The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted lives across the world including Kenya. It has been especially devastating for learners, their families, and educators. Before his latest statement signaling the reopening of schools, Education Cabinet Secretary Professor George Magoha cited a lack of compliance to COVID-19 health and safety protocols for the continued closure of learning institutions.

Where learning has taken place, it has relied on TV, radio, as well as digital tools. And while technology offers extraordinary opportunities to connect, educate and unite in unprecedented ways – learners from low-income households are left without digital access and support. According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, only 20% of Kenyans have access to the internet. Kenya’s formal education system, with a genesis in a colonial past remains a sorting system for Kenya’s youth. The pre-existing gaps are exacerbated during this pandemic, with widening inequities of opportunities between high- and low-income students.

What if, at this moment of disruption, our learning systems could be redesigned to eliminate the inequities that are embedded in our schools and communities? Imaginable Futures and design firm IDEO recently co-published the global report Learning Reimagined: Radical Thinking for Equitable Futures aimed at exploring and reimagining the future of learning. We believe that the pandemic has brought us to a pivotal point for radical transformation of learning — but it requires concerted and collective action by educators, parents, families, communities, and public officials in this reimagination, it said.

Across the country, families and communities are coming together to bridge the gaps, helping to support the continued engagements and learning. What would it look like for resources – public and private – to be allocated to support these hyper-local yet interconnected communities of learning?

Role models will play an important role in defining what is possible and achievable for young people, fostering new skills and experiences as we redefine the future of workers, and prompting a greater prioritization of skills acquired through informal channels. We’ve heard from teachers, parents and young people about the importance of seeing people who look like you, who live in circumstances similar to yours succeeding against and in spite of all odds. These community role models can be beacons of hope in these times of crises and beyond.

Across the country, families and communities are coming together to bridge the gaps, helping to support the continued engagements and learning. What would it look like for resources – public and private – to be allocated to support these hyper-local yet interconnected communities of learning?
Teresa Mbagaya, Imaginable Futures

Take for instance Shujaaz, a network of social ventures based in Nairobi which seeks to inspire, engage and mobilize millions of young people across East Africa, and in doing so build the agency and resilience of Africa’s young. During COVID-19, they have harnessed SMS and social media channels to engage millions of young people to share, connect, learn and build critical skills.

Build the technology foundation

In assessing the impact of school closure on learners over the past months, the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD) estimates that while 47% of learners have access to lessons through radio, TV or the internet, over half of Kenya’s students are not able to access remote lessons, either because they are outside of broadcast range or do not have the necessary equipment. The contrast is also stark among students enrolled in private and public school students: a survey by Usawa Agenda found that those enrolled in private schools in Kenya are twice as likely to take part in digital learning compared with their counterparts in public schools. Without democratized access for all learners, technology will impact learners differently, likely defined by socioeconomic background and proximity to major cities.

In support of learners from diverse backgrounds, some organizations leverage existing infrastructure to promote equitable access. Through the mixture of animation and live action video, music, audio drama and print materials, Ubongo’s free content is reaching 17 million households on broadcast and online platforms in 40 countries with the goal of reaching 440 million kids in Africa. Through the tales and adventures of characters on screen, Ubongo promotes numeracy, pre-literacy, language skills and social, emotional learning for young learners. Accelerated by the pandemic, the organization has opened up its library of TV and radio edutainment content, as well as public service announcements and educational videos to support health and hygiene. The content is free to any broadcaster and partner who is able to share it with communities in need.

To bridge the digital divide, the government should partner with the private sector to accelerate the strengthening of digital infrastructure, advancing access to data as a basic human right for all.

Foster agency in young people

As we center on the community and enablers for equity, it’s also important to reflect on Africa’s youth population where more than 60% of the continent is under the age of 25. Across the continent, McKinsey predicts 35% of all jobs (150 million jobs) – formal and informal – could be affected by COVID-19. In Kenya, estimates suggest that more than 1.7 million Kenyans may have lost jobs directly due to the pandemic, with young women being impacted the hardest. Our greatest call to action will be on the preservation of livelihoods or we run the risk of becoming locked in a vicious cycle that combines rising inequality, low social mobility and limited agency for our youth.

A new class of workers may emerge, those who are essential in health, education, digital jobs and even child care. We anticipate more reskilling programs launched to provide training based on the emerging needs of industry and society. This means a reinvigorated approach towards alternative pathways of learning including apprenticeships, non-formal training, and mobile based training. We’ve seen the adoption of such models by organizations like Educate!, designing remote training for boda boda (motorcycle) drivers capitalizing on the growing need for delivery personnel during the pandemic.

Where do we go from here?
While the pandemic  has affected nearly all learners globally, it paves way for the Kenyan education sector to redefine the future of learning and advance the requisite changes. Our very best intentions will be stymied, unless we can truly build equitable systems that address the needs of all learners and communities. It’s time to reimagine the myriad opportunities available for Kenyan youth and leverage the powerful role of community in learning.

This article was printed originally in the Business Daily Africa.