How Kenyan Universities are Coping with the COVID-19 Pandemic

Kenyan universities, like their counterparts throughout the world, have been adversely affected by the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic that has paralyzed activities, events, and operations from farming, to transport, to education, and to just about everything else in between, in cities and in towns, both large and small, and even in remote villages. While it is true that all sectors of the economy continue to be grossly adversely affected by the pandemic,
and that economic survival in the aftermath will be a grave challenge for most, the space of the university will be an interesting one to watch. This is because universities tend to play a very unique role in economic development, both in boom and in recession. For much of the developed world, for example, universities become the fall-back plan for many of the unemployed during a recession, as they go back to re-equip themselves with what they perceive as paths to new job opportunities.

In this article, however, we wish to look into how Kenyan universities have been affected by the pandemic, and how they have coped and continue to cope with closure of universities following President Kenyatta’s order on Sunday 15th March that universities, colleges, and technical institutions have until Friday 20th to close down. Along with other learning institutions like primary and secondary schools, Kenyan universities had to close down operations and to send both students and lecturers home between Monday 16th and Friday 20th March 2020. All Kenyan universities closed down, with a large majority terming it ‘indefinite closure’ in their communication to their stakeholders. The January-April 2020 semester that started in the second week of January was in its 10th of a 12-week session, and just a few weeks away from the onset of end of semester examinations. With the Coronavirus being the new phenomenon that it is, it was not clear to anyone for how long the university closure would last, thus the
‘indefinite closure’ clause. As more information on the Coronavirus pandemic became available in the media thereafter, however, it became clear that the closure was for the long haul, and that, therefore, there was need to come up with ways to provide teaching and learning support to students from their various locations and vantage points.

Online Classes

What followed within the next one to two weeks were efforts to launch online classes for students, which was done with mixed results. Whereas online classes have offered clear opportunities for students to continue with both their lessons and academic programmes while on ‘lockdown’ at home, it has not presented equal opportunities to students for access compared to the regular face-to-face mode of delivery. This is because not every student has the capacity to uptake online lessons, nor are all lecturers adequately prepared to deliver them. The results were that it took longer than expected to set these online classes up where that was done, and still a large portion of the student population was not effectively reached with the lessons.

Challenges with Online Classes

Among the specific challenges experienced by Kenyan universities in transitioning from a traditional face-to-face classroom teaching and learning to online classes include inadequate information technology (ICT) facilities and equipment on the part of the university; inadequate preparedness on the part of academic staff to carry out effective teaching and learning; additional costs related to data bundles needed by both students and their lecturers to access
online materials; inability of a majority of students to access learning materials online due to lack of the necessary technical skill sets; unavailability of internet access to rural based students due to distance from towns; among other considerations.

Which Universities Have Succeeded

The extent to which a Kenyan university has succeeded in transferring its teaching and learning activities online is directly related to a few factors, including its pre-existing ICT infrastructure before the pandemic hit; the level of technology ‘savvy-ness’ among both its student and staff populations; the general classification of its student population as either urban or rural; both the business and financial acumen of the university; and the pre-existing
level of involvement in the different modes of online learning, among other considerations.

How Effective Are Online Classes

Four weeks on, it can be safely stated that in spite of efforts by many Kenyan universities to move teaching and learning online, a disproportionately large majority of Kenyan university students remain grossly behind in both their semester schedules and academic programmes, largely due to factors already pointed out in this article.

Recommendations for Way Forward

Exclusive online teaching and learning being a relatively new phenomenon, it is a good idea for the Kenya National Government, through the Ministry of Education, State Department of Higher Education, in collaboration with the Commission for Higher Education, to come up with a mechanism or model through which Kenyan universities can be empowered with the knowledge, skills, and other necessary resources to make sure that there is developed a
robust structure to support online teaching and learning among all Kenyan universities. This becomes even more important and more urgent in the context of the apparent impending prolonged ‘indefinite closure’ of Kenyan universities.

2. What Becomes of Kenya University System After The COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen all Kenyan universities close indefinitely over the last four weeks. The closure is appropriately termed indefinite because it is not apparent when the lockdown will come to an end, when universities will open their doors to students, both continuing and new.

In a previous article, we discussed how Kenyan universities are coping with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic which led to the indefinite closures, and we were able to see that almost all universities had reverted to the online teaching and learning mode of content delivery, albeit with mixed results, for reasons that were also discussed in that same article. This particular article is intent on looking at the effects of the closures, identifying and discussing scenarios likely to develop across the entire Kenya university system, post the COVID-19 pandemic, when they open back up for regular teaching and learning.

The Impact of Online Classes

It is easy to speculate that the extent to which a Kenyan university survives the COVID-19 pandemic will have direct bearing on the success level of its online content delivery programme during the lockdown period. More specifically, students who are able to undertake effective and successful online teaching and learning during the lockdown period will be able to advance to the next levels in their academic programmes, and as a result, will be able to graduate on schedule. This will be the group of students was apparently able to catch up with its class work, and either lost no time at all, or was able to make up for the lost time successfully. The underlying question then is, for each Kenyan university, what proportion of its student population was able to achieve the milestones of this first group. The flip side of this coin is the second group of students who either did not undertake online teaching and learning or did so but not successfully. This is the group that poses a lot of challenges for both the University and the individual students themselves. These challenges range from delayed academic programmes, to repeated semester course work, to identifying who between the university and the student is responsible for the costs of the repeated semester course workwhere there are any, among other considerations.

The Success of Online Classes

Given the magnitude of issues related to the challenges of online course content delivery, including the very short notice within which online classes had to be set up because of the sudden indefinite closure, it is more likely than otherwise that not even a single Kenyan university had the level of success with its online teaching and learning that would allow it to resume regular sessions as usual at the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. Other factors that
exacerbated the undesirable outcome of unsuccessful online course content delivery is the fact that not all academic programmes are amenable to this method of teaching and learning. These include science and technology subjects with practical components that have to be carried out in laboratories. Under these scenarios, it is highly likely that all Kenyan universities will feel the negative effects of the indefinite closure, albeit at varying degrees. The extent of
these negative effects will in turn determine which Kenyan universities survive and are able to move on, and which ones are so adversely affected that they either have to close down completely or restructure. What is very clear is that things will not be the same for the universities as it was before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Who is Likely to Survive and Who is Not

All things considered, private universities will suffer greater losses from the COVID-19 lockdown primarily because a majority of their students are privately sponsored. As we already know, individual families will have been hit hard by the lockdown. This is relative to Public universities that admit primarily Government Sponsored Students (GSS). In addition, it is expected that the Government will bail out the public universities that they sponsor from the effects of the pandemic. The challenge with this strategy of bailing out only public universities is that there are almost just as many private universities in the country as there are public,although the student numbers in the public sector are considerably higher. The bigger question then becomes whether or not the Kenya university system can afford to lose its 37 private universities.

Planning and Strategizing for a Common Future

What becomes of a majority of Kenyan universities after the COVID-19 pandemic, then is most likely a factor of the planning and strategies that take place during the lockdown period. This will involve, among other strategies, obtaining an early understanding of the parameters that inform effective and successful online teaching and learning across Kenyan universities. This understanding will inform improvements in the sector to increase the results, outcomes, and successes of online content delivery, while allowing preparation for a relatively softer landing
for the universities after the indefinite closure and lockdown. The proposed planning and strategy sessions are best coordinated at the National Government level through the Ministry of Education, State Department of Higher Education, in collaboration with the Commission for Higher Education, among other stakeholders. A Board consisting of individuals from these arms of the National Government, with adequate representation from both the Public and Private University sub-sectors, the private sector, and other players, needs to be set up. The mandate of the Board is to identify pertinent issues and to propose solutions within specified time frames. The recommendations of this Board will inform the strategic direction of the Kenyan university system going forward, in the short, medium, and long term.

Prof. Atieno A. Ndede-Amadi is the Vice Chancellor of Great Lakes University of Kisumu (GLUK), and can be reached at vc@gluk.ac.ke

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