Schoolchildren in Wee village, Kenya, carry new computers in April 2011. But is going digital best for Kenya’s schools? Photograph: Build African Schools
Kenya wants to be Africa’s digital heart but its e-learning strategy ignores the need for more trained teachers and less inequality
Kenya recently announced an ambitious plan to deliver 1.3m laptops to schoolchildren. The project will cost more than $600m (53bn Kenyan shillings/Â£400m) and implementation will begin this year.
This is not simply a procurement issue or a small part of a larger educational strategy. It is the strategy. The budget, released this month, claims that the government “has prioritised transforming the educational system to e-teaching and e-learning”. By contrast, the budget contained only 34.7bn shillings for healthcare, and 67bn for the police. In a country with extremely limited financial resources, this is a very bold move.
In some ways, the strategy seems to reinforce the image of Kenya as Africa‘s digital heart. The country has embedded digital services in its national development plan, is building a technology park dubbed “silicon Savannah“, is a pioneer in creating digital services and software (such as the M-Pesa mobile money transfer system and the Ushahidi crisis reporting platform), and has one of the highest internet penetration rates on the continent.
But Kenya is characterised by deep economic inequalities. In the shadow of Nairobi’s gleaming skyscrapers are millions of people who live in poverty. About half the country’s 41 million people live below the national poverty line, and measures including the Gini coefficient show large gaps between rich and poor. More than 15 million Kenyans still don’t have access to safe water or sanitation.
Despite free primary education, more than 1 million Kenyan children of school age aren’t attending classes. Having a well-educated population is without doubt a way for the country to help itself out of poverty. But is betting the farm on e-teaching and e-learning a sensible strategy? More importantly, is it an equitable or just development approach?
Many of the project’s specifics have yet to emerge, but there are still some important points to be made.
First, laptops alone won’t solve any of the structural and social issues â€“ including a lack of trained teachers, intermittent power supplies and thousands of malnourished children â€“ facing Kenya.
Irrespective of how many stories we hear about the effectiveness of laptops being dropped off to villages in rural Africa â€“ the approach adopted by One Laptop per Child’s Nicholas Negroponte, for instance â€“ technology alone cannot provide an education. Among other things, children still need functioning schools, electricity and, crucially, trained teachers â€“ tens of thousands are required, according to the Kenya National Union of Teachers.
Second, information and communication technologies are an amplifier of capabilities, skills, and social and economic positions. Supporters of education projects based on laptop distribution often point to their success in connecting the previously disconnected. But while information technologies and the communication networks that link them are fantastic tools for people with the existing knowledge, skills and social networks to take advantage of them, they are less useful to those starting from a less privileged position. It is hard to see how the programme could do anything to address inequality without tackling its deeper roots.
Third, there is a long history of people and states framing technology as a solution to economic, social, political and environmental problems. IT becomes intertwined with notions of modernity and progress. Naively, they are seen not just as a tool, but as a panacea for development. Kenya’s laptop project shows us how powerful these visions can be. Why get involved in the messy business of hiring thousands of teachers, building functioning schools, creating a stable electricity supply, and ensuring that all children are well-nourished, when laptops and e-learning will thrust the country into the digital economy?
Increased access to IT undoubtedly holds much promise for some of Kenya’s youth. But the worry is that the resources invested in the project could have been better spent. Policymakers in other low-income countries will undoubtedly be watching closely; we need to ask who will ultimately benefit from the project and who may get left behind.