All students to get laptops to boost e-learning

At a hostel near the expansive Kenyatta University, Kenya’s biggest by student numbers, Patrick Kinyanjui is seated on his bed, typing away at his class-work on a laptop. Several students are queuing for an opportunity to do an assignment due the following day. Lecturers are increasingly demanding typed assignments.

Kinyanjui, a fourth year computer engineering student, is one of a few lucky students who own a laptop or desktop computer. He charges US$4 cents per page for typing services and US$1.5 cents per page for printing.

During his free time, Kinyanjui also does other things with his computer like writing music CDs for his colleagues and doing part-time writing assignments. He also writes computer programmes for colleagues and some external clients.

For him – and the majority of his colleagues – the laptop cost a fortune: US$470. Such a gadget is out of reach for most Kenyan university students, yet it is becoming a must-have for students as the country is swamped by the digital revolution.

Global electronic giants like Samsung are taking note of this emerging demand and the Kenyan government has just hatched an ambitious plan to have all students own laptops – at enrolment.

Jomo Kenyatta University’s plans

This month Samsung partnered with Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, or JKUAT, Kenya’s fourth largest university, in a project that will see students acquire laptops at subsidised rates – US$460. Repayments will be deducted from fees.

During the signing ceremony Dr Fred Matiang’i, cabinet secretary in charge of information and communications technology, or ICT, announced that all university students would soon be required to own a laptop.

Only 13% of nearly 400,000 students in Kenya have computers. This means that some 348,000 students currently do not have one, said Matiang’i, adding that 220,000 students would initially be targeted for computers.

The initiative is meant to boost e-learning and give students much-needed ICT skills as the government converts all of its services, most of which are currently analogue, to digital.

The government also hopes to use university students to generate content for primary schools under a new e-learning plan. Kenya has started the process of buying laptops for all its 10 million primary school kids.

“The initiative will go a long way in opening up education opportunities for students as they tap into ICT to advance their skills,” said Professor Mabel Imbuga, vice-chancellor of JKUAT.

The university wants to more than double its current bandwidth to at least 10 megabits per second per 1,000 students by next year.

The initiative will build on a similar project rolled out in 2010 and supported by the World Bank. Using a US$2 million sponsorship, at least 16,000 students bought laptops at a subsidised cost of US$110. The project ended in 2011.

Digitising Kenya

Kenya is keen to digitise all its public services, joining the ranks of private institutions that have embraced high-tech systems to run their operations – riding on increased bandwidth.

Universities, which have already launched online learning programmes – albeit on a small scale – decry slow internet connectivity and low bandwidth, which have slowed down online learning’s uptake.

Statistics from the Communications Commission of Kenya, the technology regulator, show that internet penetration in the country rose by 4.3% to 41.1% in the first quarter of this year, a signal that the country is heading towards an ICT-driven economy.

But most users access the internet through mobile phones. This means that the government will have to offer internet cost subsidies to increase the use of PCs and laptops among students, who are also mostly using mobile phones.

By March, the total amount of bandwidth available in the country was 906,186 megabits per second, or mbps – up from 576,186 mbps in the previous period. Bandwidth usage remains below what is available, implying that there is room for investment. Total used bandwidth stood at 328,641 mbps in March, up from 278,329 mbps by the end of December.

e-Learning to cope with student demand

Kenya is hoping to use digital and distance learning to cope with demand for higher education, which has soared over the past five years as more and more school-leavers qualify for university study and seek to increase their opportunities in the labour market.

Currently, universities do not have nearly enough places to meet the demand and it is hoped the use of computers will boost e-learning. This will enable more students to pursue degrees through online learning, which is offered on a small scale by several Kenyan universities.

In July this year, the University of Nairobi launched several degree programmes offered by its college of education and external studies through distance and e-learning modes, as the institution waits to go full throttle on the project.

Vice-chancellor Professor George Magoha said online open and distance learning was emerging as the next frontier for delivery of educational services across East Africa.

Considerable distance learning has also been happening at Kenyatta University for the past 15 years, with the institution offering several undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in education.

Amid efforts to revamp distance learning, three years ago Kenyatta rebranded its Institute of Open Learning to become the Institute of Open, Distance and e-Learning.

The government is set to launch the Open University of Kenya, which it hopes will help ease a backlog of at least 40,000 would-be students who have been unable to secure a university place.

The new institution will enable students to follow lectures online from remote areas, interact with lecturers, submit assignments and check grades. Lecturers will be able to upload course materials online, post assignments and generate discussions via blogs.

This model is rare in the East African region. The Open University of Tanzania, which is currently the only stand-alone distance learning university in the region, was established in 1992 and offers undergraduate and postgraduate studies in a wide range of disciplines.