Responding to COVID-19 crisis : A critique of the 2020 Basic Education Response Plan in Kenya
- Cynthia Nzuki and Jentrix Wanyama |
- June 24, 2020 |
- Access To Information
On 15th March, 2020, President Uhuru Kenyatta suspended learning in all education institutions following the first COVID-19 case in the country reported two days prior. This would be the first of several similar directives which have effectively kept schools shut. Meanwhile, individuals and institutions have turned to remote learning in order to cushion the blow of halting syllabuses and course-work.
Every child has the right to free and compulsory education. As it stands, this right is currently being facilitated through use of Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) due to the implementation of remote learning. A glaring issue, however, is whether all Kenyan children can access the internet, and the digital devices required to make virtual learning possible. This question has drawn varied responses. Some, like former ICT Permanent Secretary Bitange Ndemo, argue that it is possible to provide access for all and he recommends measures such as zero-rating broadband, donations and putting in place hotlines for teacher-learner consultation. Others point out the digital gap in the country, including lack of electricity in rural areas, and questioned the growing inequality.
This blog post examines the impact that lack of access to ICTs has on the right to education by exploring the digital gap in Kenya. It also looks at the governmental response to this challenge, particularly the Basic Education COVID-29 Emergency Response Plan.
What does “Digital Gap” mean?
Also referred to as digital divide, the concept was introduced in the mid ‘90s. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) defines it as: ‘the gap between individuals, households, businesses and geographic areas at different socio-economic levels with regard to both their opportunities to access information and communication technologies (ICTs) and to their use of the Internet for a wide variety of activities.’ The term therefore refers to the separation between those with access and use of ICTs and those without. This gap is created and exacerbated by factors such as education, income levels, geography, digital literacy and infrastructure. 
There are three levels of digital divide;
1.Access to technology
This is based on the ability of one being able to acquire various forms of technology; such as a radio, television and the internet.
2. Usage of the technology
This is based on whether or not an individual knows how to use these technologies.
3. Usage quality
This is based on the benefits one acquires from using these technologies.
Globally, economic disparity is a significant factor in access to ICTs. For instance, a 2018 United Nations report found that more privileged individuals are twenty times more likely to have internet access than their less privileged counterparts. In Kenya, studies show that urban areas have efficient use and easy access to different forms of ICTs compared to rural areas (example). From an educational perspective, the digital gap affects the ability of students from rural and poor backgrounds to access ICTs that provide them with the educational material necessary for the continuation and completion of their respective syllabuses and curriculums.
Defining access to education
As stated above, every child has a constitutional right to free and compulsory education. This right is backed by several national legislations, providing for the framework and environment in which it should be exercised. The essential features to be exhibited by the right to education; according to The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights under the United Nations; include:
- Availability – Functioning educational institutions and programmes have to be available in sufficient quantity.
- Accessibility – Educational institutions and programmes have to be physically accessible, economically accessible and without discrimination to everyone.
- Acceptability – The form and substance of education, including curricula and teaching methods, have to be relevant, culturally appropriate and of good quality to students and parents.
- Adaptability – Education has to be flexible so it can adapt to the needs of changing societies and communities and respond to the needs of students within their diverse social and cultural settings.
Considering these factors, the face of accessing education, in the wake of this pandemic, has changed. Stakeholders have been left with the task of adjusting and adapting what it means for education to be available, accessible, acceptable and adaptable given the unique circumstances. For instance, looking at accessibility, students cannot physically go to their places of learning, and as such do not have physical access to their teachers and some learning materials. It is important to appreciate that going to places of learning physically, eliminates some degrees of inequality.
On the front of being adaptable, the Ministry of Education has taken various steps to adjust to these times . The question then becomes whether these measures are sufficient.
How the government and other institutions have implemented remote and online learning
After the President’s order to close learning institutions, the Ministry of Education (MoE) announced that classes for public schools would be broadcasted on various media such as television, YouTube and radio with 15 million as a targeted number of learners. The same has been implemented with lessons being uploaded and shared. However, it is questionable whether the broadcasts are sufficient and accessible by all. For example, on the radio stations, which are likely to be the most accessible method of the three, classes are broadcast for as little as one hour per day. It is not clear if the topics covered in this way will be counted as completed when physical learning resumes.
Several other initiatives are in place to help make education accessible. In Dadaab Refugee Camp, teachers are connecting to their students through radio broadcasts and WhatsApp groups. Some entities are making educational material available on their platforms. For instance, Safaricom have a 100MB Elimu Bundle, that is accessible by dialing *544# on one’s internet accessible mobile device. Viusasa, a video on demand service provider, has a section titled “ELIMU” which provides learners with audios on topics taught under their level of education, as set out by the Kenya Institute Of Curriculum Development (KICD).
The COVID-19 Emergency Response plan
In May, the Ministry of Education (MoE) unveiled the Basic Education COVID-19 Emergency Response Plan (the Plan) aimed at ensuring the continuity of basic education during and after the pandemic, while safeguarding the health of learners and teachers. It makes a number of concessions regarding the distance learning debate. It recognises that though distance learning methods are being implemented, learners from disadvantaged backgrounds may not have access to the media employed. Further, low ICT literacy levels among citizens from these backgrounds impact learning from home as parents and guardians are expected to assist pupils. Thus, the MoE is aware that distance learning can propel inequity in the provision of education.
The Plan is also cognizant of other challenges arising from prolonged school closures, such as increase in child labour, Gender Based Violence, and, psychological strain on both learners and their parents and guardians. With these challenges in mind, the Plan moves to provide several interventions. Those touching on ICTs include:
- Making use of radio and television broadcasts, including community radio stations.
- Strengthening the education cloud.
- Installing Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition Technology (SCADA).
- Live streaming model lessons to facilitate peer learning.
- Capacity building for teachers.
- Creating awareness of television and radio programmes through mobile phone texts and speakers mounted on vehicles.
- Using local radio stations and local languages to sensitize parents with no phones.
- Supporting decentralised access to connectivity
- Implementing remote tutoring services
- Cooperating with other ministries to ensure provision of electricity in rural areas, centers of mobile charging units
- Leveraging the digital literacy program to continuously use e-learning especially during and after times of crises.
- Developing appropriate digital learning material in response to COVID-19.
- Supporting home based learning.
- Sharing education content in local and minority language, including sign language with a larger screen space for the interpreter.
The Plan also contains a risk management matrix detailing the risk, its impact on a scale of 1 to 5, and proposed mitigation measures. Those addressing the access gaps are:
- Lack of electricity (impact of 5) – The proposed mitigation measure is to deliver printed material to students in affected areas, and to boost use of solar power.
- Exclusion of poor, vulnerable and marginalised students and schools from online and television content (impact of 2) – The proposed intervention is to conduct a comprehensive rapid needs assessment and monitoring to ensure interventions go to the most deserving.
- Challenge in conducting assessment. (impact of 3). – The proposed mitigation measure is to have online assessments monitored by webcam, asking questions through the television and radio and phone assessments.
- Online risks, sexual exploitation and other forms of abuse (impact of 4) – The suggested measure is to use systems with high security and privacy features, vetting and regulating e-learning systems, educating learners and parents on online safety and limiting what is accessible to learners.
The Plan put forward a number of measures that could soften the blow that the COVID-19 deals learners from marginalized and vulnerable backgrounds. However, it fails to satisfactorily address the digital gap issue. The risk of exclusion from online and television content being graded an impact of 2 out of 5 is indicative of a lax approach to the issue. Of the measures suggested to ensure learning continues during the pandemic, few render themselves to how connectivity can be enhanced. Instead, the measures mostly focus on how to make use of the facilities that are already in existence, such as the education cloud, live streaming and the digital literacy programme.
The measures that address the digital gap are not clearly elucidated. For example, the Plan suggests supporting decentralised connectivity but does not go further to explain how that will be implemented. The same problem plagues the suggestion to implement remote tutoring services. When it comes to assessments, the suggestion to have exams monitored through webcam is particularly eyebrow raising given that the majority of pupils do not have access to computers in their homes. There is also need to provide guidance on how home-based learning can be improved in homes where parents and guardians are not able to assist or supervise learners, particularly the younger ones who require more involved assistance.
While these measures are commendable, they do nothing for learners who lack access to begin with. On the bright side, using alternative means of communication such as text messages, local radio stations and mounting speakers with information on vehicles is thoughtful and will serve to bridge the gap. Similarly, distributing hardcopy material to marginalised areas will aid access to material. The Plan’s insistence on evidence-based policy development going forward will aid to fill in any gaps.
Conclusion and Recommendations
With the COVID-19 Response Plan in place, it all boils down to implementation. The MoE has a huge task of ensuring that it caters to all students efficiently and equally. The lack of sufficient and clear steps to be taken regarding the digital gap in the Plan is worrying. The MoE should work in collaboration with state ministries and departments such as the Ministry of ICT and the Universal Service Fund to provide solutions to this end. In the time being, the measures that are within reach should be well exploited. The time slots for radio and television broadcasts should be increased, as well as utilising more stations. The MoE should also consider using print media such as newspapers and magazines. Continuous research and impact assessment should be conducted. Depending on the actions taken by the MoE, students, especially those in public institutions and from disadvantaged backgrounds, could salvage what is left of their academic year.
 The Presidency, ‘Address to the nation by H.E. Uhuru Kenyatta, C.G.H, President of the Republic of Kenya and Commander-in-Chief of the Defence Forces on COVID-19, commonly known as Coronavirus at Harambee House, Nairobi on 15th March 2020.’ https://www.president.go.ke/2020/03/15/address-to-the-nation-by-h-e-uhuru-kenyatta-c-g-h-president-of-the-republic-of-kenya-and-commander-in-chief-of-the-defence-forces-on-covid-19-commonly-known-as-coronavirus/
 Article 53(1)(b), Constitution of Kenya (2010).
 World Wide Web Foundation, Alliance for Affrodable Internet, UN Women, ‘Universal Service and Access Funds: An Untapped Resource to Close the Gender Digital Divide’ 2018.
 Kenya is a member of the UN.
 Ministry of Education, ‘Kenya Basic Education COVID-19 Emergency Response Plan’, 2020, vii. https://www.education.go.ke/images/Kenya_basic_Education_COVID-19_Emergency_Response_Plan-compressed.pdf
 Ministry of Education, ‘Kenya Basic Education COVID-19 Emergency Response Plan’, 2020, 3.
 Ministry of Education, ‘Kenya Basic Education COVID-19 Emergency Response Plan’, 2020, 9.
 Ministry of Education, ‘Kenya Basic Education COVID-19 Emergency Response Plan’, 2020, 21.