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Education in Impoverished Areas in China and Kenya During the COVID-19 Outbreak: A Comparative Study

Issouf SANOGO / AFP

The article was written collectively by Wei Wu, 21, The Chinese University of Hong Kong; Linyuan Geng, 21, Univesity of International Relations; Shuo Ai, 29, Secretary General in Zhixing Knowledge & Practice Foundation and Yiduo Yao, 16, International Department of Beijing Bayi School.

What Are Students in China and Kenya Going Through?

“I like the lessons on TV, they are good,” schoolgirl Elizabeth living in Kibera, the biggest slum in Nairobi, says, “It’s just that I don’t feel like I relate with the teacher. I really want all these to end so that I can go back to school.” (Brown & Otieno, 2020) —The voice of Kenyan students

COVID-19 pandemic is a global challenge in various aspects. To the impoverished country like Kenya, it is a devastating blow. “Once you are poor, everything starts to go wrong.” said Terry Kiragu, the person in charge of WYCDO (Women Youth & Children Development Organization) in Kenya. The sudden outbreak has disorganized the regular order of study, especially in the poverty-stricken areas.

All educational institutions in Kenya were closed by mid-March 2020 under the direction of the President of the Republic of Kenya. The government has adopted a unified approach to remote learning through television, radio, mobile phones, etc. Yet 60% of Kenyans live in slums (UN-Habitat, n.d.), and only 30% of households have Internet access (Sunday F., 2020). The disadvantaged students cannot get access to remote study for the lack of essential devices.

Inadequate support provided by the flawed education system leads to unexpected results: “There isn’t much they can do except helping their parents, so there comes the abuse of drugs among students. A lot of students may not engage in school after the pandemic.” said Bernard Chomba, the deputy principal of St Aloysius Gonzaga Secondary School in Kenya.

Across the ocean in China, similar problems are happening. Against the backdrop of the pandemic, classes are suspended, but learning kept happening at home. So far, 180 million primary and secondary school students nationwide are taking online courses (Yu W., 2020).

But for impoverished areas of western China, online education became an acute problem. After analyzing questionnaires from nearly 180 thousand teachers and 1.8 million parents, the Chinese Academy of Education concludes that in terms of regional variables, e-learning in the western region lags behind in almost every index. Students in west China also spend significantly less time on internet-based learning than those in central and eastern China. In this regard, the “digital divide” highlighted by online education cannot be avoided.

With the rapid reaction and unique measurements taken, in general, China has restored education in impoverished areas as quickly as possible. As for Kenya, where around half of the population is still living with 1 USD a day, the current education situation is still not optimistic.

The Difficulties of Education in China and Kenya During the Pandemic: Lack of Instruments and Technical Supports

Although e-learning has become the only solution to education during the pandemic, students who do not have the necessary equipment cannot continue to complete their studies at home. The Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD) estimates that 47% of learners access lessons through radio, TV, or the Internet. This means over half of Kenyan students cannot access distant lessons, either because they are outside of the broadcast range or do not have the necessary equipment. The equipment includes televisions, radios, smartphones, tablets, and other online learning supporting equipment. What’s more, access to electricity (% of the population) in Kenya was reported at 63.81 % in 2017, according to the World Bank collection of development indicators.

Likewise, news such as “students climb to the cliff to squat the Internet” was also reported in China. The “digital gap” and its negative effect on the impoverished are widening in such time.

Economic Constraints

Since the outbreak in Kenya, about 2 million people have been directly affected by pay cuts, unpaid leave, deferred payments, or layoffs (Deloitte, 2020).

The more urgent problem for most slum students is how to ensure their basic living needs. Bernard said that schools give students assignments and food packages every 14 days physically. In this case, the issue of education is placed on an even less urgent footing.

The Inability of Teachers and Weakness of Online Curriculum

During the epidemic, Kenyan teachers quickly turned to online courses and learned how to use digital tools, but it is clear that they are not good at it.

Education in poverty-stricken areas is realized by watching TV, getting assignments regularly, or receiving text messages from teachers and printing. “The content shown on TV cannot correlate with the students’ courses, which led to the low quality of learning.”, said Moses Oriko, the Kenyan principal of Ulink College of SIP Suzhou. In addition, the quality of home-schooling also depends on the family environment and the students’ self-discipline. Terry also indicated that some students feel frustrated and adjust tooth and nail to the new way of learning while others are just hanging out and doing nothing.

In the impoverished areas of China, the lack of faculty has led to low teaching quality. In mountainous regions of Fujian Province, students’ online courses come from other existing online course resources on the Internet, which cannot seamlessly match the original teaching progress. The lack of online teaching experience also attributes to the decrease in students’ learning quality.

The Predicament of Students’ Mental Health

During the outbreak, in the Kenyan slums without availability to Internet, loneliness and anxiety have filled the students. Having no one to confide their emotions with, they may easily get psychological problems like psychological distortion, high anxiety, and autism. “Normally, students do not like to consult the “school counselor” because he or she may be the same teacher who always teach and punish the student, which leaves students’ mental health in a bad condition.” said Dominic Kamau, the board member and psychologist of Positive Psychology Association of Kenya.

As the first country to deal with the outbreak of COVID-19, Chinese students’ physical and mental health is also suffering over the spread of the disease, and anxiety over online learning. “The pandemic has made me so flustered that I cannot concentrate on my studies. The pressure of the college entrance examination and the uncertainty of my future have brought me many obstacles,” said a senior graduating student from an impoverished area.

What Have the Chinese and Kenyan Governments Done?

The Ministry of Education in Kenya has launched a variety of approaches that allow students to study online or via EDU or Elimu. Curriculum development institute has released the school timetable to Taifa KICD stations and Kenya education cloud for providing digital learning content. These measures make it possible for students to listen to KBC English broadcasting and other interactive radio programs at home.

Amina, a Kenyan teacher, broadcasts to her Grade Five class of around 100 over Radio Gargaar, a community station. The radio lessons help Amina and her fellow teachers in Dadaab support over 100,000 students who attend the camp’s 22 primary schools and nine secondary schools (UN refugee agency’s report, 2020)

Besides, the Communications Authority of Kenya asked service providers to lower charges on some of their services, especially the Internet, to cushion Kenyans as they stay at home to contain the coronavirus. Airtel Kenya, the second largest telecommunications services provider in Kenya, offers free internet access for students to continue learning at home. Several students have been using the service launched from May (Capital Business, 2020).

In China, with the order from the central Ministry of Education, the national Internet cloud platform for primary and secondary schools was opened and made available to all the students free of charge. The platform’s content can be transmitted to users nationwide through the direct-broadcast satellite household-to-household communication platform, covering remote rural areas with weak network signals or regions not accessible to cable TV. “The support on devices by the government fulfills not only the needs for students but also the schools.” said a middle school teacher from one of the impoverished counties in China.

What Have NGOs and Private Companies Done?

As people in impoverished areas in Kenya are still faced with fundamental survival problems, NGOs are more committed to addressing local food and health problems during the pandemic. The UCDP has started feeding the vulnerable, providing 600 families with food and necessities every week. Meanwhile, many African publishers and digital content providers are making their materials free to access to ensure the students’ continuity of learning and reading.

During the epidemic, Chinese NGOs have made great efforts in education: financial aid to needy students, donation of tablet computers and other equipment, systematic online training for teachers and students, and so on.

Also, there are many online psychological assistance services, provided by enterprises, institutions, and hospitals. According to incomplete statistics, the psychological counseling platform, “One Psychology” had provided more than 6,500 times psychological assistance for the epidemic by February 2020. “Yidianling” platform has provided 6,759 hours of pandemic assistance services to a total of 22,492 people, 80% of which have adaptability problems caused by anxiety. The psychological assistance platform of the Hubei Red Cross has received more than 30,000 visitors.

Different Cultures Value Education Differently

No matter how poor a family is, children’s education will be on the top of the list in China. Children in low-income families are told that education is the only way to bail them out of poverty. News like poor village kids got admitted into top universities in China is no longer a rare sight these days.

Although the Kenyan government’s policies are improving the importance of education in general, the idea hasn’t been fully diffused and spread to the new parents with a high early-child bearing rate. Evelina from western Kenya dropped out of the first year of lower secondary school when she got pregnant at the age of 14. She received no information or advice about policies that allowed her to continue going to school while pregnant (Martínez, E., Odhiambo, A., 2018).

Mary Wangui, the program coordinator of Juhudi Youth Initiative, said, “90% of parents have not gone past primary school (in Mugunda), so many of them do not know the importance of education and are not able to push their kids to do private studies.” (Unknown, 2020) Starting from protecting girls from early pregnancy and teaching boys about the importance of education, Kenya still has a long way to go from all levels.

Improve the Allocation of Educational Resources

Two years ago, the Chinese government started to take full advantage of the abundant and quality educational resources available in more developed cities. By setting up a screen in the classroom, students in 248 different high schools in the mountain could listen to lectures by the Sichuan province’s best teachers. Among the students who benefited from the online live course, 88 got admitted to Tsinghua or Peking University, the top 2 universities of China, and changed their fate forever.

This kind of re-use in educational resources maximized the value of a high-quality lesson taught and could even change a student’s life. In the more developed western and middle parts of Kenya, there are many more public or private schools that could provide better courses and resources. Re-allocation of resources is a way that could be adopted by the Kenyan government to help students living in poverty.

Besides government, the support of other various social forces also matters: responsible enterprises and NGOs providing teacher training, digital tools learning, and network welfare. Due to Kenya’s current economic situation, social enterprises and NGOs can supplement the shortcomings of the current education system and improve the quality of education, just like China.

More Free Psychological Support Should Be Available for Teens

During the pandemic, students are prone to struggle with mental problems accounting for anxiety, loneliness, etc. Just like aforementioned what Chinese organizations have done, Kenya’s government and NGOs could provide publicity materials and free hotlines or access for students to get professional psychological consulting. Both Dominic and Moses expressed their wish: “In a long term, schools should be required to equip with specialized consulting center.”

This pandemic is a challenge, but it would also be an excellent opportunity for Kenya to learn and improve the education system after reflection. As Terry said, “Education gives everybody who wants a pathway to shake off poverty, get better health, a better life, and learn to communicate with the world around them, eventually grasp the opportunities.”

China House is a social enterprise that brings young Chinese to the global south for research, conservation activities and development projects.

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