opinionBy Gitura Mwaura
Rwanda set the pace for the region with the launch in September 2008, of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) programme targeting primary school pupils in Standard Four to Six (P4 - P6).
Kenya is following suit with the new Government's plan to issue laptops to school children, following a campaign promise in the recent presidential elections.
Implementation will begin with Standard One pupils next year, of whom 700,000 are expected to enroll for the class of 2014.
The first lesson is that, even if only half this number gets a laptop within the first year, it will be quite a feat.
Rwanda had a total primary school population of just over 2.3 million as of 2011. As of September 2012, exactly four years after the launch, according to the Rwanda Education Board, there were about 115,000 computers in primary schools across the country.
The aim is to have half a million of the laptops distributed, and at least one million by 2017.
At least one school in each of the 416 sectors in Rwanda is expected to get the laptops. A sector is the equivalent of a sub-district or division in Kenya.
Rwanda's situation is no different from much of East Africa. Uptake for the laptops could be better, except for two main reasons.
The first major reason is inadequate infrastructure, especially electricity supply to schools. The OLPC laptops are mainly operated using electricity, while many schools are yet to be connected to the national grid. Efforts are, however, under way to install solar electricity in as many schools are possible.
The second is inadequate capacity, in terms of numbers and computer literacy, of the primary school teachers. As of May 2012, the OLPC Project had trained just over 1,500 teachers and heads of school-not only in computer literacy, but in troubleshooting hardware, software and applications.
There is good reason for such technical training of the teachers. Computers often tend to break down for one reason or another, especially in the hands of children. Giving the teachers the ability to diagnose what the problem is likely to be, and how to fix it, is crucial.
Empowering the teachers with the technical capacity will ensure a smooth running of such a mass computer project.
Kenya has a primary school population of over 8.5 million pupils, according to the available figures. Only 5 per cent of public primary schools have computers.
Caution has already been urged before the laptop project is implemented in Kenya. It has already been pointed out that the imminent laptop project may not be viable without first addressing teachers' computer literacy, including the woefully inadequate school infrastructure in much of the country, and ensuring the computers are loaded with relevant curriculum.
This includes addressing issues of poverty that tend to hinder access to education. A significant number of school-going children in Kenya lack basic needs, including food and clothes, which has raised questions of feasibility for such an ambitious project.
While the promise is for a solar powered laptop for the Kenyan children, there have also been concerns by early childhood educationists about the merits of giving laptops to Standard One pupils as opposed to, say, Standard Four pupils who are a bit more "mature" to use the computers more efficiently.
There are also questions of the educational impact of the computers in terms of improved test scores by school children, of which many doubts have been raised borrowing examples from other countries.
These issues will need to be addressed. But it leads to this: in its potency, would the laptop for the school-going child merely be a symbol of Kenya's or Rwanda's ambition to turn itself into a knowledge-based economy?
We know that the free laptop will provide the only avenue for disadvantaged children to computer literacy in an increasingly globalised world, while it is possible the computers could be customised to suit the needs of a child.