The big Laptops Debate

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After the gruelling election campaign period that came to an end on March 4, 2013, we now have a new government in place. The Jubilee government led by His Excellency President Uhuru Kenyatta made several promises during the launch of their manifesto in 2012 and throughout the campaign period. Kenyans now wait with baited breath to see if the new government will make good of their promises. One of the many promises made was a pledge to provide free laptops for class one pupils in Kenyan public primary schools. As a gesture of the government’s commitment to their pledge, recently the national treasury cabinet secretary, Henry Rotich, read a budget where the free laptops project was allocated Ksh 53.2 billion for over a million pupils expected to join standard one in 2014.

On reading the budget, Rotich said that the money allocated to free laptops would be used to develop digital content and build capacity for teachers to cascade information and communication technology in schools, as well as cater for construction of computer laboratories. By having funds allocated for this project, the Jubilee government seems keen on seeing this promise implemented.

However, there has been mixed reactions from various sectors of the public regarding this project. Several analysts, as well as people drawn from various circles, have questioned the validity of the laptop project wondering if it is a priority for now. Many points of view have also been reported by several sections of the media. The Social media has also been abuzz with the never-ending debate on the free laptops. The president has however remained emphatic that the solar-driven laptops will be provided from January 2014.

In most developed countries, children from a young age are taught computer classes in school. And closer home, most private schools in Kenya now offer computer classes from the age of five years. The benefits of studying computer at a young age is that one gets exposure to technology early enough which can mould one to great achievements in life.

A section of people that Parents interviewed on the streets applaud the Jubilee government on the free laptops terming the move as very timely, while some are of the opinion that the government is being too ambitious to undertake this project given the current economic status of the country in addition to problems of Internet access and unskilled teachers, among other issues.

“I am very happy with the new developments because our children will grow up with knowledge on technology. I recall my first computer class being at the university. Had I been exposed to computers a little earlier, I believe I would be far ahead in my career,” says Peter Mwangi who graduated from university in 2002.

Mwangi believes that early exposure to technology will inspire future innovation and be a catalyst for growth and prosperity in Kenya. Although Mwangi’s children are in private schools where they are taught computer, he believes that it will be wise for children in public schools to be at par with those in private schools who have computer lessons as part of their school curriculum. “I wish everyone would see this project as a plus for this country and our children,” he says.

However, not everyone agrees with Mwangi’s opinion. Some people think that laptops are not a priority as there are more pressing needs that should be sorted out first.

“I know the president means well but if a child has no food, school uniform and shelter or school books, how will they appreciate a laptop? Some of the pupils would appreciate a feeding programme more than a free laptop. For instance, children from pastoralist families who are always on the move will find a laptop a burden for them. Furthermore, the most appealing initiative to get them to school is to provide free feeding programmes. If the government provides food to such areas, then most children will enrol in school and this will help fight the high rate of illiteracy,” argues a parent who spoke to us but didn’t want his name disclosed. Jecinta Awiti, a businesswoman and mother who spoke on phone from Lanet in Nakuru County says that there are better priorities for the government to tackle before introducing the free laptops. “How do you give free laptops in public schools and many of them do not even have basic needs such as proper classrooms, sanitation and learning materials such as books and enough teachers. I believe that providing the basic needs will ensure that learning remains  uninterrupted,” says the mother of three children aged 12, 10 and five. Jecinta’s last born will be joining standard one next year and she wishes the money for the laptop would be used to renovate the dilapidated classrooms in the public school her children attend.

A teacher in a public primary school in Nairobi, who did not want her identity revealed, says that she believes that the promise of the free solar-powered laptop is viable.

“Technological empowerment is the key to the future but there is need to have more teachers trained on how to prepare the pupils on the use and maintenance of laptops. The government should also look at the issue of the teachers’ remuneration. I think if the teachers’ desire for better salaries is met, they will be the greatest ambassadors of the free laptop for every child project. It was disappointing that the budget that was read recently did not address the teachers’ remuneration at all. I am however optimistic, that the government will rethink their decisions about our pay increase,” she says.

While the debate rages on, most children who will be beneficiaries of the project cannot wait to have them. “Too bad, I will be in standard four next year. I wish the laptops were for all primary school pupils. My father has a laptop, which he never allows us to touch so this would have been a good opportunity to own mine which I would also not allow him to use,” says a pupil who goes to Kasarani Primary School.

He is however happy that his younger sister will be joining standard one next year and he hopes to get tech savvy using her laptop. A teacher in a city school expresses her fears that the laptops maybe a security threat to the young standard one children, who maybe harassed by the older pupils in their schools. “Let us see how it unfolds. For now, there are still many reservations but time will tell. I think it is a good thing all the same,” said the teacher.

According to reports submitted by the education cabinet secretary, about 10 percent of primary schools in Kenya have electricity connection and about 40 percent are near a main electricity connection. For the pilot laptop project, the ministry has selected one in every three schools that have electricity to kick-start the project.

In his submission, the cabinet secretary reported that more than 6000 schools will be the first beneficiaries of the project and in subsequent years the rest of the schools will benefit.

Plans are also underway to train at least two teachers per school in the first implementation phase, which, if all goes according to plan, will happen during the August and December 2013 school holidays. For schools that are far from any electricity connection, solar powered laptops will be installed to ensure continuity of the project.

While most people interviewed agree that exposing younger children to technology may help them embrace technology with ease and be more innovative, the concerns that most people have may need to be addressed even as the laptop project kicks off. The government should also address the fears that the implementation of the project may provide an opportunity for mismanagement and embezzlement of taxpayers’ money.

While giving his comments on the project a few months ago, the former information and communications permanent secretary, Dr. Bitange Ndemo, said that the one laptop per child will end up creating employment for inventive Kenyans who can make interesting educational digital content. As the laptop project sets in motion, there is need to ensure that the computers do not expose the children to immorality through unlimited access to the Internet.

The government must devise ways to ensure that this does not happen. While at it, of benefit also is for the government to set some funds to build more classrooms or renovate the existing ones, hire and train more teachers so that the ratio between pupils and teachers will reduce.

Another thing is to ensure that the teachers are well remunerated and that the curriculum for schools reflects the needs in the society. As Kenyans wait to see how this free laptop projects unfolds, we can only wish that it will achieve its intended purpose.

 

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