Standard Business

Online classes great for university students but it has not been all rosy

Meru University student Celestine Chepkazi prepares bricks at their Kabelem village in Nandi County.[Peter Ochieng,Standard]

Even as university managers extol the virtues of online learning in the age of Covid-19, it is emerging that a majority of students are not as enthusiastic about the digital classes although they love having their phones, tablets or laptops around them.

A number of students, who talked to the Saturday Standard about the shift from in-person lectures to online lessons say while they love their digital gadgets, they never envisaged a time when they would have to use them as the all-important learning tools that they have become.

“I haven’t learnt anything since we started these online classes. And I’m not blaming it on the obvious problems of poor internet, power failures, lack of data bundles or smartphones,” says Judy Wanjiru, a second year journalism student at the Technical University of Kenya.

The student, who doesn’t own a laptop or tablet, says she uses her smartphone strictly for social media, taking photos and visiting websites that feed her passions or interests such as fashion, music, celebrities, dating and cooking.

“So when you ask me to  get online to listen to a lecture or a podcast, I will do so but I will keep switching to sites which speak to my heart,” she says.

Wanjiru’s views mirror those of Arnold Mwangangi, a third year student at the University of Nairobi.

“Many times, I just log in so the lecturer can see I’m present in class but in reality, I’m busy doing my own stuff on the net or watching a movie,” says the student, who lives in Lavington, Nairobi.

“I really miss face-to-face learning because of the social interactions, real group discussions and creating a rapport with the lecturers. Now, it’s like watching a movie. It’s worse when you have to do an online examination using the mobile phone because you do not own a laptop or tablet,” says Brian Kamore of the Kenyatta University. He adds that some of the lecturers are “hardly conversant with the online platforms such as Zoom”, which makes the situation worse.

Triza Mungai of Daystar University says the adjustment to virtual learning was an uphill task. It was difficult for her to strike a balance between work and virtual classes.

“I got a full time job and it was quite difficult to adjust to virtual learning when the pandemic hit. Most times, I lacked enough time to read and prepare for class. At times, I would log into a class while on the road heading home,” she says.

She explained that it took her two months to fully adjust to a new schedule, which she now says has given her a great experience, but cites poor internet signals and power blackouts as the major challenges students grapple with, especially when they affect lecturers.

“Imagine a situation where a lecturer’s signal freezes or the gadget runs out of power perhaps due to an outage in the middle of their lecture. This would throw the session into confusion.”

Lost academic year

She has no doubt about the effectiveness of the virtual classes, adding that it is better than suspending the entire learning process without definite timelines for resumption.

“Losing an academic year or a semester is painful to a student. Studying online gives a student room to concentrate more on education without putting on hold their other aspects of life,” says Mungai.

For Washington Mito, also a student at Daystar, virtual learning stretches a his thinking to be at par with what he would have expected to learn while in a physical class.

“It also presented me with an opportunity to have WiFi installed in our house despite the cost which my parents had previously deemed too heavy and unnecessary. My use of the internet is not limited to learning and this has enhanced my life experience,” he says.

For the majority of students from poor backgrounds, their problems are more structural; lack of reliable Internet, electricity or even smartphones. Apart from digital lessons, the Covid-19 pandemic also forced the introduction of virtual graduations, virtual orientation sessions and virtual registration of freshers.

When he addressed freshmen in September last year, the University of Nairobi Vice-Chancellor Prof Kiama Gitahi: “Today marks a very important milestone in the history of UoN. It is the first time that UoN has conducted end to end academic processes using online platforms. We processed your admissions online, registered you online and now you are going to be taught online for this Semester.”

Yet, according to Mito, virtual graduations are obviously bland and devoid of the fun and excitement.

“There is a lot of joy in a physical graduation but with the virtual event, there is no such feeling of excitement at the end of the course. Sharing such moments with colleagues and family is always momentous.”

However, he says virtual learning is the future across the globe.

“With the internet, chances are high you will learn something new you wouldn’t have in a traditional physical class. Students will be leaving class as tech-savvy persons,” he says,  adding that since embarking on online learning, there has been increased interaction between students-students, students-lecturers which was limited in physical classes.

“The main challenge is when it comes to practical sessions. A student now has to make extra and personal effort to engage in the practical aspect of what is being taught,” he says.

“Virtual learning also came with some of the fees being subsidized which was reasonable considering the hard economic times the virus has imposed on us.”

According to Charles Njoroge, who is pursuing Masters in Science Statistics at the Murang’a University, online learning has reduced interaction between students and lecturers.

“Concentration is a major challenge because there is no supervision or the atmosphere might not be conducive for learning. Group discussions are usually energised and refreshing because learners share their peculiar experiences. With online learning, it is all so rigid, dull and controlled,” he says.

Njoroge, however, believes the pandemic has forced the learning institutions and the education stakeholders to embrace technology.

“Change is inevitable, though I prefer face-to-face learning throughout my life in school, But it’s wise to go with the global trend and embrace the new norm,” he says.

The student further said despite the fact that the tutor-student feedback fades away in online learning, the new norm lowered costs and time consumption needed to physically travel to school.

“The pandemic may be a blessing in disguise for the education stakeholders, probably its high time to spare billions invested in constructing classrooms, and maintaining schools while the same be used to stabilize  e-learning,” Njoroge opined.

Brendah Kemunto, a third-year Bachelor of Arts (English and Literature) student, says learning institutions must adapt to the changing times to be successful.

She explains that the system has made the education system more conducive. It calls for self-discipline and a great amount of motivation. Students need to set their own goals, meet deadlines and track their process on their own without the help of a supervisor.

“The use of smartphones, laptops and reliable electricity supplements classroom learning and it enables students to access apps and websites that provide advanced learning opportunities. Most universities shifted to online examination in order to enable students to complete their studies since physical resumption was impossible due the spread of Covid-19,” she says.

Kemunto says online examinations are reliable, secure and highly interactive since they objectively and systematically evaluate students’ skills, abilities and characteristics.

“Online examination also enables the examiners to scale up their evaluation processes without any problems. Graduations and orientations also take place over the internet using available web technologies. This has opened up opportunities for students who come from weak socio-economic communities and have a difficult time in accessing limited resources. It exposes them to new perspectives and the ideas shared are not limited to the heads in a classroom.”

Verah Nyakiongona, a final year Procurement student at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, says online learning is expensive. “To have a kid in school one must spend on them but most parents opt to have their kids at home. For students in the village, most of them experience network problems which is vital for internet connection.”

Nyakiongona says not all students afford smartphones and laptops as the main tool for all these online activities.

“Not all villages are connected to electricity. If someone has a laptop or a smartphone and data but cannot access electricity, then online learning is not possible. At times, someone can be logged out of the session, sometimes there is poor coordination between lectures and students.”

For examinations, she says they can not be reliable because there is no supervision. “Those that have the advantage of copying have a higher chance of performing better than those that will not.”

“There is more excitement during a physical graduation ceremony. Sharing such moments with colleagues and family is momentous,” she says.

[Reports by Kariuki Waihenya, Kennedy Gachuhi, Erick Abuga and Ndungu Gachane]

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