Undergraduate Initiatives: Overview

The Kenyan university system sits between two great demands. On the one hand, a variety of institutions - such as banks, NGOs, and the civil service - demand skilled labor, especially people with functional knowledge of mathematics, statistics, and computer science. On the other hand many individuals recognize they need qualifications. The demand for skilled labor has created this demand for degrees. Everyone believes that a university degree increases the chances of getting a decent job, and so interest in degree programs has exploded. The demand for skilled labor only matches up with the demand for qualifications if the quality of the education is high.

Between these two demands sits the University system itself, which struggles to provide adequate education to an exploding student body. Last year, 80,000 students qualified for admission to the national university system, but only 20,000 were accepted — and even this acceptance rate was double that of two years previous. Across the country there are numerous extensions of the main university campus, many of which are in the process of becoming fully independent universities themselves. The university system simply lacks the number of skilled teachers required to properly teach the hordes of students: At Maseno University, lecturers are expected to teach three classes each semester, some with an enrollment of 300 students. Bondo, an extension of Maseno, is on track to become an independent University, but the math department consists of a single lecturer who obtained his Master’s degree less than two years ago from Maseno.

Another problem in Kenyan math education is that the curricula often haven’t been updated in decades, and thus fail to reflect the importance and utility of computation in modern scientific thought. Classes often focus exclusively on the acquisition of computational skills that computers can perform in milliseconds. Additionally, classes promote rote memorization over understanding or problem solving skills, which tends to produce students who are of little or no utility in dynamic working environments.

The result is that students graduate with few applicable skills. Those few who do manage to obtain proficiency in mathematics or statistics are instantly employable in business, government, or the NGO’s; there is little incentive to return to teach, and so the teacher shortage continues.

This situation requires a radical departure from the 19th-century German model of education which has dominated the Western academic system since the Industrial revolution. Recent developments in electronic teaching methods offer one possible solution: High-quality course materials are easily deployed to an arbitrarily large number of students. Meanwhile, electronic homework systems provide assessment tools which surpass traditional homework structures for computer-gradable exercises. The best content and management systems are freely available, so that the greatest part of the work is packaging together existing content and ensuring that the package is appropriate for the Kenyan context.

Additionally, cheaply available broadband Internet has become widely available across Kenya in the last few years and the price of a laptop is now less than the price of a semester of University. The number of Internet users has exploded from approximately 200k in 2000 to nearly 4 million in 2010, or about 10% of the population. As greater connectivity becomes the norm in Kenya, electronic teaching methods have become an imminently feasible solution to the problem of teacher shortages, while also providing a space for updating curricula for the needs of a developing society.