What you need to know:
- All Strathmore University students are provided with laptops at admission in the first year
- Dr Ogutu says the university approached Safaricom and negotiated for data bundles.
In mid-July, Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha singled out Strathmore University as one of the few institutions that had complied with the health safety measures and was ready for reopening for face-to-face teaching in September.
Then, the government’s target was to have universities and other tertiary institutions resume face-to-face studies in September. And that was before the coronavirus infections started to soar.
But when the infections started to rise fast, the government changed tack. It directed all universities and colleges to postpone onsite teaching and learning to January next year. So Strathmore, like the rest, obliged.
But Prof Magoha’s recognition of Strathmore’s effort was a confirmation of the institution’s inventive spirit that has earned it pride of place in higher education in the country and the region.
What made Strathmore get it right on Covid-19 preparedness was research, strategic planning and action, says the vice-chancellor designate Vincent Ogutu.
Early in the year, when signals were getting ominous as coronavirus ravaged China and Europe and with predictions it may cross the borders and reach our shores, Strathmore got its research and innovation centre – iLabAfrica – to conduct research and do simulations for possible scenario for Kenya and specifically education sector with special focus on the university sector.
Taking cognisance of the devastations in China and Europe, the research team got down to work and came up with various scenarios. The university picked on the worst case scenario, total lockdown of Kenya and complete cessation of teaching and learning. That informed the emergency response.
So the university got down to work on survival options. Remote teaching and learning through online platforms became the default solution. It set up an emergency response team to start planning for execution of remote teaching and learning programmes.
First was to review its technology infrastructure to determine capability to support expanded and university-wide remote learning. Some gaps were noted and the university had to quickly deal with those. Second was training of faculty on virtual teaching and particularly, how to prepare for lessons, how to deliver content and engage learners.
“We had to make a distinction that online teaching requires different methodologies not applicable in face-to-face teaching and ensure the lecturers were fully appraised and ready for the new direction we were taking,” says Dr Ogutu in an interview with Higher Education magazine.
In addition, the university sought to address learners’ needs. For Strathmore, the question of laptop or smartphones did not arise. All students are provided with laptops at admission in the first year. It is a basic learning gadget, so every student is equipped with one.
But that is not to discount the other critical elements, namely, Internet and power connectivity, given the diverse location of learners. Internet connectivity remains a major challenge across the board. Electricity is not available everywhere. Indeed, a report by the Kenya National Bureau of Survey last month on remote learning in schools identified those among the obstacles that have pulled back online programmes.
Dr Ogutu says the university approached Safaricom and negotiated for data bundles. For good measure, they agreed on specific bundles that would be dedicated fully to academic programmes; costing Sh500 a month.
With everything in place, piloting was done that enabled the university to determine any gap in the chain. When all worked, remote learning was launched in April. Since, then it has been all systems go. The first set of exams have just been concluded.
Administering the exams was not easy though. Different modes were tried, ranging from open book to browser lockdowns to forestall cheating. On their part, learners had to contend with unstable power and Internet connectivity and skills deficiencies such as slow typing speed.
“It was a steep learning curve but we pulled it through quite successfully,” notes Dr Ogutu. “We are not done yet, we are now filling the gaps and fixing the cracks that emerge in the system as we get along.”
A critical question that has emerged, though, is why the university has not lowered fees yet learners operate offsite. Dr Ogutu says the university has discussed that with parents and explained that inasmuch as the students are not on campus, remote learning has come with unanticipated costs, such as expansion of Internet bandwidth, obtaining various licences applications and carrying out constant research for process improvement. Recurrent costs such paying salaries and keeping utilities remain.
At the general level, Covid-19 has had a negative impact on private universities. Most of them had to defer admissions and that translated to loss of incomes.
The universities rely solely on fees and without that, they run into financial headwinds. But matters have been made worse by the resultant economic depression that has led to jobs losses and severe loss of incomes. Many parents who were able to pay fees for their children have been hard hit and rendered desolate to meet those obligations.
Ordinarily, Strathmore puts some 1,700 students on scholarships, the number of applicants has just soared. Donors who supported the scholarships are also affected with the depression. Consultancies that brought some incomes have dwindled.
Onto this, Covid-19 has had negative social and psychological impact on learners, parents and even lecturers in universities. Taking cognisance of this, Strathmore has made good use of its well-established mentorship programme to support the learners.
As Dr Ogutu notes, the initial days when the country went through a near-lockdown, learners were confined to their homes and some saw their parents losing jobs and creating uncertainties at the family level.
It became critical for the university mentors, counsellors and chaplains to reach to the learners to talk to them and cheer them up. Moreover, the university organised webinars for parents also to provide moral and psychological support.