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As Colleges Open, Online Schooling Could Disappoint

Abstract:

Kenyan educators mastered distance learning in the past decade, but they were still relying on traditional physical school attendance. They also mastered the technical part of education: the use of computer hardware and software, which brought hope that the future would be bright once issues of fiber optic connectivity were sorted out. But parents didn’t increase their income. Most parents have no money to buy computers and laptops for their children

When I held a remote meeting with my students at a Brooklyn campus of the City University of New York this past week, I was hoping to assure them that their education would be comprised without in-person instruction. It was our first class on the history of art and architecture for this semester, and I told them a story from last spring when my former students ended up being more engaged on Zoom. Those students enjoyed their Zoom presentations in May more than they had in-person classes in early February.

The difference between then and now is that our spring education experiment was forced on us by the outbreak of the novel Coronavirus, or Covid19. Months down the road, online schooling is now the new normal. As a report in Quartz reported recently, “2020 will be remembered as the year that online education became an essential part of the college experience.”

It is true that we have now had time to prepare and improve pedagogical methods. Colleges and universities have spent months training faculty, streamlining communications with students, and fostering a sense of community online. However, they are facing fresh challenges. For starters, student expectations have increased, so we are not going to get away with mediocrity both in terms of technology as well as content. Students complain that professors expect them to watch lectures without fail, yet they can barely ask questions or get them addressed; their computers keep crashing, and connectivity problems persist. Both professors and student also complain about distractions to that schooling at home. While I expect to have productive classes in the months ahead, I cannot say the same thing about my Kenyan counterparts. Kenya led what can only be called a revolution in education in the last 20 years, becoming one of the few countries where universities could open and operate college campuses across the nation regardless of where they based their main administrative offices.

The fact that Nairobi, Kenyatta, Moi and Maseno Universities could have branches in every city and town in the republic was remarkable. It improved access to education by allowing most students to be admitted to campuses close to them—students who in prior years would have had to go aboard to further their studies. This means reals savings to families who can ill afford a foreign education; savings that run into millions of shillings.

However, as the new semester starts in earnest over the next several days, the tables have been turned, and more than anywhere, this semester promises to be tougher for Kenyan students and teachers. That’s because unlike before, education is scaling the boundaries of brick-and-mortar buildings that have been part of our education system for decades. We no longer need a building to have a school; all we need is a smartphone.

New forms of education have developed. In the United States, some universities pivoted to a hybrid model, where students attend classes both online and in-person; others have adapted programs where students will never step a foot onto campus. During these past summer months, colleges and universities spent hundreds of millions of dollars buying laptops for their students in need and training their faculty on best practices in online education.

These changes could be permanent. Public universities are now buying for-profit colleges that their professors criticize, which reflects the growing interest from traditional universities to scale up online programs fast in an increasingly competitive online education market.

It remains unknown how successful this semester will be. In Kenya, high schools won’t reopen until January 2021, and the Ministry of Education is struggling with a decision on whether or not to allow colleges and universities to reopen in September. In the U.S., the Chronicle of Higher Education reported recently that 80 of the 1,000 colleges and universities had decided to go fully online, as of late June. That has more than doubled in recent weeks after several colleges and universities reported outbreaks of Covid19 cases linked to student parties, although the actual numbers are unknown.

A New York Times survey showed at least 26,000 cases and 64 deaths at U.S. institutions of higher education since the pandemic began early this year. Since July, more than 20,000 cases of Covid19 have been reported, and in the past two weeks, several major universities in Alabama, North Carolina, Texas and Michigan have reported spikes in cases upon resumption of in-person instruction.

It’s interesting that Kenyan educators mastered distance learning in the past decade, but they were still relying on traditional physical school attendance. They also mastered the technical part of education: the use of computer hardware and software, which brought hope that the future would be bright once issues of fiber optic connectivity were sorted out. But parents didn’t increase their income. Most parents have no money to buy computers and laptops for their children, and the situation has been made worse by the impact of Covid19 on the economy. In fact, some parents can’t even afford smartphones. Most Kenyan families are too poor to afford even food and books, let alone education technology tools.

My classes this semester are asynchronous, which is instruction learning that that does not occur in the same place at the same time. Besides Zoom, we are going to use videos, e-books, podcasts, and 3-dimentional representations to learn about different societies—their cultures, philosophies and systems through art and architecture. We know getting students to show up and stay in class is going to be hard, but technology can help bridge the distance between the students and their professors. I know this from my experience. I only wish that my nephews and nieces in Kenyan colleges and universities would have the same benefit.

Comments (4)
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Jean Corvin
22 Aqust 2020

It is a long established fact that a reader will be distracted by the readable content of a page when looking at its layout.

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Eduardo Dutra
25 Aqust 2020

It is a long established fact that a reader will be distracted by the readable content of a page when looking at its layout.

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George Patrick
Aqust 15 2019

It is a long established fact that a reader will be distracted by the readable content of a page when looking at its layout.

Reply
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