Francis Maina Kiroro
Following the eruption of the COVID–19 pandemic in December 2019, various containment measures have been devised by different countries around the world in a bid to halt the spread of the virus. Arguably, the containment measure that has had the greatest impact on education has been the closure of learning institutions. Owing to the abruptness of the changes, the management of many schools had little time to organize the means through which they could enhance the continuity of learning. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) by April 30, 2020, about 1.3 billion learners, accounting for approximately 73.8% of learners from 186 countries, had been affected globally. In Kenya, this affected over 17 million enrolled learners as reported by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) in the Economic Survey Report of 2020. As a result, a variety of methods for continuity of learning were identified and rolled out by schools, government agencies, non-governmental organizations and educationists. Some of these methods include online learning (through internet enabled devices), television or radio programs. The KNBS report shows that ownership of mobile phones in Kenya was by 47.3% of individuals in 2019 while television and radio ownership was by 40.7% and 56.9% individuals respectively.
There is a large amount of educational content available on the internet, accessible through certain websites or software applications. For this reason, online learning is one of the options adopted by learners and school administrations during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The learning material, which includes psychosocial support and academic content, is available on either payable or free sources. With more learners at home, there has been increased utilization of online learning platforms and education technology (EdTech) investment globally.
However, stable electricity and internet connections are necessary for consistent access to the online platforms. According to the KNBS 2019 Population and Housing Census, access to electricity and solar power was by 50.4% and 19.3% of Kenyan households respectively, depicting a need for filling the gap by the government and other stakeholders. Global System for Mobile Communications Association (GSMA) indicates that sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) had the lowest access rate to internet connectivity at 24% in 2018, smart phone penetration in Kenya in 2017 was 27.0%. Disparities in internet connectivity within the country arise because of poor internet coverage in certain areas and poverty levels among households. Due to these disparities, access to online content is a challenge to those who may not have internet enabled devices. The cost of internet may hinder some who have a smartphone but are unable to raise money for internet bundles due to limited financial resources, especially during the pandemic. Anecdotal evidence show that some trainers have experienced scenarios where they shared tasks/assignments which may not have been accessed by all the intended recipients. This presents the nations with a need to expand the internet infrastructure and make both internet and digital devices more affordable to increase access to online learning platforms.
Some learning institutions such as the United States International University (USIU) have made arrangements with certain Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to provide internet bundles at subsidized rates to their students and lecturers to enhance convenience of online learning.
Majority of learners and teachers using online modes especially from the SSA are newly exposed to the various online platforms. This has necessitated quick adaptation to the new normal. One challenge however, is the danger of scavengers on the online space who attack unsuspecting individuals who find it easy to penetrate unprotected online devices popularly known as cyber-attacks. According to CISCO, a cyber-attack refer to a malicious or deliberate attempt of an individual or an organization to breach the information system of another individual or an organization. There are certain ways through which cyber-attackers prey on online device users; this could be through exposure to malicious software (such as viruses and worms), through disguised links, email or social media messages that trick an individual to provide sensitive details that may lead to attacks (phishing). Other type of threats could be targeted at institution’s networks/servers.
It is important for learners, trainers and parents to be cognizant of these type of cyber threats and how to mitigate their occurrence. Some options include; 1) proper sensitization about their existence; 2) setting up of strong and unique passwords in accessing devices and changing them regularly; 3) installing of appropriate anti-virus software and firewalls protection, and ensure that they are regularly updated; 4) Ensure backing up of important documents regularly, and; 5) use of parental controls to filter the search content on internet enabled devices (this may help block inappropriate sites such pornographic sites).
Internet is like a jungle with variety of wild fruits some of which may be poisonous. It is imperative that learners develop discipline during online learning. Distraction such as videos, social media and gaming addictions may lead to valuable time lost meant for learning. Therefore, adapting similar timetables like what is used in a physical class and having breaks from online screen time for physical exercises may improve the learning culture. Government agencies that deal with curricula development may review contents available in newly developed EdTech tools to ensure they contain appropriate content., In Kenya, we have had instances where some books were recalled after concerns were raised by parents regarding inappropriate content in books already in use. The agencies could also introduce content on best practices for online learning targeted at teachers, learners and parents to help users navigate the space. Finally, as learners observe hand hygiene precautions and social distancing, learning devices used during outdoors should be regularly disinfected to curb contamination during online learning.
***This article was originally published in the Daily Nation.