When homes became classrooms following the closure of schools, many families had to adjust to online learning.
Using video-conferencing platforms such as Zoom, Google Classroom, and Class Dojo means that there must be additional laptops in a home, faster Internet and sometimes an adult on standby to remind the children the passwords, unmute or delete computer backgrounds with ocean views saved as children’s faces and generally ensure that online learning happens.
Meshack and Irene Ochieng’ are parents to Thomas, 12 and Arthur, 10. Like many parents, they have been trying to adjust to remote learning. Their children use Google Classroom and Zoom, with their 40-minute classes running from 8am to 3 pm on weekdays.
Meshack had envisioned online classes at some point but not this soon. Therefore, he was not ready for the investments he had to make when his children started online learning.
“We had to buy a new laptop, purchase a Wi-Fi extender, rewire the Wi-Fi connection, and rearrange the house to accommodate a home classroom,” he says.
And while Thomas enjoyed his online classes, Arthur dropped out as soon as they started.
“They were boring because there was no teacher,” says the 10-year-old.
Noting that his son is more visual and prefers interactive learning, Meshack hired an online private tutor for Sh5,000 a month.
“He’s now settled only that the tutors want to increase the fees to Sh15,000,” Meshack says.
Unfortunately, the online classes lack physical interaction with the teachers, making it hard to manage a big number of pupils learning on the platforms at once.
In Thomas’ class, it has 60 pupils.
“If he doesn’t understand a concept, I have to teach him,” Meshack says, adding that this, together with a lack of physical interaction that young children need, are the disadvantages of online learning.
So how does he ensure his children are not fatigued from constantly having to sit in front of a computer?
“They take breaks by doing house chores and things that they like. Arthur likes cooking so he’ll cook,” Meshack says.
However, the Ochieng’s constant challenge is the elusive work-homeschooling balance.
“It’s not been easy but we’ve learnt how to manage,” he says.
Winny Rutto-Too and her husband are happy that their children are safe at home. Ethan, 13, a Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) candidate and Jaden, 5, are both doing online learning.
“Honestly speaking, without the classes, where would the teachers start from if schools opened today? Children have been out of school for almost three months now so keeping them busy is okay,” she says.
Just like a majority of Kenyan parents, they had to make adjustments to make the home classrooms comfortable for their children.
“Since it’s important for Ethan to be comfortable to pay attention in class, I sacrificed my home office for his use as well as upgraded to a proper desk and chair. He already had a laptop so all we just upgraded the Wi-Fi’s bandwidth,” says Winny.
Ethan’s five Google classes a day start at 8 am, and they last an hour each. For the classes, parents pay Sh24,900 per month for older children and Sh7,500 for younger ones like Jaden.
Jaden has his Zoom classes for three hours a day. A class is 40 minutes long, after which they play, dance or sing.
But being so young, are the classes necessary? I ask her.
“Absolutely. Having the classes is not just about them learning but also maintaining their sanity through this unprecedented ‘holiday’. With Zoom, Jaden can see and talk to his friends. This excites him,” Winny says.
It also establishes a routine so that when schools reopen, it will not be hard for him to dive back, she adds.
She is quick to point out that she is not in a hurry to send them back to school amid rising cases of coronavirus.
“As a parent, the worry is not worth it,” she says.
Other than limiting TV screen time during non-school hours, to ensure prime productivity, Winny ensures that they go outside to swing and play football with their father as well as listen to Baroque music which has a calming effect.
Whereas Winny and the children are like online schooling, Adah Nyomanga has little praise. It did not work out for her two children: daughter Hera, 8, and son Jabali, 7.
“At first, I was excited about it, then the facts came down to play. I was to buy a laptop and the children needed a lot of support. Using the laptop for mathematical equations required a bit of tutoring — a time investment we didn’t have. Then came the Internet challenges. I never successfully logged into the school’s online class,” she says.
These frustrations made her go down a rather unpopular road: employ the services of a personal physical tutor.
How does she keep her children safe?
“We try to adhere to all the safety guidelines. She always starts by reminding the children of the basic hygiene required to prevent and reduce the spread of Covid-19,” Adah says.
The tutor also wears a mask.
“It’s uncomfortable for her to have the mask on the whole time,” Adah admits because she sees the tutor struggling.
And is the risk worth it?
“Yes. The children are grasping the concepts quite well because they receive more personalised attention than when they were in a larger classroom,” she says.
They are also less fatigued because their tutor can see when they have had enough of learning. Lessons are designed to ensure they have adequate breaks.
“The tutor plays with them, boosting physical activity,” Adah says. Financially speaking, having a tutor is slightly cheaper than the fees required for online classes.
“I pay the tutor 10 percent less than I could have paid as online school fees but I saved in terms of buying a laptop,” she says.
As Kenyan schools using Zoom, Google Classroom and mobile-based apps try to recreate classroom experiences as best as they can, some like The Nairobi Academy, say they are making great strides.
The schools try to make life as normal as it was in classrooms including having morning assemblies, ensuring order by asking the pupils to press the ‘raise hand’ button when they want to answer a question or take a bathroom break, do stretches, dance and jump in their living or study rooms during Physical Education lesson.
Dorena Maina, the Head of Prep School, says how the classes are structured and the compassion of the teachers, make it easy to do online learning.
“Instead of establishing new routines, we maintained the same ones we had before schools were closed,” Dorena says.
“We still use the same timetable and teaching formats. We aimed to keep the classes practical,” she adds.
A typical lesson is 50 minutes long. During the first 10 to 15 minutes, the teachers explain the concept. The rest of the time is spent doing classwork, just as in a physical classroom.
“We also do practical subjects like science experiments online. This keeps the children focused and engaged. Assignments are marked and feedback is given in real-time,” she says, adding that the classes are also smaller with 18 pupils at maximum.
In this season where children rarely interact with their peers to reduce risks of getting coronavirus, the teachers have become their sounding boards.
In one Zoom class, an 11-year-old told his teacher about his plans for his dog that was barking in the background. In another class, a child asked if an iPhone can make calls to a non-iPhone.
“Discussions are held with pupils beyond school life. The wholeness motivates them to attend class daily,” Dorena says.
The online classes have had their fair share of hitches. Some homes are too noisy with parents talking loudly and cooking pots tumbling down in the background. Some teachers also struggle to use technology.
“Our ICT teacher has had to make videos showing fellow teachers how to work with technology. When teachers know what to do, they’re confident. Confident teachers bring out the best in students,” she said.