The missed opportunities to explore digital learning

Monday July 13 2020


By Emilly C. Maractho

The government of Kenya has declared that 2020 will be a dead year for all learners in Grade One to Four, Standard Five to Seven, and Form One, Two and Three.
These learners will resume school next year in the same classes. And that, is a descent thing to do in the circumstance and these children will be safe.

Much of higher education in Kenya remained functional during lockdown via e-learning, because they already had a framework that could facilitate that.

They treated higher education institutions on a case by case basis, allowing universities to exercise prudence and be innovative. There was no blanket directive that affected all universities equally. The universities enjoyed their liberty and autonomy to make decisions that affected them.

My colleague, Frank Obonyo who had just won a scholarship to the Agha Khan University in Kenya, returned to Uganda before completing the semester, but he told me that nothing was hindered.

Although there were no classes running onsite, they had them online using Zoom, did their assignments via online learning portals, and his practical assignments were re-arranged so that he could do them in Uganda instead of Nairobi. As such, he completed the semester and did all assessments. They are getting ready for the next semester.

In short, ‘it was smooth’, he told me. Even University of Nairobi, which is public, was running some classes online and United States International University Africa in Nairobi too, according to friends there.


One of my MA students, remained in Norway as the country locked down just two months into his Global Journalism Exchange programme. I was in touch with him in this period. He has just concluded his course. Although lecturers and students were not allowed on campus, their classes continued and all assessments were done.

In Uganda, we are still insisting that a dead year will be dangerous for a variety of reasons. The reality is that,this is a dead year declared or not, as far as the educational calendar is concerned.

Learners have already missed so much (majority of them), that it makes little sense to imagine they can go back to school and complete the year, moving onto the next class.

I started to read the guidelines from National Council for Higher Education (NCHE) for the adoption of an emergency ODel-system which is supposed to enable higher education institutions take on e-learning with interest.

There are some good proposals. But my interest quickly died as I started to internalise these provisions, that I prefer not to regurgitate here. What is the use of policy if it aims not to facilitate, but frustrate every effort towards doing the very thing for which it seeks to provide guidelines?

As if that was not enough, Daily Monitor on July 8, ran a story on Health ministry setting up stringent measures for reopening schools. Instead of being angry, I was amused.

Directives such as 10 pupils per class room and only 15 for secondary schools, tertiary institutions and universities before schools can reopen.
It is clear, the framers of these guidelines, have no idea that some lecture rooms are built to accommodate hundreds of students, with 15 students in each of them the distance will be 12 meters instead of two.

Dr Jane Ruth Aceng’s proposals, for lack of a better word, are farfetched and devoid of any reality for implementation.

It might be easier for the minister of Health to advise the minister of Education and Sports, to also advise the President close schools in Uganda until the coronavirus disease is no more. We can make peace with that.

These one size fit all and fixed directives are unlikely to be implemented in the next year given the scale of investment required. For instance, to say that if a case is found in any school there will be automatic closure for 21 days. Does it mean every time a single case is found at Makerere University, it closes and all staff living off campus self-isolate?

We are losing a lot of opportunities to explore digital learning and to be creative in making decisions about higher education and for their leadership to experiment.

Government needs to do three things. First, to check Dr Aceng and task her to provide solutions that work for our context.

Second, get over the fear of unknown and allow for higher education to enjoy some healthy degree of autonomy and prudence in making decisions that depending on where each university is at, they can innovate. Third, try hard to separate politics from higher education.

The best thing that government of Kenya did, despite having a bigger threat, was not to tight mark higher education. Rwanda was decisive, on when schools would open, allowing for planning. We also have to be more open to what is possible and when, allowing institutions and even individuals to plan.

Ms Maractho is the head and senior lecturer, Department of Journalism and Media Studies at UCU.