The quest for access to inclusive education in developing economies is becoming a key debate in Africa, with the 2020 Global Education Monitoring Report released by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) indicating that exclusion in education had deepened during the Covid-19 pandemic.
While 40 percent of low and lower-middle income countries have not supported disadvantaged learners during school shutdowns according to the report, solutions to this challenge are coming up from within Kenya’s Silicon Savannah.
David Waweru, the co-founder of Software People, a two-year old firm, has designed a learning software for all levels of study, which he believes will boost the teacher to student ratio in remote areas in the next decades.
He is planning to ride on the recently launched 4G balloon internet by Telkom Kenya and Google that has taken higher and faster connectivity to rural villages.
“My passion and focus is to improve Kenya’s education sector by ensuring rural pupils have the same opportunity as their urban counterparts. I come from a rural setting where we used to trek for more than 8 kilometres to get to school. The new Loon internet will be of great help,” the 41-year-old told Afcacia.
His digital innovation –MySchool – is tapping on the dynamics of online videoconferencing, with features similar to Zoom, but specifically designed for primary, secondary and tertiary learning institutions.
When this writer went through the software, he found options to share screen, whiteboards for teachers to write notes, a section for assignments and examinations.
“It doesn doesn’t have a limitation on the number of classes or users at any given time. We have an option to key in a user activation code where learners or tutors are sent one link that doesn’t change with each session,” says the Kitengela resident.
While Zoom has been thrown into consistent controversy with a global outcry over the hacking of its online meetings, MySchool, according to him, has integrated several robust security measures that ensure learning goes on uninterrupted.
To guard the privacy of users, the solution comes with user authentication options for clients who want to have their own hosting, where their servers can be whitelisted for use in Kenya.
“Our sites are specific for learning institutions and we do not collect data for use in marketing or for other use. We ensure that all the data is safe and the link is well protected and uptime is extremely high,” he says.
With MySchool, students can expect more interactive hours with teachers either at school or at home, while enabling the sharing of common educative resources in real-time or on-demand.
“Parents shall be able to provide affordable education for their sons and daughters. Students shall have increased online safety and security while schooling at home,” says Mr Waweru, adding that users will be prompted to pay a one –off software license fee of between USD50 to USD100 per school per month.
Research shows that the average cost of educating a child in Kenya’s private schools is about USD650 per annum.
Between 2003 and 2017, the number of private schools in Kenya increased by 773 percent while public schools also increased over the same period but by 33 percent according to Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS).
“We have realized most schools are running low on budget as parents can’t afford to pay much due to the effects of the Covid 19 pandemic. We therefore waived the high initial license fee. This will ensure we onboard as many schools as possible,” he notes.
He explains that students shall have access to advanced learning techniques through the use of modern education tools, with exam results being realized faster since marking is automated.
Aurelia Manyeti, the head teacher at St Josemaria Escriva Academy in Mombasa who pioneered e-learning in the coastal region says the challenges to teaching through digital solutions have been distractions on the part of pupils.
“You are never sure whether you are on the same page with the pupils even when you mute all of them. Again you can never achieve 100 per cent attendance, especially for bigger classes,” she remarks.
Frederick Kobia, a Kiswahili teacher at the school says there is a major drawback in marking assignments.
“You are never sure what every pupil has scored when we give exams every Friday. Remote marking is difficult. So we leave that to parents and this harms our ability to know their progress,” he reveals.
Teachers, therefore, have to rely on their knowledge of every pupil’s ability before Covid-19 period which is counter-productive for candidates who work very hard to improve their grades in the final year.
But Mr Waweru’s innovation, which is accessible via a laptop, promises to ensure schools reach out to more students without increase in infrastructure costs, ensuring coverage of the learning curriculum is comprehensive and thorough.
Being a new concept and e-learning gaining popularity gradually over the past 4 months, the virtual school system is being implemented by schools within Nairobi City County.
“We intend to roll it out aggressively once a few features on the examination module are fixed. We appreciate the schools currently using it on a pilot basis and their contribution on how to make it better for our children to reap maximum profits from it,” says Mr Waweru, who had to quit his job last year to focus on his dream about “the future of education in Africa.”
Kenya, which enjoys a high smartphone penetration, a reducing cost of internet and an increasing 4G internet coverage to rural areas, will bet on such solutions to further narrow the gap between the literate and semi-literate during the Covid-19 period where schools remain closed till next January.
However, the biggest hurdle for education in Kenya is the absolute lack of required tools to implement what the government calls ‘Out of Classroom Learning’ project, as thousands of families cannot afford smartphones, TV sets, computers and internet bundles in a period of slow economic growth.
ICT Cabinet Secretary Joe Mucheru acknowledges such challenges, promising to ensure the Loon project works for Kenya’s e-learning ecosystem by providing cheaper devices.
“We will be working with the Communications Authority to find a way to lower the cost of these devices. The aim is to have as many Kenyans as possible accessing the internet via their smartphones,” he says.But frequent power cuts and the balloon internet connection in rural areas only available between 6am and 9pm, deterrents to accessing digital education still exist for those who can afford e-learning tools.