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How Artificial Intelligence can change education in Kenya

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As our schools laptops project continues to face hurdles, folks in advanced economies are forging ahead to the next level by integrating Artificial Intelligence (AI) into their educational sector.

AI can provide personalised learning, assist in marking or grading and offer translation services that can enhance both learning and teaching experience.

Personalised learning means that the system can adjust the learning content based on student-specific needs or weakness. A teacher can now avoid using the one-size-fits-all approach that is common in traditional learning environments.

AI provides personalised learning, based on the testing and instant feedback arising from students as they engage with the digital learning platforms.

These types of systems respond to the needs of the student, putting greater emphasis on challenging topics or repeating content and tasks that students may not have mastered.

The learning system can therefore place students with different capabilities on different and appropriate learning paths, based on their most recent performance as the course progresses.

Students can also learn at their own pace as teachers get alert messages that flag out students who are not making the expected progress despite the personalised learning paths being presented.

Computer vision, another branch of AI, can also be deployed to capture and decipher student’s facial expression in real time, enabling teachers to pick out the students who are lost or struggling with concepts but are probably too shy to admit it or seek help.

Teachers can then have targeted and instant interventions rather than wait till the end of term to mark and award ‘fail’ grades to the struggling or absent-minded students.

Which brings us to the issue of grading or marking of scripts – the ultimate teacher’s nightmare.

With class sizes ranging from sixty to one hundred students in public schools, an average teacher would need to grade around five hundred scripts per week if they were to give out one assignment for each of the five subjects taught in a week.

AI can come in handy in assisting the teacher to grade assignments. Already the multiple-choice assignments are easy to do using technology but essay-based assignments are the next target for automated grading.

Using machine-learning algorithms, computers are now able to derive meaning and context from text-based answers. Though still at a rudimentary stage, this technology will be a game changer in the lives of teachers or lecturers.

In the near future, full thesis type of work would be able to be reviewed and assessed by AI, leaving teachers or lecturers with the much-needed time to focus on research.

Furthermore, automated grading also has the advantage of being able to easily point out to teachers those areas or topics in which students are performing poorly.

If a majority of students are failing a specific question, then perhaps the teacher is not addressing the particular content well or maybe the instruction set is not clear within the course material.

The role of the teacher or lecturer will therefore need to shift in the light of these developments.

It will have to move from being the ‘know-it-all’ subject matter expert, to a more facilitative role that involves guiding and encouraging the students to take more control of their learning experience.

Natural Language Processing (NLP) is another branch of AI that can be brought to bear in education. It is the engine behind your ability to talk to your phone and ask it to provide answers to a wide range of questions such as directions to your destination or topical trends in politics, religion, sports and history.

AI takes your speech or voice, translates it into text and uses algorithms to mine huge conversational data sets and build models that help it answer the questions in a human like manner.

Commonly known as Chat-bots, many enterprises have already deployed these tools as their customer care agents and nothing stops teachers from providing similar interfaces for the educational sector.

Educational chat-bots already exist and are able to respond to commonly asked student queries around the clock. But perhaps more powerful would be to use NLP as a translation tool particularly for the early childhood education subsector.

All English content taught at the lower primary level can be automatically translated into Kiswahili or even local dialect to bring the children who are struggling with English as their instructional language to the same level as their more proficient peers.

This can also be used at tertiary level, where most research content is published in English, meaning that content published in other languages such as French, Chinese or Arabic remains inaccessible. It can unlock these knew knowledge that is publicly available but somehow hidden away in a foreign language.

Is the Kenyan Education sector ready and preparing for all these development in the education sector?

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SHAW: Competent management of maize staple needed

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By ROBERT SHAW
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White maize is the foremost staple food in Kenya today. The crop is grown by a mix of large and small-scale farmers in the higher altitude areas north of Nakuru.

Due to the high level of inputs needed, the Kenyan crop is more expensive to produce than, for example, maize grown in neighbouring Uganda.

Consumption is in the region of 30 to 34 million bags (90kg) per annum while production varies at around 30 million bags or below, depending on rainfall. Being a largely rain-fed crop, maize production in Kenya is highly dependent on the vagaries of the weather. Cross-border imports from Uganda and Tanzania tend to make up for shortfalls in production and are relatively accessible.

When the deficit is large, as in 2017, then formal imports from countries with surplus white maize such as Mexico are brought on board.

The fact that Kenya has a structural deficit in its staple crop has been a challenging issue for many years. Improvements in seed variety and crop yields have literally been consumed by an increasing population. The move to rely less on rain-fed maize has also had a troubled history. The one million-acre Galana-Kulalu irrigation project has stalled, less than five years after it was started.

The project was seen as the key to getting Kenya out of its food deficit hole and, indeed, moving it into becoming a food surplus nation.

The project was a partnership between the National Irrigation Board (NIB) and Israel’s Green Arava Ltd and the latter blames cartels, which had a vested interest in maize imports. NIB, which has a relatively chequered history in its own right, appeared unwilling or unable to prevent the collapse. The National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB) is a key player in the sector.

Its overall role is to facilitate inputs to farmers, buy surpluses from farmers, provide storage and keep a strategic reserve.

It also sets buying prices although these are often dictated more by market conditions than the NCPB price. Farmers often try to sell much of their maize privately and offload the balance onto NCPB. The former is preferred by many because payments are largely in cash whereas being paid by NCPB can be a lengthy and arduous business.

NCPB has been beset by a number of issues over the years. Its role as a holder of strategic reserves does not often work as it will often have plenty of stock at times of surplus and next to nothing in times of shortages.

It has also been beset by a number of scams over the years. A more recent one was the buying of Ugandan maize by NCPB via brokers while local farmers were sitting with unsold maize.

This put a number of farmers in a difficult financial position and undoubtedly involved collusion from within the echelons of NCPB. The current position is changing fast. The surpluses from the harvest of 10 months ago when the rains were generous are fast depleting. The overdue March to May rains are late and meteorologists are projecting they could fail.

A likely scenario is that the next main harvest could be well below average, thus putting further pressure on maize supplies and prices. Bearing in mind the stock drawdown due to the last poor rains there will be a need for imports.

The Kenyan government does not have a good record in planning for shortfalls and tends to resort to knee jerk importations later rather than sooner. Once we are clearer of the likely size of the next crop and when imports will be needed the government should plan what and when it needs to import and go through a transparent tendering process.

If the worst case scenario pans out and the rains fail, then the country and its planners must work doubly fast on a number of fronts. First we need to plan for maize imports to last us until February next year at least when hopefully the next crop will be harvested. Considering the quantities and costs involved, the logistics would be a very demanding exercise.

Funding of such an importation exercise would also be a huge budgetary challenge which would inevitably seriously strain government finances. That, together with distributing it equitably and efficiently, would stretch government administrative and financial resources to limits which may be unsustainable in parts of the country.

Last, failure of the rains could raise social and civil fluidity to flashpoint levels especially if prices keep rising and supplies become erratic. In the longer term, it is essential for Kenya to become more self-sufficient in maize and indeed it has the opportunity to do so if it can get the Galana-Kulalu project back on track.

What comes out clearly is the need for a much more competent and transparent management of the sector with some significant remedial measures both within the government and in the NCPB itself.



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MWAURA: Death notices now more readable even though some flaws persist

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Five years ago, the Nation Transition pages were the laughing stock of readers. The family-written death and funeral announcements were supposed to be dignified and solemn information to the world about the deaths of their loved ones, but many of them were slovenly written with laughable spelling errors and obvious mistakes.

Readers raised concerns, which I tried to reflect in my article, “How to write a funeral announcement that upholds the dignity of a loved one” (Daily Nation, September 10, 2015). Words that were commonly mangled included angels that was rendered as “angles”, corteges as “cottages”, father-in-law as “father in low”, grisly road accidents as “grizzly road accidents”, and so on.

The writers also invented names for hospitals and mortuaries — including Matter Hospital, Kenya University Mortuary and Gertrude’s Garden Hospital. They did not seem to know which words to capitalise and when to use a comma, semi-colon and other punctuation marks. They failed to match dates with the correct days of the week or distinguish between “his” and “her”.

It was reader Githuku Mungai who posed the question: Does NMG have a policy of “not correcting” errors in death and funeral announcements?” The question was consequential. It led to the Transition pages being transformed. Today, the silly and stupid mistakes have, on the whole, disappeared. The notices are more readable and respectful of the dead.

This week, I asked Letty K’Okul of the Nation Ad Centre how this has come about. First, she said, they stopped accepting handwritten announcements, thus eliminating the possibility of introducing errors while preparing the notices for print.

Most of the announcements now come in as soft copy, which they go through with representatives of members of the bereaved families and correct any errors. The process can take anything from 10 minutes to virtually the whole day, she said. There can be a lot of back and forth consultations as most announcements are written under the authority of funeral committees. But, with patience, the system works.

Obvious errors are now routinely eliminated, though a few still slip through, for no system is perfect. One of the most common errors that have now been largely eliminated is the use of expressions “wife to”, “brother to” and “sister to”.

(Please note “brother to” or “sister to” is not always ungrammatical; it depends on whether you are describing a familial or transactional relationship. A recent announcement, correctly, said: Violet Wairimu Mungatana was “sister of Peninah Chege Mugambi”. But, going by what was said at the burial — which I attended — it would also have been correct to say that Violet was a good sister to Penny).

The death announcements are now generally clean and readable. However, most of them lack originality and creativity; they read like they’ve been written by the same writer who overuses the words “loving” and “beloved” and has a limited stock of hackneyed Bible verses that includes “[you have] fought the good fight and won the race” and its variants.

In addition, too many of the announcements have long crowded paragraphs written in small print (to accommodate long lists of family members and relatives), which make them difficult to read. The large slabs of names of family members and relatives will probably never become shorter. In Kenya, funerals are for the living, not the dead.

In my article last Friday, “Calling back and responding to messages isn’t what we do best”, I referred to a story on a church business published in the Sunday Nation of March 24, suggesting that the reporter failed to contact “a well-informed reader” who thought the article was misleading or a second source of information the reader had suggested.

The reporter did actually contact the second source, but found it unnecessary to contact the “well-informed reader”.

My apologies to the reporter for insinuating, wrongly, that he does not respond to queries, or that his story was necessarily misleading.



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EDITORIAL: Response to cholera outbreak is worrying

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By EDITORIAL
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The announcement by Nairobi Hospital that the number of staff members infected with cholera had risen to 52, including one death, by Thursday not only raises fears that the scale of the outbreak in the city and other counties could be worse than reported but also exposes the lack of a co-ordinated response to a health emergency.

The outbreak has been reported in Nairobi, Kajiado, Garissa and Machakos. There are reports that employees of two multinationals were recently quietly admitted to another city hospital.

Cholera is a bacterial disease usually spread through contaminated water. It is caused by consuming food or water contaminated with a bacteria called vibrio cholera. It causes severe diarrhoea and dehydration and, left untreated, it can be fatal in a matter of hours. However, it is easy to prevent and simple to contain if treatment is initiated in good time. A vaccine is also available.

The guidelines to avoid infection are simple: Use only treated water for hand washing, washing vegetables and drinking; only eat food in licensed premises; and observe general hygiene, including washing hands with clean water and soap after visiting the toilet and before handling food. But with the biting drought, several parts of Nairobi are experiencing a water shortage. That gravely compromises hygiene, especially in the informal settlements.

Infections of staff of some institutions have been traced to consumption of contaminated food supplied by contracted vendors. In a country where cutting corners to raise profits has become the norm, some vendors would rather bribe county government officials to get their staff certified than pay for the cholera vaccination, priced at Sh2,200 to Sh4,000 for the two doses.

The Kenya Medical Supplies Authority (Kemsa) confirmed Thursday that it has stocks of the vaccine at a more affordable price of Sh509 per dose in public hospitals but uptake by county governments has been low owing to “lack of funds”.

The response to the outbreak has been wanting. The Ministry of Health, particularly the Director of Public Health, ought to be leading emergency efforts to respond to the outbreak through an aggressive public education and communication campaign telling Kenyans how to avoid infection; the symptoms of cholera and where to seek treatment. But this is yet to be seen.

The devolution of health services is being blamed for the lack of a co-ordinated response to the outbreak. County governments are blaming their inaction on lack of emergency funds. The lethal combination of water scarcity, confusion, corruption in the county health inspectorates and sheer lack of leadership at several levels puts many Kenyans at risk of infection and death.



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