What you need to know:
- The middle-class view of the country is, surprisingly, limited and blurred. The level of poverty is not in focus. It is assumed that a student has one role — that of student.
- Online learning as an after-thought is a bad proposition for students — who did not elect it before the coronavirus crisis anyway.
When President Uhuru Kenyatta ordered the closure of all education institutions, he was promoting a public health measure of social distancing to slow down the Covid-19 contagion.
However, that threw public universities off-balance as they have always lived hand-to-mouth like petty traders: students pay fees, which they use to pay bills.
Without students on campus, management teams wear sweaty faces. They are hard up; they can’t even pay salaries!
Now academic staff are being ordered to teach online. Not that the managers are trying their hand at adaptive management; it’s a bid to have students continue paying fees.
With the fear of the ridiculous picture of public universities grinding to a halt, they must remain ‘open’.
This attempt at shifting regular classes online in the middle of a pandemic throws up at least two sticking points.
First, public universities do not routinely supply lecturers with the requisite tools to deliver online lectures at short notice.
Secondly, there is no staff residence with free internet connection. Lecturers have to subsidise universities to teach online from home.
And they must recalibrate their teaching material to fit into the new medium of delivery — an easy but time-consuming venture.
In any event, the universities could even set up spaces on campuses for online lectures and still observe safety guidelines. But can they?
But the elephant in the room is the profile of students. They are located in every part of the country and dot all socioeconomic contours.
Though some can transition to online classes at will, the majority are like most Kenyans; they have no access to internet, free or not, or the tech gadgets.
How can public universities, then, proceed with online classes as if their students were homogenously Muthaiga-like?
They are set up for public good, and that must radiate to every bona fide student like God’s sunlight, leaving no one behind.
The middle-class view of the country is, surprisingly, limited and blurred. The level of poverty is not in focus. It is assumed that a student has one role — that of student.
But many of them have multiple roles and, amid the pandemic, that of student is not in focus. Hence, our view of online education is urban middle-class hypothesis.
University managers should pinch their ears and remind themselves that theirs are public institutions.
Covid-19 has fundamentally disrupted livelihoods, especially in the informal sector and rural areas. The affected parents and students no longer remember universities; they are busy improvising livelihood trajectories for their survival.
And if online classes are rushed, students will scramble to join them. We know enough to predict their behaviour. They will throng makeshift cybercafes.
Greedy business people will cash in. Social distancing will be defeated and, soon, public universities will become the major distributors of the coronavirus.
At the end of it, public universities, some of them world class, will look like enclaves of ignorance!
Universities must balance between the public good and their bottom line — and the scales are tipped in favour of the former.
Online learning as an after-thought is a bad proposition for students — who did not elect it before the coronavirus crisis anyway.
Prof Ontita, associate professor of development sociology at the University of Nairobi, is an international social safeguards consultant. [email protected]