By Dr Margaret Nyambura
Internet access in Kenya has seen an incredible boom over the last decade. The regulatory authority cited that of the 37.7 million subscribers, as of September 2016, 99 % accessed the Internet through their mobile devices. There have been targeted government and operator initiatives to deal with issues of digital literacy such as the Digital Learning Programme (DLP) and offering of cheaper social media data to combat affordability issues. However, these are targeted at young people, raising alarms amongst the older generation.
This blog is based on data collected through FGDs for a Mozilla and IDRC funded research “Internet use barriers and user strategies: perspectives from Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Rwanda”. The research was part of a country comparative study conducted in South Africa, Nigeria and Rwanda with a specific focus on use of subsidised data. In Kenya, ten focus group discussions were held in four locations of Nairobi, Kikuyu, Kiambu and Machakos between October and November of 2016. These locations represented urban, peri-urban and rural residents with participants chosen to ensure age and gender balance with diverse education and professional experience.
A constant issue that emerged when conducting the FGDs was the school laptop project under the Digital Learning Programme (DLP). The DLP project is a government flagship project that targets all the 20,368 public primary schools in Kenya. The project whose implementation started in 2015 aims at giving class one pupils’ customised laptops with digital content hosted in the cloud. Electricity and connectivity are being extended to the schools too.
If Internet is positively used by our children, it can impact their lives for the better. …but if it is used in the wrong way, we will need fire fighting gadgets to bring an end to what is a head of us– (Male participant, peri-urban Kikuyu)
Perceptions emerging from the research found that while parents welcomed the initiative to provide free laptops to the pupils, they felt that the new technologies would make them loose a grip of their traditional role of educating their children in a paced way.
With the advent of zero-rated Free basics, which facilitates social networking at no cost, their concerns were heightened. How parents perceived the Internet was associated with alarm bells sounding off. Respondents that were parents expressed their fears that children would access inappropriate content. For non-internet users, the perception was that apart for social media use, it is about pornography.
Children compete among themselves and get better phones than their parents who have no interest in the Internet. They start accessing adult content. When the parents discover that, they get even more disoriented about the Internet.- (Female participant, rural. Kiambu)
Slightly below a third of the Kenyan population are young people of school-going age. To put it in context, in 2016 a total of about 1.5 million students sat for their KCPE and KCSE. This gives a rough estimate of about 10 million children that are enrolled in both primary and secondary schools in Kenya. With the laptop projects, social classes will be dismantled since children do not have such. What one child has access to will be accessed by all so if a parent carelessly leaves their gadget to their children, that would be a weak point that will affect many. The guardians, parents and the elders should be the role models.
After hearing the concerns from the participants, I sought to discuss with one of the leaders of the DLP project at the ICT Authority who shared the digital literacy programme management guidelines. In the guidelines, the role of the parents and the community at large in encouraging digital learning is well documented. Does that mean that this information has not trickled down to the parents and the community at large? Given the level of ignorance demonstrated by these respondents, it is important that parents are considered as key stakeholders who must be carried along for the success of the project particularly in the rural areas where technology is alien.
From where are parents supposed to learn general information about the Internet and its possibilities considering that in the villages, children may be the first to learn about computers and the Internet? Will they support these children to get digital or they will sabotage the project for fear of what the children may be exposed to?
A participant in one of the FGDs intimated that parents have a great role to play if the laptop project is to succeed. She argued that it is important that parents are at the front line to give the children directions else the children will know how to Google through friends and will get all sort of information and parents will be rendered irrelevant in the growth of their own children.
Awareness programmes targeting the parents in addition to having a representative when the equipment is being received in the schools should be considered. National programmes that educate the masses about the Internet and its capabilities through televisions, radios newspapers, community health centres and churches should be started to ensure continuous learning down to the grassroots.
Clearly, technology has not been demystified and interpreted to Kenyans in this particular study. People are suspicious of what others do online, which discourages those who are not confident. There should be public awareness to inform people the full range of potential benefits of using the Internet for them to tune in, access and use in a productive way.
Dr. Margaret Nyambura Ndung’u is a researcher and consultant in ICT4D. She is a Kenyan partner of the RIA Network and will be leading the Kenyan ICT household and individual survey in 2017.
She can be contacted on email@example.com