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Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Virtual learning: challenge technical institutions face

 “I felt really bad when I heard we had to go home because I was used to the school’s programme, we had all fit in. I had made friends.” Stephanie Achieng, 20 years, recalls.
Achieng’ had just commenced her learning a few weeks earlier with the codeHive programme, at the beginning of February 2020, at AkiraChix. AkiraChix is a non-profit organisation offering market-relevant technology, entrepreneurship and life skills to young women between 18 and 24 years from challenged socio-economic backgrounds.
Like most institutions across the country, AkiraChix had to close its doors on 16 March 2020 when the government declared the closure of all learning institutions across the country to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. The one-year fully funded programme the institution runs offers full boarding facilities to 50 young women each year. This year they have girls from across 25 counties. But for most of them, learning ground to a halt, as soon as it began.
“We needed to come up with a solution to ensure all our girls continue to learn, most come from homes with either limited electricity or none at all. We opted to give WhatsApp a shot. We called it codeHive Lite.” Linda Kamau, Managing Director and Co-founder, AkiraChix, pointed out.
According to the 2019 Global Mobile Consumer Survey: Kenyan Cut, published by Deloitte, instant messaging applications have almost doubled in just three years, from 43 per cent in 2015 to 74 per cent in 2018.
Based on this, WhatsApp would be an ideal learning option. But how do you teach software engineering or other technical subjects using a messaging application with 50 students?
“We developed 11 WhatsApp groups, one group for the girls to socialise and one WhatsApp group for each of the 10 courses we teach. Each instructor develops their class operating procedures to teach the class. And we send weekly internet bundles for their phones.” Kamau explains.
The three-hour classes are split into an initial hour where the instructor shares notes or photo images of their PowerPoint presentation (which is lighter on the application than pdfs for download) for students to review.
The second-hour students discuss work on the learned material. In the final hour students can seek clarifications, submit their classwork and may receive a take-home assignment.
Purity Maina, a Software Engineer by profession and an instructor at AkiraChix admits it wasn’t easy when the classes resumed at the end of March, two weeks after closure.
“When you have 50 students all typing their responses and asking questions at the same time, it is hard to keep track of and it can be overwhelming. I had to learn how to segment discussions in the class and also learn the students, their personalities and learning styles.” Maina explains.
Maina starts her Software Engineering class with voice notes to break the monotony.
“I prefer voice notes at the beginning of the class to give a quick brief on the class format and let the girls know what to expect of the class. In the middle of the class, I also tag girls by name who aren’t communicating in the group; it keeps them alert.”
Maina encourages her students to use the ‘hand raise’ emoticon if they have a question as they also type their responses.
She’s also conducted continuous assessments using WhatsApp. She credits her adaptation to learning from the weekly virtual instructor meetings the institution holds, where instructors share their best practices.For some students, learning virtually is making a difference, “I noticed I got to improve on my participation and I was no longer scared of asking questions and sharing my ideas,” Achieng’ says.
During the three-week break in early April, the school organised webinars to prepare staff and students on the new virtual learning system in preparation for school opening in the last week of April.
“Majority of the students didn’t attend them so students had to be coached on logging into Microsoft Teams when schools opened. It was a culture shock for students.
‘‘They just needed a bit more urgency to learn, now they have,” Brian Omolo, Graphic Design Instructor, ADMI, explains.
For many businesses and institution, the web teleconferencing software, Zoom, had been an ideal option, but due to growing revelations of security and data breaches in its use, many institutions have shied away.
For ADMI, Microsoft Teams offers more than just security, its entire suite allows instructors to keep track of their students through surveys, making it easier for the administration to also keep track of student performance. But even with this system, the institution is still struggling.
When ADMI announced the second semester of the learning in the year would be virtual, some students didn’t seem to take it seriously and failed to register for courses - there was a drop of 200 students from the previous semester.
With the depressed economy, with more salary cuts and job loss, many parents cannot afford student tuition fees. Patrick Ojil, Head of Business Development and the Corporate Academy, ADMI, says many students and parents have requested discounts and payment plans which also affects the institution’s revenue streams by up to 50 per cent.
“This affects the salaries of staff and instructors at the institution,” Ojil adds. There are also rising operational costs, paying for software such as Microsoft Teams, design, video and sound production software for students and purchasing internet bundles for 300 students to learn virtually.
But that isn’t the only challenge, even after the institution provided students with SIM cards packed with 10 gigabytes of bundles for classwork, some students are still are not attending class.
“People aren’t in class, and you have no control of that. It goes back to the student to use their initiative and exercise discipline because it impacts them,” Ojil, states.
 Stephanie Wangui, a student at ADMI, points out just how difficult it is for her to concentrate at home.
“It takes a lot of discipline – the laptop has movies, WhatsApp and games, so it takes a lot to fight distractions. During (Microsoft) Teams they record the classes, if you miss it you can view what was learnt in a class, so at times the need to be in class is difficult.”
The challenge for students isn’t just concentration, some students don’t have the equipment to learn. For Omolo, running a design class with students with no laptops is an extremely difficult challenge.
“Design is practical by nature, you need to practice what is taught. If you can’t practice you don’t learn anything,” He points out.
ADMI provided an innovative solution to students with this challenge: equipment financing.
The students were provided with a list of vetted suppliers they can purchase a laptop and software from, on a higher purchase model over the two years of their diploma course.
But even as institutions innovate to ensure learning continues, environmental factors are taking a toll on the learners. After the initial month of learning, the AkiraChix administration noticed some girls were lagging in the WhatsApp courses. They surveyed their 50 students and realised many of them were struggling at home.
“Some of the girls were struggling to get a meal a day because their parents were barely making any money. Others were now being compelled to do house chores, go to the farm in the morning, others had to take care of younger siblings, or faced physical and emotional abuse, affecting learning,” Kamau explains.
AkiraChix then sent Sh3,000 to each girl’s family to shop for food. But even with these short-term solutions and innovations as seen in institutions such as ADMI and AkiraChix, there is a limitation to virtual learning for courses such as film and sound production or hardware development respectively.
These courses are very hands-on and require much more direct engagement in the learning process in a physical space with additional equipment. And for young women susceptible to sexual assault and physical and emotional abuse, learning away from home seems like a safer option for them.
According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), as of June 9 2020, learning of 562,521 Kenyans in tertiary institutions has been affected due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
As the Ministry of Education task force explores ways to safely re-open schools for learning with a key focus on basic education in primary and secondary schools, the government and institutions need to explore the future of technical learning with new and practical innovations, in tertiary institutions, which can be bridged virtually.

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