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In Kenya and around the world, Covid-19 has had a profound impact on the delivery of higher education. It has been estimated that almost 90% of students globally have not been able access universities physically during the pandemic. As universities were forced to close campuses, the initial use of digital platforms was for emergency or “continuity” teaching. During these early days, the intention was to cause the least disruption to students rather than explore new pedagogies. However, research indicated that teaching staff who had pre-existing interest and professional development in online learning had a much more positive experience. Where they had not, and universities had not invested in infrastructure to support online teaching, things were more difficult. For example, there was uneven success at maintaining a ‘semblance of normality’ across universities in Kenya.
At the end of 2020, researchers from The Partnership for African Social and Governance Research (PASGR) and UCL Knowledge Lab started planning to bring together leaders of digital higher education in Kenya to reassess achievements and create a vision the future. Over a year since the beginning of the pandemic, we thought it was time to take stock of the impact of the pandemic on shaping the future of digitalisation of higher education in Kenya. Digital technology could transform the university’s capacity in its ‘public good’ mission in an era of massive long term increases in inequality, mobility and displacement and health and environmental crises. Using the full range of digital technology capabilities, universities in Kenya could have a major impact on delivering the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in education and health and wellbeing, for example, to increase access to technical, vocational and tertiary education and to train more school teachers and health workers. On the other hand, without addressing some of the systemic practices within higher education that pose a persistent barrier to a deeper and more productive engagement with digitalisation, universities in Kenya would not be able to realise the potential of the digital university.
With funding from the British Council, we used the ‘Utafiti Sera’ approach, an innovative participatory methodology pioneered by PASGR, to engage stakeholders in an evidence-led process of deliberation to dig beyond the surface of digitalisation and collaboratively construct a collective vision of digital higher education. ‘Utafiti Sera’ is a Kiswahili phrase for ‘research-policy communities’. It is used to refer to a platform that facilitates the convening of stakeholders working together to ensure that appropriate and negotiated policy uptake occur around a particular public problem for which there is evidence. It is expressed in the form of “policy-communities” houses, which are spaces, places and processes for policy engagement. Utafiti Sera houses set relevant agendas, generate debates and awareness, and provide comparative evidence for formulating and debating programme design, policies, or administrative action.
We planned to have face-to-face and online convenings of the Utafiti Sera house. However, the pandemic eventually meant we had to do everything online. We used this opportunity to test the online environment to see if it could support the interaction and collaboration that is at the heart of the Utafiti Sera approach. We used digital tools to create collaborative activities to enable participants to share their ideas and negotiate their perspective to craft their collective vision for Digital Higher Education in Kenya. For example, we used a word cloud activity to break the ice and tease out a discussion of the pressing issues that need to be addressed. We used a digital pinboard to enable participants to share their visions in words and pictures. We used a rankings poll to refine ideas into 7 priorities for the Digital University and we used an interactive whiteboard mind map to collectively build a comprehensive plan of action around them.
We held 3 online convenings during May and June 2021, attended by 59 stakeholders from Higher Education Institutions across Kenya, as well as Kenyan HE policy makers. We were overwhelmed and inspired to witness participants’ commitment to the process. Digital education leaders from disparate universities and colleges worked together to deliberate over a vision for the kind of digital higher education that Kenya needs and wants.
We were joined by thought leaders from Higher Education institutions in Africa and UK: Professor Mike Kuria, The Inter-University Council for East Africa, Professor Sam Smidt, UCL Arena Centre; Professor Laurra Czerniewitz, University of Cape Town; Professor Diana Laurillard, UCL Knowledge Lab and Professor Karuti Kanyinga, University of Nairobi. The speakers provided “provocations” to stimulate the debate. Professor Kuria shared his reflections on the different pathways taken by universities during the pandemic and the importance of moving from a place of “fright, flight, or fight” to a place of foresight. Professor Smidt shared UCL’s approach to connected learning during the pandemic, which created student employment opportunities to support projects led by faculty that would benefit from student input. Professor Czerniewitz encouraged the convening to consider what is being given up in exchange for supposedly free digital infrastructure, and the fundamental importance of student data privacy and security in any digital HE vision. Professor Laurillard emphasised the importance of student-centred learning design and the potentials of teacher collaboration to share their designs across departments and institutions. Professor Kanyinga urged everyone to face the future boldly, since digital is here to stay. With government support and funding, Prof. Kanyinga foresaw that digital higher education could open up opportunities for the previously excluded in Kenya to gain access to HE.
Many of their considered reflections and insights into what digital education has been and could be found their way into the emerging priorities for the Vision of Digital Higher Education that the convenings produced. These priorities were:
When we asked participants how would they know that their vision for digital higher education had been reached, they created inspiring images of graduates who “will transform themselves and humanity in general” and “learn through approaches that respect their community oriented living of ubuntu, focused on solving local problems and participating as global”.
Participants said they would know their vision was being realised when they could “cost-effectively access quality”, digital higher education without “having challenges with devices or internet connection” and “learner support services are given priority”. They wanted to see students “collaborate with other learners globally”, feel comfortable with “synchronous and asynchronous learning designs”, able to be “self-directed” and feel “empowered”. Participants wanted students to be part of “communities of practice that will last beyond their life at university”. Critically, especially for rural areas, they wanted students to “have affordable and reliable sources of energy” as well as “good family support and a favourable policy environment for unhindered access to quality education online”.
Signs of a favourable policy environment were forthcoming from policy makers that we also invited to the convenings. Director Darius Mogaka Ogutu, State Department for University Education and Research requested that we share a policy brief based on the participants’ thoughts and recommendations. Participants themselves wanted very much to see their suggestions feed into a national framework for digital higher education in Kenya, and we are looking forward to the vision becoming a reality.
Eileen Kennedy on behalf of PASGR & UCL (Research team: Pauline Ngimwa, Allison Littlejohn, Collins Odote).
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