Fast Caterpillars and Butterflies: Digital Infrastructure in Kenyan Education

For the last two EdTech Mondays, we have focused on the power of EdTech. In March, we looked at how EdTech can be used to enhance foundational literacy – or the ability to read and comprehend basic texts, understand numerical concepts (like numbers) and solve simple mathematical problems such as addition and subtraction. While in April, we explored how EdTech can enhance digital literacy in students. Now, it is time to focus on that which powers EdTech itself; allowing it to contribute to the realisation of these incredible goals.

Digital Infrastructure.

Digital Infrastructure is anything that helps people access and use the internet efficiently. It is to the internet, what roads and petrol stations are to cars and trucks. So, think power lines, broadband, SIM cards, fibre optic cables, mobile phones, computers, and cloud centres.

Another way to think about it is if you are reading this piece right now, that’s digital infrastructure in action. Every time you open TikTok or send money via M-pesa, thank digital infrastructure. Without digital infrastructure, EdTech literally cannot exist. More importantly, the bright future EdTech enables for us would not exist.

It is, therefore, fitting that digital infrastructure was the focus of last week’s episode of EdTech Mondays. EdTech Mondays brings together industry professionals, educators, and experts to discuss the potential of technology-enabled education in Kenya. In this episode, the panellists – Rose Wanjohi (Principals Programmes Officer, ICT Authority), Ben Roberts (Group Chief Technology and Innovation Officer, Liquid Intelligent Technologies) and Dr. Tim Kelly (Lead Digital Development Policy Specialist, World Bank Group) – led by Moses Kemibaro discussed how we can improve the state of digital infrastructure for learners across the country.

You see, the problem with digital infrastructure in education in Kenya is not that it is lacking. It is where this inadequacy is greatly felt. As George Westerman says, the transformation catalysed by digital infrastructure can be, “like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, but when done wrong, all you have is a really fast caterpillar.”

Right now, Kenya has a really fast caterpillar. Kenya is one of the most well-connected countries on the Continent, with some of the fastest internet speeds and some of the best digital infrastructure in Africa. Yet, as they say, vitu kwa ground ni different.

The Digital Divide

As you know, not everyone is able to get online for one reason or another. Sometimes, you’re offline because you can’t afford data or because there’s no electricity. Other times, it’s because you’ve left Nairobi for ushago and there’s no network. These are the gaps in our digital infrastructure.

If you’re lucky (you live in a well-connected area, with a reliable electricity supply and can afford to pay for data), these gaps don’t define your life. Unfortunately, a majority of Kenyans, approximately 31 million people, are unlucky. It’s not just that they can’t access the internet. It is that, as a result, they are denied access to the resources, information and connections that would improve their lives and the lives of their children. If they cannot access the internet, they cannot acquire new skills, obtain critical health and government services, or access financial services. They will be, and are being, left behind.

This is the digital divide in action. A digital divide is the gap between those who have ready access to reliable and affordable power, digital devices  and the internet, and those who do not.

The State of Digital Infrastructure in Education

As Moses noted in the beginning of the episode, rural Kenyans are thrice as likely to not have internet access as urban Kenyans. As reported by The Dalberg Group in 2021, if you are rich, educated, able-bodied, a man, and young, then you are more likely to access the internet than the poor, the uneducated, the disabled, the old or women. This trend, unfortunately, continues within the realm of education.

Altogether, 5 million primary school students lack access to digital infrastructure. According to the Uwezo 7th Learning Assessment Report (2021) confirms this reality for rural learners. Only 26% of primary schools – roughly 8,400 out of over 32,000 – have a computer lab and many of these schools are located in urban areas. As a result, urban learners are nearly twice as likely to have access to computer labs, digitally-trained teachers, and to digital technologies than rural learners. They are, nearly, 6 times as likely to have internet at home and 9 times as likely to access digital devices at home. This is despite the fact that there are twice as many rural households in Kenya as urban ones. These figures not only demonstrate that a majority of the nation’s digital infrastructure investments prioritised urban areas over rural areas, they also expose the impossibility of the task asked of rural educators in this country.

How is education supposed to remedy the inequalities in this country, if the resources that power that education are, themselves, distributed unequally?

How is education supposed to prepare students for the future, when a significant number of students are trapped in the past at home and at school?

Without digital infrastructure learners will not be able to, fully, participate in the modern economy; given that, by the end of the decade, 50% of jobs in Kenya will require digital skills which are crucial for the country’s economic growth. Sadly, without access to digital infrastructure, vulnerable learners are trapped in a cycle of poverty, worsened by this lack of resources. As a result, we will have failed as educators. It will have failed to unlock new opportunities for all learners; to prepare them for the future or to prepare them to participate in society.

Ultimately, this divide is why Kenya’s digital infrastructure can be characterised as a fast caterpillar and not a butterfly. It failed to mitigate the inequities that characterise Kenyan education and may continue to exacerbate them. In some cases, the digital divide widened the  inequities between urban and rural students, as Francis Likoye Malenya and Asayo Ohba found in their critical review of the Ministry’s plan to facilitate online learning during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Malenya and Ohba concluded: “what had been conceived as and intended to be an equitable and inclusive learning exercise ended up marginalising learners in already marginalised spaces.” Indeed, this is the principal worry in the pursuit of digital infrastructure. How do we make sure that it benefits us all, rather than the already privileged?

How do we bring forth our butterflies?

Developments in Digital Infrastructure

In general, Ms Wanjohi, Mr Roberts and Dr Kelly agree that it is not enough to merely provide an internet connection (by laying fibre optic cables) or enhance one’s ability to connect to the internet (by electrifying homes and schools). After all, the goal is not the connection itself. The goal (or the point of digital infrastructure) is enabling intentional, efficient and knowledgeable use of the internet and other digital services.

This can only happen if the internet is affordable, fast, and widely available and internet users are skilled. Therefore an element of training, or upskilling on digital skills, is essential in addition to investing in the physical infrastructure. This was stressed, particularly, by Ms Wanjohi who, when describing the initiatives undertaken by the Government, finished by explaining how they were adopted and adapted by educators on the ground.

A great example of this type of solution is the Kenya Digital Economy Acceleration Project (KDEAP). Approved in March 2023, the $390-million project will, as Dr Kelly explained, expand our existing fibre optic network to 100,000kms (an 11-fold increase), provide digital literacy and skills training for young people, increase last mile connectivity for schools, improve the efficacy of existing infrastructure and digitise public services. Although the project is in its infancy, its components mirror and enhance the early investments Kenya made in its digital infrastructure. Therefore, one would expect the impact of the KDEAP to mirror the impact of those early investments; specifically the unprecedented growth of our ICT industry which in 2022 was worth over KSh 600 billion, nearly 10 times more than its value in 2014. Beyond macroeconomics, the project would also bring down the cost of the internet, thus making it more accessible. For example, a World Bank project to increase the geographical reach of broadband networks in Mauritania by laying 1,700km of fibre optic cables reduced the price of wholesale broadband by over 99%; from $7,000 (Ksh 969,150) to $54.70 (Ksh 7476) a month. Consequently, increasing baseline accessibility from 2% to 71% and creating a “national backbone” that will catalyse and ground national and personal development.

However, these investments only take care of some of the problems. The other problems investment in digital infrastructure must address are: (1) sustainability and; (2) digital adoption.

Sustainability means looking at the affordability of the costs of internet connection (data, electricity, security). While digital adoption looks at how many people are using the connections once it has been established. As Dr Tim Kelly contextualised, schools often miss out on the benefits of digital infrastructure because they are underfunded and must decide between necessities, like learning materials or feeding programmes, and what can be perceived as luxuries, like data. This is why the KDEAP includes funds to prepay the cost of internet for schools for up to a decade – thus alleviating the burden and stress of payment from schools and allowing them to experiment with how digital technologies could enhance teaching and learning  for them (i.e. digital adoption). This last step is critical in guaranteeing the success of digital infrastructure as technology, like most tools, is context-specific.

This context is why a bottom-up approach to digital infrastructure investment was proposed by Mr Roberts, whose company – Liquid Intelligence Technologies (Liquid) – prides itself upon responsive, and relevant solutions to connectivity problems. For example, much of the network Liquid maintains in Kenya is via satellite network because satellite internet connectivity is more reliable, accessible and cheaper than traditional broadband or fibre optic cables. Furthermore, Liquid works with Kenya Power to ensure that the solutions they provide compliment existing infrastructure demands and can be managed by local personnel. This way, when problems arise, we (Kenyans) can fix them, rather than relying on external help once a project has been completed.

Conclusion

Having explored the role of public-private partnerships, it is worth considering what role individuals can play in enhancing the efficacy of Kenya’s digital infrastructure in education as we conclude. For we all have a role to play in changing our fast caterpillar into a butterfly.

With a problem as grand and complex as digital infrastructure, it’s easy to say “someone else will do it.” It is easy to look at the technicality of the work ahead of us, and, respectfully, bow out. Yet to do so is to limit yourself and your capabilities. It also ignores the magnitude of the problem. So how can we play our part?

First, we must recognise that digital infrastructure isn’t just a public problem, but a personal one too. Think of all the times you could not connect to the internet. How did that make you feel? Frustrated? Indignant? Lost? Now think of all the ways being able to access the internet has enriched your life, your job or relationships. THIS is why digital infrastructure matters. Use these feelings to empathise with those without and advocate on their behalf.

Second, consider supporting charities like TechLit Africa, which upcycles computers for schools in rural Kenya, or organisations like EdTech East Africa, which provides a space for innovators and educators to test and develop new technologies or new ways to use old technologies, and STEAMLabs Africa, which trains and empowers educators on new technologies and methodologies. These organisations bridge the gap between plan and reality; making sure that once infrastructure is in place, it can be used. And they are always looking for new partners and volunteers.

Only by working together, can we ensure that digital infrastructure serves the public good, bridges the digital divide, and empowers individuals to navigate the digital landscape successfully.

Only by working together, can we turn our fast caterpillar into a gorgeous butterfly.

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