The virtual telecentre and the demand side of unemployment

During the European Commision Expert Workshop on Measuring the Impact of eInclusion Intermediaries in Europe I was invited to present a position paper, eInclusion Intermediaries in Europe: horizon 2020. My diagnosis related to the development of the Information Society and the state of the digital divide in most developed countries was as follows:

  • Last mile issues about to be solved.
  • Physical access to infrastructures generally not a barrier.
  • Increasing supply of content and services.
  • Advanced (digital) competence required.
  • Stable share of refuseniks.

Of course, it is untrue that all other problems are already solved, but they are quickly falling in the field of “operational issues” rather than “strategic policies”.

On the other hand, Telecentre.org has identified for Spark, the 4th Global Forum on Telecentres three main themes around which to spin all the reflection and debate:

  • People.
  • Innovation.
  • Sustainability.

These are, in my opinion, closely intertwined topics: I do not think there is sustainability without the support of the community and without innovation; and innovation can only come from the community and supported by a strong community.

So, people, innovation and sustainability, but with a chancing scenario — as depicted before — and in a new context of crisis and rampant unemployment (at least in Europe). Thus, what could the next steps of telecentres be to contribute to development, social inclusion and employment?

Transforming telecentres

I believe there are two ways to transform telecentres or to push them ahead: change the things they do (and how they do them) and change the way they are.

Concerning the former, Paco Prieto provides a couple of very interesting proposals related to sustainability and people (or the community).

Related to sustainability, he advocates for a BYOD-based telecentre model: that is, a telecentre without equipment (just connectivity), where everyone is free to use their own device. Not on ly is this more sustainable (of course) but it also enhances a community use, as it gets rid of the smell of classroom of most telecentres, becoming instead an informal place, a big living room.

This community factor can be even more enhanced by flipping the telecentre, with the idea of avoiding the use of telecentres as lecture rooms and turn trainers into knowledge sharing facilitators.

These are two ideas I full agree with and go very much in the line of turning telecenters into ICT-empowered community centres, an idea that was at the core of the work we did when designing the Professional qualification: Promotion of ICT Facilities. The main idea is that telecentres are more community based, doubling as (or being embedded in) civic centres, schools, used by local entrepreneurs as living labs, etc.

But we sure can go one step beyond.

The virtual telecentre

We tend to think in telecentres as places, literally, not as functions, or roles. But let us think in the roles or functions of telecentres. To main role of telecentres is to enable public access to the to the Information Society.

Accessing the Information Society used to mean accessing ICT infrastructures. But evidence is telling us that access is increasingly a matter of skills and, still, a matter of money. Why not focussing, thus, in providing skills at a very low price?

On the other hand, we know that while people is increasingly more confident with ICTs and use them in their everyday lives, institutions usually lack the awareness for using ICTs efficiently and effectively. In other words: despite individuals being able to use ICTs, this usage is not translated in institutional ICT usage.

I suggest it is time for developing a new modality of telecentre: the virtual telecentre. The virtual telecentre is insourced into a host organization. Unlike the usual IT department,

  • The virtual telecentre has the functions and roles of a traditional telecentre, that is, enabling access at a very low price (or even free, through subsidies, etc.).
  • As a traditional telecentre, too, the virtual telecentre operates in a network of virtual telecenters, who share amongst them strategies and resources.
  • The virtual telecentre has it easier to, at its time, outsource much of its administration (to the network or to the hosting institution), thus being able to concentrate on its specific tasks and goals.

Of course, this is a de facto public-private partnership, which improves targeting the beneficiaries of policies to public access to the Internet and the sustainability of the whole system: being insourced, there is a growing possibility to provide services for free (subsidised) and others for profit.

But, why a virtual telecentre?

The demand side of unemployment

Most policies (that is, all policies, not just “e-policies”) to fight unemployment are addressed to the supply side of the job market: the worker or the unemployed. Training, improving employability, new skills, new competences, how to apply for a job, how to better write and disseminate your resume. And telecentres are contributing and quite well to this endeavour. I am OK with that, but it is only half the story.

There is increasing evidence that SMEs are less competitive than bigger firms, and that part of this lack of competitiveness is due to the lack of knowledge or traning in management of their decision-makers. A corollary of the previous statement is that, due to this lack of knowledge they also lack the knowledge on how to apply ICTs in their production functions. In other words, they neither know the tools nor the benefits of e-commerce, e-business, cloud computing, social media, ERPs, CRMs, teleworking and net-working, etc.

And the thing is that these decision-makers rarely visit telecentres. In the best scenario they will attend a specific course on a given topic. But most of them will not seek for help in telecentres and most of them will not be able to pay for professional consultancy.

And here is where the virtual telecentre may make sense: by insourcing the telecentre, advice and facilitation is not outside the firm, but inside, that is, at reach. And by being a telecentre — and not an external for-profit company — that advice and facilitation is affordable by SMEs.

The virtual telecentre could become a useful trojan horse to fight the digital divide from the inside of the entreprise, and from there, to contribute the fight against unemployment, by helping especially SMEs to make the best of ICTs in terms of better organization, productivity and competitiveness.

New article. Heavy switchers in translearning: From formal teaching to ubiquitous learning

Cover for the article Heavy switchers in translearning: From formal teaching to ubiquitous learning

On the Horizon — the academic journal on education policy and strategic planning — has just published has just published a special issue on the Knowmad Society and borderless work and eduction.

The issue includes a paper of mine entitled Heavy switchers in translearning: from formal teaching to ubiquitous learning, which is quite a title indeed.

The nonwords I use in the title, more than gratuitous, really want to point at some crucial points I address in the paper:

  • Heavy switching is opposed to multitasking, in the sense that not only people do not actually multitask (increasing scientific evidence on that matter) but actually switch tasks very quickly and, more important, switch environments: their (formal) learning environment, their job environment, their family environment… When your environment is where your laptop is, people really can and actually do switch tasks quite heavily.
  • Translearning is about learning through (instead of at) several places, learning as one goes along different environments and, above all, learning resources, especially those that are found outside of educational institutions.

Thus, heavy switching and translearning are used in the sense that ICTs do transform the context and the environment where learning usually took place. And that is why Vigotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development is revisited, this time to redefine the more knowledgeable other in the framework of Personal Learning Environments.

In his introductory article to the special issue, guest editor John W. Moravec describes the article as:

an interesting approach in blending Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development (ZPD) (see esp. Vygotsky 1978) with personal learning environments (PLEs), afforded through ICTs, that enable translearning and heavy switching that is difficult to manage in formal learning environments. In other words, PLE-based learning strategies could be employed to manage an individual’s engagement within their own ZPD. Such an approach, [the author] argues, blurs the distinctions between teachers and learners, in addition to questioning the roles of formal institutions of learning.

The paper is still in its preprint version, so it may still go under some minor edits.

I am very glad to see this paper published as its conception has been a gradual process of putting scattered ideas together since, as far as I can remember, my reflections after the Open EdTech Summit in November 2010. Most of them were tested live at TIES2012 in my communication The PLE as a personal tool for the researcher and the teacher.

I am very grateful to John W. Moravec for his infinite patience, comments and hints way beyond his duties as guest editor.

Download

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Peña-López, I. (2013). Heavy switchers in translearning: From formal teaching to ubiquitous learning. In On the Horizon, 21 (2). Lincoln: NCB University Press.

Abstract

Purpose – We explore the role of Personal Learning Environments in an already ICT-dense context and in combination with some educational approaches in the field of technology enhanced education. We analyze how Personal Learning Environments are not a device but a learning strategy that threatens the way educational institutions and their functions are understood, by contributing to enable a borderless learning society.

Design/methodology/approach – We will begin revisiting Vygotsky’s concept of the Zone of Proximal Development and assess the role of educators and educational institutions as the actual more knowledgeable others in scaffolding learners’ learning paths. This role will be put in relationship with different learning scenarios (formal, non-formal, informal and autodidactic) according to their inner structure (or lack of) and degree (or absence) of planning. Last, we put PLEs in relationship with other “physical” spaces (VLEs and LMSs), the digitization of content (open educational resources), records and assessments (e-Portfolios) and the possibility to flip some traditional tasks or processes that enabled regaining the social component in the classroom (Education 2.0).

Findings – We suggest that PLEs have come to close the circle of ICTs in Education with a highly transformative power: the power to blur the boundaries between formal teaching and informal learning. Indeed, the traditionally difficult transition from one learning scenario to a different one has been made smoother by the appearance of OER and, especially, social media constructs that can be used for learning purposes, especially within a PLE-based strategy.

Originality/value – It is stated that institutions should embrace and even foster the possibility that learners could easily and intensively switch educational resources, just like they could shift among different registers and learning scenarios, as a newly enabled way to tear down the artificial divisions that formal learning edified.

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Darío Quiroga Parra: ICT, knowledge, innovation and productivity

Notes from the PhD Dissertation defence by Darío Quiroga Parra entitled TIC, conocimiento, innovación y productividad: Un análisis empírico comparado sobre las fuentes de la eficiencia en América Latina, países asiáticos y la OCDE (ICT, knowledge innovation and productivity: an empirical compared analysis on the sources of efficiency in Latin America, the Asian countries and the OECD), directed by Joan Torrent Sellens.

Defence of the thesis: ICT, knowledge innovation and productivity: an empirical compared analysis on the sources of efficiency in Latin America, the Asian countries and the OECD.

What is the evidence of new sources of efficiency? What is the stage of the transition towards a knowledge economy?

The literature has already found an evidence of a direct impact of ICTs on the growth of productivity, and an indirect effect of ICTs on productivity and innovation, due to the complementarity between ICTs, organizational practices, innovation and human capital.

The hipotheses are:

  • New sources of co-innovation marginally explain the level of productivity in LatAm.
  • The differential of the growth of productivity between LatAm and Asia and the OECD is due to new sources of efficiency.

A revision was made to find what were all the determinants of productivity and innovation, which were the sources of productivity and, most specifically, which ones were the new sources of productivity and which one s the new sources of co-innovation.

Co-innovation factors were built after adding up components by using factorial analysis. That is, it was found what combinations of variables, combined together, better explained innovation.

Two levels of co-innovation were found:

  • Weak co-innovation: 2 different factors
  • Strong co-innovation: 3 different factors.

Regressions show that co-innovation has appeared since 2000 (regressions made with data from 2000, 2006 and 2008) and is significant, having a positive impact on innovation and productivity. For LatAm, nevertheless, weak co-innovation is more important than for OECD countries, where strong-innovation is the most important one. Coefficients clearly grow from 2000 to 2006, while they tend to stabilization in 2009.

On the other hand, Asian countries boost productivity by adding more capital to their production functions, and not by co-innovation. On the contrary, OECD countries decrease the impact of capital and add more (strong) co-innovation.

On what refers to the differential of the growth of productivity it is important to note that all countries used co-innovation, but in the first stages it had a negative impact on the general growth of the economy, turning positive in the last stage.

Conclusions: Evidence of the existence of new sources of productivity: ICT, human capital, institutions, innovation. In LatAm, though, institutions and Internet are not very important to explain productivity. Thus, the lack of presence of such productivity sources in LatAm explain the difference of growth of productivity between LatAm and OECD countries.

It is important to note that ICTs do not act alone in impacting productivity, but require other factors such as human capital, organization or institutions. Same can be said about the other factors, such as institutions.

Discussion

Jorge Sainz: how can we tell the quality of education by the indicators chosen (only “input”-type of indicators were chosen, and not “output”-type)? Would quality have an impact in the conclusions of this research? Do Caribbean countries behave as the rest of the LatAm region countries or are they different?

Luis Chaparro: in LatAm, most introductions of ICTs have addressed the automation and substitution of old technologies, but not the rethinking of the whole process of production. This is absent in the research, but very much in agreement with the results shown in it.

Josep Coll: beyond human capital, the consideration that countries have to their peoples (trust in people, for instance; management vs. leadership; value sharing, etc.) sure also has an impact on innovation and productivity. Same applies to culture: LatAm, Asia or OECD countries have major cultural differences that surely affect efficiency, productivity, the very concept of growth or welfare, and they should thus be added to the models. And, usually, efficiency gains have a trade-off with other factors, usually rooted in culture: hence, what are these cultural factors that people are willing to trade for higher rates of efficiency?

Darío Quiroga: the inclusion of the quality of education there was an attempt to add it to the model, but it is very difficult to find data on the topic Indeed, there is a dire need for universities in the region to reflect about this topic, and how to measure/quantify it. On a related topic, it is also true that there are many other “qqualitative” differences such as fixed phone lines vs. mobile telephony, or, within mobile telephony, GSM or 3G. A commitment thus, has to be made and accept that the research will have some limitations, especially at the qualitative level. There is hence a need for other qualitative approaches to complete this research.

Notwithstanding, the role of institutions — mainly a qualitative one — is dealt with in the research and a positive impact is found too.

Related with “retinking one’s business” (RE Chaparro) it is true, but can be proxied by looking at the organizational practices, which was included in this research.

Concerning organizational practices — and more related with people in businesses — LatAm is still showing lack of flexibility and of change within businesses, on changing the way workers are managed or addressed to. So, it seems that culture, change of cultural patterns, change of organization architectures do not seem to be following the path of other issues like the adoption of ICTs in institutions. There is a huge gap between investment and usage of ICTs and knowledge economy in Latin America.