Starting last Monday, school life for students in 150 primary schools in Kenya is supposed to change significantly. They will be part of the first 12 week roll-out phase of the Digital Literacy Programme (DLP) launched by the Kenyan Government, which is tasked to cover all of the 22,000 Kenyan primary schools in a one years span. This program encompasses putting all schools on the electricity grid, connecting them to the Internet, developing online learning contend, preparing approx. 66,000 teachers and finally acquiring 1.2 Mio devices (laptops). About 17 bn Kenyan Shilling (Ksh), -roughly 150 Mio EUR- of the national budget has been earmarked for this program, which the government sees as a milestone in transforming Kenya into a knowledge society by making Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) a central component of its education system.
Though these figures are impressive, on first impression it might appear similar to the ill-fated One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project. Launched about 10 years ago under the leadership of MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte, its aim was to revolutionize education by providing school kids, especially in less privileged regions of the world access to laptops, which would not cost more than 100 Dollar. Even though started with high ambitions on a global scale, it never lived up to its expectations, with only very little activities going on in this programme today.
Looking at the original concept of the Kenya’s DLP you can’t but wonder if this might just become another white elephant tech project. Born as a central election pledge of the currently ruling coalition of parties (Jubilee coalition), the concept -basically to just hand every school kid a laptop- had been eerily reminiscent of the hardware-centered OLPD approach: just shower people with technology and something good will happen, somehow…That the first, later cancelled tender for the devices was marred with irregularities and accusations of fraud and corruption also did not help to resolve these concerns.
Yet there are two central of aspects that distinguish Kenya’s DLP program in its current version significantly from the OLPD project, making it worth having closer inspection.
First, after criticism, the program’s overall approach has become much more comprehensive. It includes establishing the basic condition, such as a reliable supply with electricity in schools, securing of Internet access, training of teachers on a large scale and directing specific attention on the creation of learning content. In fact, content is given priority over technical devices.
Second, this program will involve a nation wide roll out, covering every one of the more than 22,000 primary schools. While OLPD had been active in various countries, in each of them, it never got beyond test phases that were very limited in term of numbers and outreach.
One might also add, that the OLPD never managed to become a top priority for the governments of those countries where the test cases were implemented, while in Kenya it definitely is a top priority for the ruling coalition (although this might be a curse and a blessing at the same time..).
Questions of course remain. So, for example the test, or as the Kenyan government call it, “the proof of concept” phase -with its roll-out in 150 selected schools- is scheduled to be completed within 12 weeks. In the following, the (massive) scale up, including the delivery of all devices to all the rest of the 21,850 somewhat school, is all to be done in just two steps. 600,000 devices are scheduled to be delivered by June 2016, while the final batch of 600,000 devices is due by June 2017… right before the next election on August 8, 2017.
One also could raise a further question, for example with respect to the maintenance or replacement of the devices. On a more abstract level, the question of what exactly is supposed to be achieved by this programme -beside contributing to a knowledge society- remains still to be answered.
Yet at the same time, this programme will be a fascinating test of applying ICTs for the improvement of public service delivery (education) in an African context on a massive, nationwide scale.
It also serves as a reminder that the research focus on the possible impact ICTs can have in the delivery of public services, such as education in challenging environments should not be restricted to the NGOs/Civil Society based e-education activities on the micro level. With all their merits and accomplishments, they rarely scale up on a national level and their lifespan often appears to be limited.
What the Kenyan government wants to achieve with the help of ICTs is the big deal in education. If they succeed they will succeed big, if they fail they will fail big.
In any case, it will be a telling case to learn what can go right or wrong when ICTs are applied under such contextual conditions and on such a magnitude.