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Picking up: Jubilee Government's Promise of Provision of Solar powered Laptops to School Children

The Supreme Court of Kenya on 31st March gave a ruling on the Presidential Elections petitions, paving way for the Jubilee Coalition government to take over the running of the national government for the next five years. Of interest to many Kenyans as well as the ICT sub-sector is the Jubilee Coalition promise to provide solar powered laptops to every child within the first 100 days in office.

The relevant part of the Jubilee manifesto reads:

“...Work with international partners to provide solar powered lap-top computers equipped with relevant content for every school age child in Kenya...”

With campaigns over, many wonder whether it is feasible to actualize this promise. Opinion is divided, with some being of the view that in 2003, free primary education (FPE) that looked too enormous a project at the time yet it was implemented. [1] In fact, companies such as Samsung have already expressed their willingness to supply the laptops for this programme. Another school of thought is that this is a pipe dream because Kenya has too many other problems to solve. For example, public debt has been on the rise, we are transitioning to a devolved government system and the same is costly, most of the public sector is undertaking reforms and anyway, the public wage bill is already very high. [2]

Others are championing for a more holistic view of laptops and education so that instead of merely providing laptops, the Jubilee government should facilitate digital education.  An example of digital education is the Australian Digital Education Revolution that has five components namely: provision of laptops; provision of broadband Internet and other tools to support the curriculum; ICT proficiency support; research for betterment of digital education; support to schools and enabling parents to participate in the education of the children online.

Investing in digital education would require more than provision of laptops and content. Our experience with FPE has shown that it is not enough to provide education, there must also be measures to ensure that quality is maintained. In the case of digital education, it calls for several actions to ensure its success. These include the development of a digital syllabus, training of teachers, deployment of Internet and ICT infrastructure to all schools and involvement of the community.

It is important to have a digital syllabus to ensure that children have a full digital experience with the laptops. Otherwise, what would be the use of having laptops that are closed most of the time until time for computer lesson? It is probable that the Kenya Institute of Education has already thought of such a scenario and it is hoped that such a process shall be open to the public for comment. In developing the syllabus and content, the Jubilee government and stakeholders should particularly look into issues of access for children with disabilities so that we improve their opportunities to be productive citizens in the next decades.  It is also vital that such a curriculum is designed to encourage academic creativity as opposed to the current syllabus which has been faulted for lacking this. Creativity can be easily supported by provision of Internet and other libraries from where children can learn to question and think critically so that they develop the attitude of participating in solving problems in the community.  

In taking cognizance of Kenya's culture, one would also want the government to think of security of the laptops. The fact that they will be provided to the youngest pupils while there are other older students beg the question whether these students can actually take home their gadgets. Even if the laptops were left a the school, there would still need to be provision of adequate security to secure digital education. 

There is need to create an environment that will facilitate the flourishing of the digital citizens who result from the digital education. For starters, the laptops could be assembled in Kenya. This shall not only be cost effective, but will also stimulate local productivity. Even if an international company does the assembly, there shall still be transfer of technology and hopefully in future, such projects can be locally undertaken.  

Secondly, the government should take deliberate action to encourage generation of local content. It has been argued that content is the cornerstone of a digital economy. If we train digital citizens without a digital economy, there will be others waiting to take them up, resulting in another brain drain like the one experienced in the 1990’s in Kenya. Local content will also help us promote our local cultures as well as create employment for those producing it. In the bigger picture, local content will also direct traffic to Kenya, unlike the current situation where there is a skewed balance of Internet traffic.

Equity will be another important ingredient for a flourishing environment for the children. By providing laptops to all children in public schools, the Government will already be promoting the development of the children and in the longer term, their local areas. If one tries to imagine the difference having digital education will make to say, a pastoralist child in the heartland of Samburu, then the idea of a nation progressing together starts to take shape. The government can deepen such a child’s experience by ensuring that there is access to Internet at their local shopping centre and school. Kenya’s Universal Service Fund (USF) has never really taken off. Digital education provides a good starting point for its utilization where primary schools in remote areas can be provided with ICTs/Internet. This will go a long way to eliminating the inequalities that exist among people from the different areas because Internet can provide the same virtual experience to children in all parts of the country without them having to travel out of their local areas.

Initiatives around digital education must be transparent and open for public participation. Since this is a novel area where in Kenya many parents may not be able to sufficiently monitor the content that their children would encounter, it is upto the wider community to take up this task. Additionally, USF must also provide channels for public participation so that Kenyans from various localities may be able to apply for deployment of infrastructure to their areas.

Public participation will also help in monitoring the use of these funds. Stakeholders such as public benefit organisations could also support digital education by undertaking research and recommend ideas to further develop the initiative. For instance, there are already questions on how to maintain the laptops and also how the laptops, once used, would be disposed. 

Under Kenya’s devolved system of government, provision of education remains a function of the national government. One of the objects of national government is to promote national unity and development.  It is one of the opportunities through which the Jubilee government can promote national values and principles. If well implemented, it will not only help Kenya achieve its long term goals in Vision 2030 but also contribute significantly to personal development of young people.  Digital education has the potential to change the destiny of the children of Kenya.

[1] The NARC coalition, in 2002, campaigned on among others, a promise to provide free and compulsory primary education.

[2] The Salaries and Renumeration Commission reports that about 35% of Kenya’s GDP goes into paying salaries of public officials.  See http://www.standardmedia.co.ke/salaries/

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