e-Learning in public universities – The only way is forwards

The fact that most of our Kenyan public universities seem to have been caught unawares by the COVID-19 pandemic can be forgiven. What cannot be forgiven is their inability to quickly adapt . After all, it is in universities where people study complex doctrines of agile risk management and change strategies.

When the government of Kenya ordered all schools and universities to close by 20 March as part of disease containment measures, a majority of local private universities quickly moved to implement e-learning initiatives for students. In fact some, like KCA University, a private non-profit institution, were, at the time of writing, administering their end-of-semester examinations online to ensure students complete their studies on time.

KCA University trained their staff and students, and also entered into the ‘Soma na Telkom’ bundles partnership with Telkom Kenya to ensure their staff and students receive cheaper data bundles specifically for e-learning.

Strathmore University moved their classes online and went ahead to produce user manuals for lecturers and students to ensure online teaching continues effectively. Mount Kenya University did the same. United States International University–Africa moved to partner with Safaricom through the ‘Remote Learning Mobile Data Bundle Subsidy’ package to ensure staff and students receive subsidised data bundles to carry on with e-learning.

True to their missions

Some public universities have also done well and deserve commendation for directly helping to fight the pandemic. Dedan Kimathi University of Technology and South Eastern Kenya University were quick to produce much-needed hand sanitisers and face masks. Kenyatta University produced a prototype ventilator that could be affordably mass produced.

The University of Nairobi is undertaking joint vaccine research with other partners. Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology has developed a variety of COVID-19 fighting tools including a portable solar-powered ventilator, a contact tracing mobile application and an automatic solar-powered hand-washing machine. These universities are being true to their visions and missions and doing exactly what society expects them to do.

On the e-learning front, some public universities are doing fairly well. A number of them already had active online and distance learning departments and are not necessarily starting from scratch during the pandemic. Many had already invested in e-library resources where they subscribe to various e-books and e-journals that are especially useful to their postgraduate students. Dedan Kimathi University of Technology went a step further and held a successful virtual graduation on 8 May that was livestreamed on YouTube and other social media platforms.

The end of an era

When all these bits are tied together, they prove that public universities in Kenya have the capacity to admit, teach, examine and graduate their students online. These are good pointers, but we should be concerned about some public universities that do not have any form of e-learning system in place. For these universities it is now a race against time as the era of dinosaur teaching methodologies comes to a rapid end.

The change will be quite painful for some. Let us go back a few years to between 2013 and 2017 when public universities in Kenya became noticeable property owners. They went full throttle into buying real estate to the point of distorting property prices in areas in which they were operating.

It remains to be seen what the long-term impact of COVID-19 will be, especially with its demand for social distancing. Going forward the learning environment may never be the same again. What will happen to these universities that borrowed heavily to purchase or construct massive physical infrastructure that they may now no longer require?

Students may not congregate in classrooms and libraries in the near future but learning must continue. Will the universities be able to again amass funds to invest in e-learning? This is the elephant in the room considering that state funding for public universities in Kenya has been on the decline as government expects the universities to generate their revenues internally.

Consider the case highlighted in the Daily Nation on 9 May: Egerton University is under pressure from university staff unions to pay its staff members’ salaries for April 2020. The university’s management blames reduced government capitation and lack of internal revenue generated from tuition fees for their inability to pay salaries. It has written to the government through the Ministry of Education to bail it out.

This is not an isolated case. Other public universities may soon find themselves taking the same dangerous path in the coming months, considering that a number of public universities in Kenya have been in the red for a while, as reported in University World News in April 2019 and noted in the Auditor General’s Report of 2015.

Outdated academic policies

In the current digitisation race, public universities now also have a non-financial challenge to deal with: outdated academic policies. They will need to review their statutes and academic procedure manuals to align with the new normal. Whereas such procedures required physical evidence and face-to-face meetings, they now need to be expanded to accommodate digital evidence and virtual meetings. The senates of these universities have their policy work cut out.

Even as universities make adjustments to their modus operandi, students also have key steps to take in the e-learning journey. First, they need to calibrate their mindsets and self-motivate. E-learning accords learners some degree of freedom compared to the old-fashioned brick and mortar classroom teaching. A student who is not self-disciplined will easily lag behind as learning becomes more individualised. Learners will need to learn new routines suitable for the new learning environment.

Parents and guardians also have a part to play if innovation in learning is to hold a place in our public universities. They need to appreciate that learning gadgets are no longer entertainment or luxuries they buy their children if and when they have extra coins. They need to appreciate that going forward an internet-connected smartphone and laptop will be as critical to learning as pen and paper were before COVID-19 struck.

They have to make the worthy sacrifice to acquire these learning tools for their beloved learners. This demand may be controversial when you bring on board people’s different economic realities. A significant number of students come from very humble backgrounds.

Parents and guardians should be mentally prepared to see their children spend more of their time gazing at screens. It will not necessarily mean the children are wasting their time; they may actually be generating new and useful knowledge.

ICT infrastructure investment

The government of Kenya, through the relevant ministries and departments, also needs to invest more in ICT infrastructure to facilitate e-learning, particularly in rural areas.

Cabinet Secretary for Education Professor George Magoha, who is a former vice-chancellor of the University of Nairobi, recently came under pressure for suggesting that online learning was going well in the wake of school closures due to COVID-19. Leaders from North Eastern Kenya strongly disputed this assertion, saying online learning in the area was a fallacy as the area lacks basic infrastructure.

The government, as the sponsor of public universities, needs to upgrade the ICT infrastructure in these institutions, especially among those recently chartered and university constituent colleges. It is commendable that some steps have been taken to this end. For example, the Kenya Education Network, which is a government initiative, has provided an online learning platform for use by public universities.

There is no doubt that the future of education is in e-learning and public universities must adapt accordingly. There will be teething problems along the way but going back or giving up are not options. We must push forward one step at a time.

Dr Kevin Wachira is a lecturer in entrepreneurship and innovation at South Eastern Kenya University – Kitui. He can be reached at; Dr Robert Ombati is a lecturer and head of the economics department at South Eastern Kenya University – Kitui. He can be reached at