Mobile tech is proof we can prosper in sciences
The nearly two million candidates set to sit their national examinations in December should counter the myth that sciences must be failed by watching the amazing way in which their parents, sibling and neigbours have become adept at using complex modern mobile-based technologies.
For indeed, a great technological revolution that has taken place worldwide within the past few decades and impacted traditional telephony irreversibly. It looks quite unbelievable that in our lifetime, we have queued at the coinbox booth and rushed to a neighbour’s house to pick up a call. Or even sent ‘salaams’ over the radio for lack of a more immediate channel!
In my estimation, a detailed users’ manual capturing all the digital competences in the hands of a contemporary Kenyan should be fatter than A. F. Abbot’s Ordinary Level Physics, that Goliath of high school textbooks. It is, therefore, quite remarkable how smoothly the uptake of mobile ‘literacy’ has happened, even among the most rural folk. Were it not for Kenyans’ renowned resilience, mass bootcamps would have been needed in order to bring us up to speed! Locally, at the forefront of this global tech revival locally has been Safaricom PLC, the company that has been most instrumental in introducing us to the endless collection of mobile phone applications, the daily expensive raids on our wallets through airtime and other service charges notwithstanding.
All at once, everyone I meet speaks of ‘balance’, ‘airtime’, ‘bundles’, ‘data’, ‘withdrawal’, ‘fuliza’, ‘sambaza’ and other avant-garde financial transactional concepts with complete self-assurance. The quick-witted beauties at M-Pesa and other money agencies, for instance, are astonishing to watch as they accurately perform complex, financial calculations, off-head. With just half that effort during their schooldays, they would be leading scientists today. Other telecom companies have not been any less stellar.
Quite recently, persuading people to talk or send their hard-earned money, through curious handheld gadgets would be met with the bewilderment reserved for occult science. Right now, most Kenyan grandmas- I cite them only for maximum contrast- could give me a run for my money in any mobile phone-based money transferring ‘examination’ (pun intended).
In stark contrast, visitors coming from abroad-many quite erudite-always fumble awkwardly with the basic money transfer skills which, to us, are duck soup.
When I once taught high school, I found it quite difficult instructing some of my countrymen in numerical subjects. Heavens know how hard I tried to disabuse my students of their arithmophobia, sometimes sacrificing evenings and weekends to conduct free tuition. Some had immutable ‘factory settings’ that equated mathematics to an impenetrable equatorial forest. Our mean-score swung south. Suddenly, in this new magical paperless money dispensation, proverbial old dogs- many formerly allergic to sciences -now even teach me their new esoteric tricks of ‘buying float’, ‘depleted account’, ‘e-loans’ and so on so triumphantly! Tongue-in-cheek, I’d say that the skills of today’s average expert of money transfer services such as M-Pesa, Airtel-money are at par with what Introduction to Computing and Business Mathematics students take years to learn.
The lesson here for curriculum architects and science teachers is quite straightforward: a Pavlovian dose of relevance can make any ‘difficult’ subject likable and exciting. I am sure the Telecom companies used no fetishes to make ‘scientific’ inroads. The thing is that, when Kenyans were ‘shown the money’, their dormant intellectual reserves automatically activated. Therefore, aligning syllabi closely with students’ most basic needs, abilities and aspirations should be the way to go. If that was the original spirit of the CBC education system, I will never cast the first stone.
— John Wahome is a lecturer, Laikipia University