Kenya giving laptops to all first-graders, amid controversy

Newly elected Uhuru Kenyatta, with Microsoft's help, wants universal e-literacy for students in this East African nation. Critics call it ill conceived, costly.

Khalil Senosi/AP
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta delivers his speech, during the 50th Madaraka Day celebrations, at the Nyayo National Stadium, in Nairobi, Kenya, June 1. Kenyatta plans to decrease Kenya's digital divide with the rest of the world by giving, with Microsoft's help, laptops to all first-graders.

New president Uhuru Kenyatta plans to decrease Kenya's digital divide with the rest of the world by starting in January to hand out more than 400,000 free laptops to Kenyan first-graders.  

Mr. Kenyatta may be known overseas for his March election victory, despite a Hague indictment for inciting election violence in Kenya five years ago.

But at home, Kenyatta has pinned his political popularity and his legacy on a project to fund and give away what will eventually be 1.3 million solar-powered laptops to students across the nation, partly supported by Microsoft Corporation

Yet the government’s allocation of huge amounts of money – this month parliament allocated $665 million to get it moving – is igniting the wrath of various educators and school groups that see it as a political gimmick, or as a distraction from real needs at a time when teacher salaries are poorly funded and when many schools don't have desks and textbooks. Some of the program's pilot schools have no building, for example, but meet instead outside under trees. 

Kenyatta and his Jubilee governing coalition, however, are undeterred. In January, all first-graders will receive new free laptops, valued at $350. 

Kenyatta's cabinet secretary, Henry Rotich, defended the project June 13, saying the government had prioritized the transformation of the education system to "e-teaching and e-learning." Kenya – in both urban and rural areas – has started to move rapidly toward a digital future, with the cost of smart phones dropping quickly, and with laptops and even tablets seen on city buses and in cafes. 

“When fully implemented the policy will reduce the cost of buying and replacing textbooks, and improve access to information, communication, and technology in schools and households,” said Mr. Rotich.

Political observers say that free laptops are Kenyatta's chosen legacy inside the Kenyan system. In the 1980s, for example, President Daniel arap Moi provided free milk to elementary students to supplement their diet. Later, in 2003, President Mwai Kibaki introduced free primary school education, making it possible for tens of thousands of families, unable to pay fees, to educate their children.

Yet from the start, civil society and education groups have accused the Kenyatta coalition government of a lack of follow-through on better teacher pay and recruitment, and argue that the laptop cost is prohibitive. Kenya's teachers union describes a shortage of 80,000 teachers nation wide. 

Kenya's top teachers union chair, Wilson Sossion, called the laptop project "illogical," since a request for $500 million for recruitment of 15,000 teachers and mid-career promotions has been languishing on the negotiating table. A salary raise for teachers agreed to 16 years ago is still in arrears.  

Using unclear criteria, Kenya's Ministry of Education has identified 6,000 schools to pilot the laptops in the classroom. Kenyan media point out that many of the teachers in these schools have never seen a computer, let alone used one. Lobby groups say the real needs in Kenya are schools with strong roofs, classrooms, desks, textbooks, and materials.

"Most teachers in our schools fall way below the bar of computer literacy," says John Mugo of Uwezo Kenya, an education group. "The first question therefore is, are the laptops a toy, or learning tool, or both? And are they for school or home use? How are we conceptualizing [their] use? Who will guide these first-graders when the teacher and the parent are helpless with this technology?”

A Kenyan environmental conservation group, Green Hand Organization, is challenging the project at Kenya's supreme court, saying the computers will increase electronic wastes and gravely harm the environment.

Kenyatta insists that his administration will not leave Kenyan schoolchildren without the tools to compete in the Digital Age.

The possibility of a new laptop has caught the imagination of some children already accustomed to playing games using their parent’s mobile-phones. Michelle Mwaura, 10, invited some of her friends to play at her home in a suburb of Nairobi, and offered, "It is good the government would provide computers to children.”  

“I know I won’t receive a laptop because I am older, but my brother will. I hear they won’t carry textbooks as we do," says Michelle, referring to her 5-year-old brother. 

William Muli, an engineer in Machakos county in eastern Kenya, says exposing younger children to technology may help them face technology with less fear and be more innovative as a result. In his view, “What is crucial is not the laptop, but the technology. I think we should be optimistic.”

On June 4, Kenyatta secured the support of Microsoft International in the implementation of the project. In a meeting at the state house in Nairobi, Microsoft International president Jean-Philippe Courtois said his company will support the government in training all primary school teachers by next January, according to a press release. 

Mr. Courtois said the software giant will work with different partners to develop five programs in each of Kenya's 47 counties to provide teacher training and some technical support in hardware, connectivity, and software. 

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