What you need to know:
- If the students are not disciplined, classroom control will be difficult.
- Of course the Kenyan professors won’t experience one problem I had teaching Americans remotely.
Covid-19 has changed the way we teach, presenting us with lots of challenges and a few opportunities in higher education along the way.
I had conducted job interviews for my employer remotely to save costs at the initial screening stages in the hiring process.
And in 2018, partly attracted by the prospects of seeing Larry Madowo on campus, I had successfully been interviewed remotely for a job to teach Sheng and such stuff at an elite University in Manhattan, New York.
But it is in the wake of Covid-19 in the US around March that I for the first time taught remotely—not meeting my students in person, just seeing them on my laptop screen. Or, rather, just seeing their faces—sometimes just their avatars.
If the challenges I went through teaching remotely are anything to go by, I can’t begin to imagine what awaits my Kenyan colleagues as universities in the country roll out remote-teaching programmes.
Unlike in Kenya, internet penetration in the US is fairly good (90 per cent to Kenya’s 28 per cent). Kenyan students will have to rely on telco internet bundles, and I’m not sure if learners can afford them.
Thanks to political leaders blinded by ethnic chauvinism and the greed to grab any piece of land they can lay their hands on, the country has suffered unequal development since independence from Britain in the 1960s. Students in some parts of Kenya (e.g., Turkana and Northeastern frontier) don’t have access to basic infrastructure for remote learning.
I’m lucky because even by US standards, my school is a private institution that attracts some of the best students. The students also tend to come from affluent backgrounds—not your ordinary Wanjiku, Nafula, Kamau na Njeri, Juma na Maria.
The fees is to the tune of Sh5 million a year. Indeed, the Kenyans who have afforded to study there include one of President Jomo Kenyatta’s daughters and a son of the departed Embu heavyweight and cabinet minister Jeremiah Nyaga.
Their Chicago friends and former classmates usually ask me to send their warm regards to my fellow Kenyans back home.
“Absolutely!” I reassure them. In all seriousness, though, I’ll pass the greetings to these Kenyan figures when I bump into them while running my errands in Gikomba, Kawangware, and River Road.
Considering the socio-economic class of my students, they come from homes with resources for remote learning, including multiple computers and TV screens, while their Kenyan counterparts will rely on phones and data sold by telco companies as “fast internet” but sometimes take 10 minutes to open an email, if at all.
SHAKY INTERNET CONNECTION
Yet I had many cases where a student had a shaky internet connection, experienced computer snafus, or had to share equipment at home with a sibling in a different school.
For some reason, unlike face-to-face person teaching, remote teaching is so draining—maybe because of staring at the screen for long stretches of time.
A remote lesson also requires more time to prepare, which would be an uphill task for professors in Kenyan public universities, who have to teach many classes.
Because remote teaching fatigues the students easily, if I were to repeat my class, I’d have two-minute breaks every 20 minutes, in which I ask the students to move away from the screen and if possible look at something else 20 feet away before they come back to the screen.
In Kenyan universities, classes are huge.
When I taught at the University of Nairobi at the cusp of the new millennium, some of my classes had over 300 students, a crowd that sometimes inspired me to try my hand at giving long leftist speeches in the voice of Fidel Castro.
The lecture method of teaching, in which a Kenyan professor reads for hours on end his yellow notes inherited from his academic mentors 50 years ago, does not work in remote classes.
I’d recommend the use of break-out-room features, in which the students discuss an issue in groups even without the presence of the professor.
If the students are not disciplined, classroom control will be difficult. In fact, cheeky students (I didn’t have any) will just sign in with their avatars and continue listening to Wamlambez as you yammer away, interrogating, elaborating, explicating, extrapolating, and such other boring things professors like doing in class.
It would also be useful to meet students individually or in small groups outside class to discuss the challenges they are going through.
Course workload needs to be reduced because students have no access to libraries and other research facilities. But I am not sure if this would be viable in Kenya, given the rigidity of the programmes and the need to cover the syllabus.
Kenyan universities emphasize terminal exams (which make up 70 per cent of the student’s grade) with continuous assessment accounting for only 30 percent. Exams are mandatory and have to be moderated by an external examiner from a different university.
By contrast, in the U.S., I don’t have to give exams at the end of the term. Continuous assessment is encouraged.
It will be impossible to offer remotely the kind of timed terminal exams Kenyan universities are still enamored of.
While I had the wiggle room to make some of the assignments I gave my students optional, given the circumstances they were working under, the examination rules in Kenyan universities are almost cast in stone.
Yet there was some silver lining in spite of the general gloom.
I was able to invite to my class guest speakers from different parts of the world, including the artist Wyban of the Mathare Green Movement, a Mombasa priest I share a name with (Rev Evan Mwangi) who opened the class with a word of prayer, and gay activists I shall not name here lest they be arrested for causing anxiety to your families.
Exploiting the opportunities offered by remote teaching, I have asked a few of my colleagues at the University of Nairobi to allow me to sit in their classes from Chicago and learn from their very brilliant students.
In remote teaching, I somewhat fulfilled my childhood dream as well.
In my adolescence, I wanted to become a radio announcer, inspired by the then Voice of Kenya’s Eddy Fondo and Gaithuma wa Kimumu.
Since you started reading this, Eddy Fondo would still be introducing himself as Mr. R-R-R-R-R...., stretching the ‘r’ in “right” all the way. I’m getting bigger headphones with a long external aerial for my next Zoom classes, to feel more like a radio D.J..
Of course the Kenyan professors won’t experience one problem I had teaching Americans remotely.
I speak my English with a thick Mount-Kenya “akisheniti.” While it is hard for some students to understand me in face-to-face conversations, I suspect I am almost incomprehensible for them remotely because they cannot use body-language cues to connect my voice with what I am trying to say.
My school wants us to offer hybrid classes next term--in which we teach in-person classes wearing masks with some of the students attending class remotely.
Fortunately, I will not only be enjoying my leave of absence in Kawangware, but I am also by disposition a very serious man who has never cracked a joke all my life; if I tried to joke in class wearing a mask (and with this my accent), the laughs would probably come days afterwards.
Prof Evan Mwangi teaches English and Comparative Literary Studies at Northwestern University in Evanston, US. He is also Professor Extraordinaire of English at Stellenbosch University in South Africa and the Quality Control Manager at Signel Communications. email: [email protected]