Every morning in Kakuma, an isolated complex of camps hosting 165,000 refugees in northwest Kenya, a couple of dozen accountancy students sit down at their computers for class.
In the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, some 450 miles (730 km) away, lecturers in Strathmore University, one of Kenya’s oldest private colleges and top business schools, enter a sound-proofed digital studio to deliver real-time, virtual classes to the refugees.
They taking part in a pilot project by iLab Africa, a research and innovation center at Strathmore, in partnership with refugee education charity Windle Trust Kenya and with funding from UNHCR, to provide free Certified Public Accountant (CPA) qualifications to refugees in Kenya using live-streaming and conferencing technologies.
The first CPA course started last summer in Kakuma camp, home to thousands who fled war and destitution in neighboring South Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia and beyond. Last year, Kenya vowed to close Kakuma but later restricted the threat to Dadaab, the country’s other major refugee camp and the world’s largest. Meanwhile, refugees fleeing atrocities in nearby South Sudan continue to pour into Kakuma.
Since the initial pilot, some of the students in Kakuma are now taking the second CPA course, while others are retaking the qualification exam. “The CPA was not a piece of cake, but they are pretty serious with their work and we hope to get an even better performance in CPA section two,” says Regina Nkonge, who manages the project as iLab Africa’s digital learning manager. “We’re studying the uptake of this teaching methodology with this particular group and will use what we learn to adapt or change the model in the future.”
Refugees Deeply spoke to Nkonge about the pilot in Kakuma and the opportunities and limits of virtual learning for refugees.
Refugees Deeply: Could you explain how the project works and who it is for?
Regina Nkonge: In both Kakuma and Dadaab, there are very few teachers, while the students are many. Sometimes the teachers at the tertiary level are not qualified or trained. So the education given to refugees is watered down. There are many students who want to continue their education, but very few organizations or schools that are offering tertiary education in the camps.
We established a CPA examination center at Kakuma camp, as the registered centers are very far from the camp. [Kenya’s national accountancy examination body] KASNEB traveled to Kakuma and approved the center.
The Windle Trust Kenya advertised the program at the camp, and many students showed interest and submitted their applications. But, because of the KASNEB requirements, we were only able to get 24 students. Of them, 23 are male and only one female, so that’s a challenge. Most female [applicants] at the camp were not able to meet the requirements.
There are some computer labs at the camp, but they’re already used for other trainings, so we constructed a dedicated computer lab for our classes and equipped it with enough computers so each student is able to have their own computer connected to the internet, with their own earphones and microphone.
The students go to the computer lab every day to attend class, while the lecturer delivers the lecture from Strathmore University. The students in Kakuma can follow the class and ask questions using their mic or write questions using a messaging application, so the lecturer is able to answer that question in real time. We eliminated the need to travel between the refugees and the teacher.
Refugees Deeply: What were the main lessons that you learned during the pilot project?
Nkonge: The first lesson that we learned is the importance of an initial needs assessment when starting such a project. While some organizations that work in the camps told us that these students are tech savvy, we soon discovered that they didn’t have the ICT [Information and Communications Technology] skills to interact with a virtual environment as a learner. For almost a month, we had to go check in on them and see whether they were able to log in or access learning material online. So we offered the students basic ICT skills and trained a member of staff of Windle Trust based at the camp so that he can help them with any technical issues.
Another thing that we learned was internet connectivity was a bit low at first in the computer lab and the streaming of the classes was lagging. We approached the Kenyan mobile service provider Safaricom and asked them if they could raise the bandwidth a little bit for the purposes of this class. They agreed, so classes have been a bit smoother than they were originally.
The third thing we learned is that we need to study how to motivate the students. When lots of students do attend class, the lecturers told us that their participation is really good and the students ask really intelligent questions. But the problem is getting the students to class. For example, if it has rained in Kakuma and there are floods and the students cannot access the computer labs, they cannot come to class. Or perhaps it’s the time for distribution of food relief and they’re not able to come to class. Or maybe it’s a motivation issue – they’re feeling a bit down based on what’s happening in their lives and they don’t want to come to class.
That’s why the virtual classes are good because they actually interact with a lecturer in real-time. The lecturer can also talk about other aspects of life, like forgiveness, personal drive and initiative. There are many things that the lecturer is able to pass on to the students in real time that probably wouldn’t be possible if this content was just pre-recorded and put online for the students to access.
The lecturers felt that it would be good if someone at the camp was also following up with the students. So the Windle Trust employee helping the students with technology issues now also does student support, taking an attendance register in class, checking how the students are doing and giving us at Strathmore feedback.
It would be nice to find a way of training teachers who actually live in Kakuma, or to have a lecturer go to the camp for one or two weeks. Students feel like they identify with the teacher more when there’s face-to-face interaction. But getting the lecturers to the camp requires money and air tickets. Kakuma is one hour and 30 minutes from Nairobi by plane.
Another thing is the very low rate of female participation in these classes. We are studying how to focus on women who are not able to meet the requirements of KASNEB. We are thinking of perhaps offering a different subject, so the women are not left behind.
Refugees Deeply: One factor that might affect the motivation of refugee students is their prospects of employment and uncertainty about their future. How do you handle providing qualifications to people who really don’t know how they’ll be able to use it?
Nkonge: That’s part of the reason why we chose the CPA. First of all, it’s a national examination, meaning it is nationally recognized in Kenya, as well as the whole of East Africa. The refugees in Kakuma are mostly from East Africa. Even if the refugees are repatriated to their country, they can still pursue CPA in institutions in their own countries or they can continue with our course online.
Refugees Deeply: Do you still have plans to extend the project into Dadaab, with Kenya’s repeated threats to close the camp?
Nkonge: For now, we’re concentrating on Kakuma until UNHCR tells us otherwise. We don’t know about the closure of Dadaab, so the agreement with UNHCR is to focus on Kakuma for now.
Refugees Deeply: Do you think that this model could be applied in other countries, particularly in countries that have encampment policies?
Nkonge: Yes. The model is very flexible and can be applied across the world, but the choice of what is being taught is crucial. What we choose to teach refugees will either encourage them to come to class or not.
Refugees Deeply: Is it important that it’s a Kenyan university teaching refugees in Kenya?
Nkonge: Absolutely. For example, if I’m teaching refugees from around East Africa then probably our problems are more or less the same. In as much as we come from different countries, we are closer because of that deep understanding of African culture and deep understanding of what’s happening in neighboring countries.
This interview was conducted on March 14, 2017, and has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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