The government in Kenya is about to live up to its 2013 election pledge and deliver laptops to primary schools any day now, or, at least, to all primary schools with electricity…
Kenya’s education system is in need of an overhaul, as was made an election issue in 2013. It is estimated that one million children are still out of school and vast disparities remain. Our WIDE database shows that the poorest girls in the country complete an average of just over 5 years of school, about 3.5 years fewer than the average. Meanwhile, as the GMR 2013/4 showed, half of those from poor households drop out early, while only 16% from rich households do so. As a result, around three-quarters of the poor have not achieved the basics, compared with 37% of the rich.
One clear educational disparity of critical importance to any discussion about ICT interventions in schools is where, and how many have electricity. All of Kenya’s primary schools were supposed to be on the electrical grid by June this year, yet, according to Sara Ruto from the PAL network, still 20% are without basic necessities. The boy in the picture to the left is still studying by Kerosene lamp for instance.
This isn’t something limited to Kenya. Seven out of ten people living in sub-Saharan Africa don’t have access to electricity.
It is worth properly considering the implications of this fact. Given the investment required by poorer countries to ensure that all schools have electricity supply or internet access, the use of ICT is unlikely to be as cost-effective as spending more on teachers to reduce class sizes. Teachers remain central to curriculum delivery, particularly for low achievers needing additional support.
And will Kenya’s teachers have the skills to use the laptops?
If ICT is to be a useful learning tool, teachers need to be able to use it effectively; a point frequently made by teacher unions and Education International.
In Oman, only 6% of teachers are trained to teach basic computer skills; in Egypt the share is 2%. Training in ICT began for teachers in Kenya in May last year . However, as the GMR 2013/4 showed, a 2010 survey of primary schools in the country exposed that grade 6 teachers scored only 60% on tests designed for their students. In such circumstances, it must be questioned whether introducing laptops, and training in ICT, should be the first priority? Perhaps teacher education programmes should start by ensuring that all teachers have a good understanding of the subjects they will be teaching or basic proficiency in the home languages their students speak.
Teachers can find ICT hard to use in the classroom if it’s not fully incorporated into the curriculum as well. The Enlaces programme in Chile equipped primary and secondary schools with computers, for instance, and provided ongoing technical and pedagogical support. However, ICT was not sufficiently well integrated into the curriculum, and teachers failed to use it to encourage effective problem-solving skills in students. Following all this advice, Kenya has now integrated ICT into its own curriculum in the run up to the delivery of its laptops. It will soon be seen how effective this integration has been.
Apart from electrical hitches, ICT still has questionable impact on learning
Yes, ICT is a trendy topic. However, simply putting computers in schools is not enough to improve learning, as examples cited in previous GMRs from various countries show. Several studies from Europe and the United States show little or no correlation between greater general ICT availability in schools and improved learning outcomes.
In Brazil, the introduction of computer laboratories actually had a negative impact on the acquisition of mathematics and reading skills in grade 8, though teachers’ use of internet to support classroom teaching led to improved test scores. In Peru, the One Laptop per Child programme had no impact on test scores in mathematics and language, but improved verbal fluency, abstract reasoning and processing speed
Clearly there is some positive evidence, however, or countries like Kenya would not be making the leap to ICT so quickly. In migrant schools in suburban areas of Beijing, One Laptop per Child improved computer skills and mathematics scores of grade 3 students, especially for those with no or little previous experience with computers.
One way that ICT has been shown to reduce learning disparities is if it plays a complementary role, serving as an additional resource for teachers and students. In India, for instance, computers were used to teach mathematics both as a substitute for regular teaching and in after-school programmes. The results show that the approach did not improve learning when used in school programmes, but did in the after-school programmes, and particularly for low achievers and older students. Similar findings were found in Israel, in the small-scale Time to Know program.
The bandwidth = the width of Kenya’s learning gaps
Clearly, effective integration of ICT into education systems involves many issues including infrastructure, teacher competencies, pedagogy, leadership support, curriculum and sustained financial resources. And just because it’s hard certainly does not mean it’s not worth doing. Schools in Kenya have been in need of a dramatic overhaul for some time.
However, while it is of huge significance that this new programme is scheduled to benefit no fewer than 1.2 million pupils at more than 23,000 schools countrywide, should we not be asking what this means for the other pupils not included in this bandwidth? It doesn’t take much to know the implications this change might have on the size of the wealth gaps in learning for Kenya in the future.