancing.

This way, they will stop whiling away their time and instead become useful members of the society.

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