[OP-ED] Kenyans Decide 2017: The Laptop Project – Jubilee’s Misplaced Priorities

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By WASHINGTON OSIRO |MARL0OW@YAHOO.COM

The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) finally ended its iPad Program in
May 2015.

The program was seen “as a way to help the city’s low-income students” bridge the
digital divide and on paper, its raison d’etre appeared unassailable. It sought to
use a popular technology (the Apple iPad); familiar to and readily embraced by
children across the socio-economic divide to educate the mostly low-income students
in the Los Angeles school district; students who typically struggle/d academically.

Unfortunately, the project was plagued with problems from the get-go. Tod Newcombe
in the publication Government Technology writes that:

“Internet connectivity was spotty at some schools, partly because the district’s
facilities chief was not included in the planning process for upgrading school
networks to carry the heavy data demands of so many devices connecting to the
Internet. Teachers were ill-trained on how to use the iPads and curriculum, and
faculty never widely embraced the tablet…..And many students learned how to bypass
the security features and just used the iPads to surf the Internet.”

Further review of the program revealed that the LAUSD had “added detailed
specifications regarding screen size and touchscreen functionality that heavily
favored Apple and essentially excluded other technology options”.

In other words, the school district effectively single-sourced the project.

Sound familiar?

With great fanfare, Kenya’s ruling Jubilee Coalition, aptly headed by the
self-described “digital duo” launched the Laptop Project shortly after taking power
in 2013. Brushing aside widespread criticism, the Jubilee-majority Parliament
approved KSh.15.3Billion ($153Million) for implementation of Phase I of the project.

Four years later, the program is still an inexplicable and murky labyrinth of lofty
presidential proclamations amidst spotty evidence of its (actual) implementation.
The president and his supporters have essentially “declared the project a success
and headed home”.

Its incompetent and bungled implementation aside, the project also illustrates the
misplaced priorities of President Kenyatta’s government.

Consider the following:

While the mobile-cellular system in Kenya’s urban areas (25% of the country’s
population) is “generally good”, internet access outside Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu
and Nakuru is marginal at best – a fact I can attest to. Internet usage is a
generous 45% according to data from the CIA World Factbook.

A back-of-the-envelope analysis indicates that ~75% of Kenya’s population resides
outside the connected and electrified urban areas.

Writing for BBC Africa, Emmanuel Igunza asked a question that should have been asked
and definitively answered BEFORE the project got off the ground. Even more telling
is that the question “Are laptops more important than desks in Kenya’s schools?” was
asked in 2016, approximately 3 years after the project supposedly got off the
ground!

Unlike the country’s parliamentarians who are among the world’s best-compensated
legislatures, Kenya’s teachers just endured a bruising battle over pay and amenities
– working in an educational system that is rife with corruption, violence and
dilapidated oftentimes non-electrified, non-internet connected AND non-existent
structures!

Juxtaposed, the foregoing facts (which don’t even include the on-going crisis in the
country’s healthcare sector) are a searing indictment on Uhuru Kenyatta’s sense of
prudence and practicality.

They also speak to his government’s misplaced priorities.

While Jubilee was quick to get this signature project off the ground (itself a topic
for another day), Mr. Kenyatta’s government also believed its own rhetoric on its
(project’s) immediate benefits. The president’s party – Jubilee – wallowed in its
hubris even as it shut out dissenting voices and failed to perform adequate due
diligence.

A simply review of similar projects (worldwide) would have provided the president
and his team a set of guidelines and considerations to inform implementation of its
own including the following:

– That single-sourcing most projects is usually not a good thing; in this case
exacerbated by the differing customer (student and teacher) needs,
– That projects of such scope and size require extensive, competent and consistent
planning AND leadership,
– That like the students in Kenya, few students in LAUSD had consistent and adequate
internet access,
– That computers, as is the case with other technologies, are just one more tool
that can improve the education process. Without a well-designed curriculum AND
competent teachers to use said tool, GIGO – Garbage In. Garbage Out,
– That like their LA counterparts who learnt how to bypass the security features of
the school-issued iPad, seven-year-old Tasmin Abdalla of Mombasa’ Sparki Primary
School declared that s/he’ll “be able to watch cartoons…not write”; a sentiment
echoed by Lincoln Maina of Roysambu Primary School – that he will use the computer
“to teach his friends a few of the games he enjoys at home”,

The laptop project, like the ostentatious Two Rivers Mall, billion-shilling homes,
“dollar millionaires”, Porsche dealerships and Swarovski stores, while indicators of
a progressing economy also belie a paraphrased view offered by Ms. Sarah Ruto, an
education researcher:

That while technology enhances productivity and “improves things”, it is not a
panacea for corrupt and incompetent governance nor is it the only bridge between
society’s many fault-lines of which the digital divide is one.

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