eLearning Africa 2016 (I). Vision, innovation and reality

Notes from eLearning Africa 2016, organized by ICWE GmbH and held in El Cairo, Egypt, on 24-26 May 2016. More notes on this event: ela2016.

Plenary: Vision, innovation and reality

Chairperson: H.E. Dr. Amr Ezzat Salama, Counselor of the American University in Cairo (AUC), Egypt

To what extend does the future of Africa depend on innovation? How and where should Africa innovate? What role has technology in education innovation?

How to make research a reality in Africa?

Toyosi Akerele-Ogunsiji, Founder & CEO of RISENetworks, Nigeria
Restarting Africa’s Education Through Tech with Innovation and a Digital Revolution

Technology will now substitute teachers, but will enhance their capabilities and potential. But Content is king, and context is queen.

Teachers are usually unequipped. That is why they are often so afraid of technology.

On the other hand, a major barrier is access to formal education. But content can flow beyond these barriers. Open content, mobile content can enable mobile learning, thus providing education for children that have difficult access to schools.

But parents — and society in general — are afraid of giving technologies to their children (e.g. so they are not distracted). But this is shutting down the most important gate to content, to education, to knowledge they might have. We know mobile uptake is high between children and teenagers. Technology is there, skills are there, but textbooks and content in general are not.

We should aim at an African education that is mobile, that children can take wherever they are. And a mobile-technology revolution needs teachers.

People should not be limited to learning because of the place they live in.

And again, technology or mobile learning will not replace teachers as e-health has not and will not replace physicians. It’s an enabler, a multiplier, not a substitute.

Dr Ismail Serageldin, Director of the Library of Alexandria, Egypt
Reaching Out to Africa

The Library of Alexandria heavily relies on connectivity: 170,000 lectures online that can be used for free, online events, etc.

EOL.org, the Encyclopaedia of Life, is an online huge database about natural life.

African Networks are communities of practice on many topics enabled by the Library of Alexandria.

STI capacity is essential for development. It is not a luxury: it is a necessity. And we have to translate rhetoric into action.

Toby Shapshak, Editor, Columnist & Strategist, South Africa
What Africa Can Teach You About Innovation that Formal Education Cannot

Many people think that “Africa is rising”, despite it is the “dark continent” in the sense that it has no electricity. Precisely: it is from difficulties that innovation comes, trying to figure out e.g. how to get what you cannot have without electricity.

First you experience the problem, then you find the solution. To do so, you need perspective, which often does not come with education. Education might be a barrier for “thinking outside of the box”. We need to learn skills, not content.

Then you need perseverance.

eLearning Africa (2016)

The community first: subverting the dynamics of putting technology in the classroom

For the nth time, the OCDE, in its Students, Computers and Learning. Making the Connection report, warns us about how technology is not changing academic performance in schools… unless other variables are taken into account — that is for academic performance as it is (quantitatively) measured today: there are, of course, other outcomes, like digital literacy, e-inclusion and social inclusion in general for the student and the family which, to me, are oftentimes successfully met.

Put very shortly, the thing is that there is quite a lot of evidence that what has an impact on academic performance is changes in methodologies. If ICTs (laptops, tablets, smartphones, interative whiteboards, but also blogging, microblogging, social videos, social bookmarking, etc.) have an impact it usually comes indirectly by having an impact in teaching and learning methodologies.

Unluckily, most projects that aim at putting in the classroom (apologies for this imprecise, generic and especially misleading concept) have been focusing almost exclusively in putting hardware and software in the classroom (that is why the name, all in all, may not be misleading at all) and spend little time and budget to everything else around technology.

But, how does one design a project that has an impact on methodologies? Well, the usual answer is training. But training raises several questions and issues:

  • Who trains he trainers?
  • How does the trainer build upon experience?
  • How does the trainer build a reputation?
  • How does the trainer build a legitimacy?
  • How is this training sustainable?
  • How is this training replicable?
  • How is this training scalable?

I think what these questions have in common is a community.

Now, summing up, what educational technology projects usually have done is: they devote all the funds they have to buy technology or digital services, while their main asset, the community, usually remains unattended. Sooner or later, the project runs out of money and thus cannot go on. On the other hand, the asset upon which the project could rely is not put in motion and thus does not trigger the springs and levers that could create the necessary changes for the project to be laid on strong foundations. Yes, this is a cruel simplification, but it is not very far from a general truth: we lose our minds on technology and forget humans.

So, what could be one? It seems that just the opposite direction could be a good starter.

  1. Identify a community of interest, that is, find who the motivated people are and see how they are connected.
  2. Work to shift the community of interest into a community of practice, by making their members share what they do. This will require resources to make sharing easy, comfortable, worth it. Most resources, though, will not be aimed at technology (e.g. a social networking site or platform) but to engage people and build on trust and reputation. It’s called facilitating. And it mostly relies on humans too.
  3. Help the sharing of practices turn into knowledge sharing, so that the community becomes a community of learning: learning by doing, learning by sharing, learning by engaging, learning by dialoguing.
  4. Contribute to raise the tough questions: learning is more about asking rather than answering. With luck, a diagnosis will emerge: where are we, where do we want to go, what do we have, what do we have not.
  5. Some of the things we have not will be knowledge: bring some structured training in.
  6. Some of the things we have not will be technology: bring the technology in.
  7. And back to #1.

In my opinion, it is important to stress that points #5 and #6 are not exactly the same training and technology as in traditional educational technology projects. Firstly, because the decision of which training and which technology comes not from a top-down perspective, but from a bottom-up one. It’s the community who produced the diagnosis and, thus, it’s the community who proposed the solutions (either in training or in technology). Secondly, because the diagnosis did not only identified the gaps or shortages, but also the assets. It may well be, for instance, that the collective found out that most students already have laptops or tablets, and thus the funds can be addressed only to buy devices for those who do not have them and only for them. Or, maybe, that there are other community resources that can be put in motion to fill that gap in, such as libraries or telecentres. Or that some people know some things and willing to share them with others in some formal way (course, training session). Many other examples can be found related to technology or — and most relevantly — to training.

Another matter to be highlighted is that the concept of community (of interest, practice, learning) goes way beyond a sectoral understanding of the concept. When thought of from a top-down approach, the community is educators, teachers. When thought from a bottom-up approach, the definition of community is much wider. The good think about a wider sense of a community is that it will take into consideration all the assets available (inside and outside schools) and it will build a much more strong consensus while it is reached. And both — assets and consensus — are the cornerstones of sustainability, in whatever sense (economic, social…) one may take it.

Communication. Mapping agro-food consumption groups in the city of Barcelona

Cover of Espelt, R., Peña-López, I., Losantos, P., Rodríguez, E., Martín, T. & Pons, F. (2015). “Mapping agro-food consumption groups in the city of Barcelona”

My colleague Ricard Espelt is these days at the XXVI European Society for Rural Sociology Congress, in Aberdeen, Scotland. The motto of this year’s edition of the congress is Places of possibility? Rural societies in a neoliberal world and this is just what Ricard is presenting on behalf of a small team he put up to analyse and map agro-food consumption groups in the city of Barcelona.

The communication he just presented, Mapping agro-food consumption groups in the city of Barcelona, is but a part of a major research project that Ricard is doing and that I have the luck to be a part of. Following can be found the abstract, slides and downloads of our communication, signed together by Ricard Espelt, Pere Losantos, Enrique Rodríguez, Toni Martín, Francesc Pons and myself. Mind that it is only a short paper and, thus, only a small part of the information produced is available. Comments (and/or requests) will definitely be welcome.

Abstract

“Consumption groups” (or “consumption cooperatives”) is one of the types of short circuits of food consumption. They are organized to create an alternative to the dominant model, the agro-food big chain. Breaking the barriers between consumers and producers, this model of organization strengthens the possibility of stimulating social and economic local development.

In this article, we show how consumption groups take advantage of the traditional cooperative move-ment rooted in the XIXth century, and Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in the context of Barcelona.

We analyse how the Social and Solidary Economy (SSE) measurement indicators are achieved by agro-food consumption groups, the nature of the networks made up by consumers and producers and the rele-vance of ICTs to maintain the business activity. Using geolocalized data and social network analysis we highlight the significance of local economical connec-tions among the actors involved.

Even though consumption groups stimulate local business and correlate with SSE indicators, they are not represented in the design of public policies. This article wants to draw a different point of view in the promotion of alternative food futures as emerging social and economic actors, and the public policies to promote them.

Slides

Dowloads

logo of PDF file
Short paper:
Espelt, R., Peña-López, I., Losantos, P., Rodríguez, E., Martín, T. & Pons, F. (2015). “Mapping agro-food consumption groups in the city of Barcelona”. In Places of possibility? Rural societies in a neoliberal world. Proceedings of the XXVI ESRS Congress, Aberdeen, Scotland, 2015. Aberdeen: The James Hutton Institute

logo of PPTX file
Slides:
Espelt, R., Peña-López, I., Losantos, P., Rodríguez, E., Martín, T. & Pons, F. (2015). “Mapping agro-food consumption groups in the city of Barcelona”. In Places of possibility? Rural societies in a neoliberal world. Proceedings of the XXVI ESRS Congress, Aberdeen, Scotland, 2015. Aberdeen: The James Hutton Institute

Emancipation and the failure of the Sustainable Development Goals

Cover of the Open Working Group Proposal for Sustainable Development Goals

Tim Unwin has written a terrific critical article on the Sustainable Development Goals (PDF) entitled ICTs and the failure of the Sustainable Development Goals. As can be inferred from its title, the main criticism — which I fully share — is about the almost total oblivion in what relates to Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), and some other issues concerning the design itself of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), how poverty is defined (and how development and the Economy are defined too), how the United Nations System works.

I want to borrow Tim Unwin’s title to go a little bit further on his analysis. In my opinion, the problem is not (only) a total disdain for ICTs and all their potential in enabling, articulating, fostering or multiplying any other initiative against poverty or for sustainable development. The problem, I believe, is that this disdain for ICTs is just a symptom of the real, direst problem: a total disdain for emancipation.

There is only one goal out of 17 that deals, in general, about peace, freedom, rights and the government:

Goal 16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.

When one drills down to the 12 targets and sub-goals, some of them are clearly what one would expect to see under the general goal. Some of them are mixed. And some others make one rethink about the previous ones. Indeed, an accurate reading of Goal 16 and its 12 targets and sub-goals raises a shadow of suspicion: is it about people that Goal 16 is talking about, or is it talking about maintaining things in order so that everything (the economy, trade) runs smoothly?

Paranoid?

  • Sub-goal 16.a reads Strengthen relevant national institutions […] to prevent violence and combat terrorism and crime. That is, strengthening institutions is not a matter of peace, equality, progress… but to combat terrorism, which is what richest countries care about: their own safetey.
  • Sub-goal 16.b reads Promote and enforce non-discriminatory laws and policies for sustainable development. That is, the problem with discrimination is… development. Sustainable development. It is true: it is known that inequality damages economic growth. But one would expect that the direct goal would be inequality itself, and that the indirect one would be growth. Not the other way round.

After that, as it was said before, one becomes suspicious about some well phrased goals that, under a new paranoid light, can be read with different meanings. Such as target 16.3, which speaks of the rule of law: is it really to achieve justice for all, or is the rule of law good in itself at the national and international levels (which is were trade happens)?

Now, on a more serious note, I think there are at least three big omissions in the way the Sustainable Development Goals are stated that are compatible with a vision that

  1. The Sustainable Development Goals are especially about economic development, and not about individual and social development.
  2. The Sustainable Development Goals are especially about institutional development, and not about personal emancipation.

And these three issues that are omitted in the SDGs are, again in my opinion, closely related with the potential that ICTs can deploy if thoroughly applied. I’d dare say even more: if ICTs have any role in development, I believe that it is in the three following issues. It is not surprising, thus, that ICTs and our three issues are all missing in the 16 Sustainable Development Goals. Issues are:

  • Freedom, civil rights, citizen rights, political freedoms, freedom rights… many names for the very same concept. Freedom — or free — is mostly missing in the SDGs. It is only explicitly referred in target 16.10, and mixed up with public access to information… in accordance with national legislation. Well, according to Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2015, 54% of the countries surveyed were partly free or not free… in accordance with their respective national legislations. Freedom is simply not a seriously taken issue in the SDGs.
  • Empowerment is a step beyond freedom. If freedom is about the lack of constraints to think or do one’s own will, empowerment is about strengthening the capability to think or do that will of one’s own. Not only can you do whatever you want within the system, but you will be helped to. Again, empowerment, or capabilities, are widely mentioned in the formalities of the declaration, but are limited to gender and inequalities. This is quite a bit, for sure, but it is not enough. There is no way that development can be sustainable if it is not endogenous, and there is no way for endogenous development without empowerment. In my opinion, empowerment is paramount to development. Only one step below governance.
  • Governance, democracy, political participation, deliberation, co-decision. If freedom is do one’s own will, and empowerment is doing it with multiplied strength, governance is way above that: it is not thought and action within the system, but over the system. Governance is shaping the system to one’s needs (or the collective needs, more appropriately), instead of shaping one-self to the system. This is why it is so important… and so surprisingly missing from the SDGs. Yes, decision-making is in there, but always as a way to have a certain influence on institutions. But no words on changing institutions, on transforming them, substituting them by other ones, or even getting rid of them.

And, as I see it, increased freedom, empowerment and governance are the biggest potential outcomes of ICTs for development. When Tim Unwin says he misses ICTs in the Sustainable Development Goals, not only I agree, but wonder whether the SDGs are also missing what I believe are the main reasons to apply ICTs for sustainable development, for instance: ICTs applied to Health increase one’s own degree of freedom; ICTs applied to Education improve one’s capabilities and empowerment to achieve higher goals; ICTs applied to Politics can lead to better governance.

I, for one, believe that people behind the writing and wording of the Sustainable Development Goals are neither stupid, nor ignorant. A thorough reading of the SDGs is inspiring and every statement is perfectly grounded on evidence.

But.

It’s the approach. It’s industrial. It belongs, in my opinion, to the Industrial Age. It does not, I think, take into account the digital revolution and, more important, the many social revolutions that we have witnessed in recent years. And no, I am not (only) talking about the Arab Spring, or the 15M Spanish Indignados Movement. It’s about the revisiting of the commons and the digital commons; about free software and open educational resources and free hardware and open science and free knowledge; about e-government and open data and open government; about liquid democracy and hybrid democracy and e-participation; about personal learning environments and cMOOCs and communities of learning and communities of practice; about innovation hubs and co-working spaces and open innovation and social innovation and open social innovation; and peer-to-peer whatever and dis-intermediation wherever. Almost nothing about this is in the Sustainable Development Goals, which are to last current until 2030. We are not only ignoring the last 15 years of development, but making them last 15 years more. All in all, the Sustainable Development Goals do not seem to belong to the Information Age.

Mapping the new telecentre

Growing affordable access to Information and Communication Technologies have seriously questioned the need for telecentres in recent years (read telecentres as any kind of public access points, from libraries to cybercafes). After some times of hesitation, it does seem to be an increasing agreement that, far from becoming useless, telecentres are serving a second wave of citizen needs related to accessing ICTs. Thus, the provision of digital literacy and digital skills to fight a second level digital divide, and the provision of relevant content and services are displacing what before was the domain of (mere) physical access to technology.

It seems just natural to think that if the goals and means of the telecentre change, so should its organization.

I would like to propose here that this change of organization should be built upon three main pillars:

  • Being part of and contribute to a network or series of networks.
  • Establishing win-win partnerships with other agents (public and/or private).
  • Building communities.

Being a network

Let’s state the fact that every telecentre is a world, as it needs to adapt itself to the community it is embedded on: culture, socioeconomic profiles, social and individual needs, etc. all determine (or should determine) what the telecentre does and what the telecentre is. Nevertheless, there are several aspects of a telecentre that do scale: creating some generic or basic content, some certain solutions that can be easily adapted, some managing stuff… There is quite some evidence that telecentres that belong to a network have a higher probability of surviving in the long run. For instance, by outsourcing (some) telecentre administration and thus diminishing some costs.

But networks are not only made of similar institutions: there may be institutions that could benefit from the telecentre’s knowledge but that will never approach their venue. Insourcing telecentres into organizations creating into them ICT centres managed by the telecentre is another way to gaining both sustainability and meaning by beig part of a network.

Scheme of a project-centered personal learning environment
Mapping the new telecentre: networks

[Click to enlarge]

Establishing partnerships

Many institutions need to boost their services and content in a digital and online way; many telecentres, with a strong presence in a digital or online world need relevant services and content in which to embed training on digital competences and skills. It just looks natural that a partnership will be highly valuable for everyone’s purposes. Partnerships with governments in the field of e-government or ICTs and education, or partnerships with the private sector in the field of e-commerce or strategic consultancy can be good places where to begin.

More important, indeed, these partnerships can provide a mix of not-for profit or subsidised and for-profit activity, depending on the target user, the nature and goals of the partnership, etc. Telecentres should not avoid charging for some services (many already do) with the idea of providing a wide range of products, letting the user to chose what and how much — instead of the telecentre deciding for the user.

Scheme of a project-centered personal learning environment
Mapping the new telecentre: partnerships

[Click to enlarge]

Community building

It is common knowledge that the telecentre should adapt itself to the place where it is based. And it is also common knowledge in development studies that there is no sustainable development if it is not endogenous, that it, if it not build upon a community — or builds a community, and empowered one.

But there are several ways to do so. Networks and partnerships are a part of it. But it kind of is doing things from the outside: what telecentres would surely need — and libraries, and schools, and civic centres, and… — is being the community, that is, not helping others, but being themselves. It is not usually so: when we speak about e-inclusion we still see it with split roles: telecentres and ICTs on the one hand, the rest of the community on the other one. Working together, yes, but not merged one with another.

I believe that we should shift from the ICT Centre to the Centre-with-ICTs. Civic centres (with a normalized use of ICTs) and schools (with a normalized use of ICTs) are good examples of community based “centers-with-ICTs”. Of course, teachers would perform one role, and telecentre staff another one, but the important thing is that everyone believes that there is not such a thing as telecentre staff embedded in the school, but people working for education with the help of ICTs. Living labs (with a normalized use of ICTs) and centres or communities for social entrepreneurship (with a normalized use of ICTs) are other centers-with-ICTs, this time based on local entrepreneurs.

Scheme of a project-centered personal learning environment
Mapping the new telecentre: communities

[Click to enlarge]

Here is where the telecentre becomes a virtual telecentre: has the functions and roles of a traditional telecentre, operates in a network of virtual telecenters, and outsources much of its administration (to the network or to the hosting institution), thus being able to concentrate on its specific tasks and goals. But it does not any more rely or focus on physical access to technology. It’s the function, not the place, what’s in its name.

Originally to be published on September 3, 2014, as Mapping the New Telecentre at Telecentre.org’s Expert Corner. A Spanish version of this article has also been published as Mapeando el nuevo telecentro. All the articles published in that blog can also be accessed here.

Thesis Defence. Sara Vannini: Social Representations of Community Multimedia Centres in Mozambique

Thesis defence by Sara Vannini entitled Social Representations of Community Multimedia Centres in Mozambique, in Lugano at the Università della Svizzera italiana. June 6, 2014.

Sara Vannini: Social Representations of Community Multimedia Centres in Mozambique

UNESCO creates in 2001 the concept of community multimedia centres (CMC), a kind of public access points to the Internet, which Mozambique applies to fight against poverty. These centres have since their inception been in the debate of schoolars, who find on them both successes and failures.

Key issues:

  • Sustainability: financial, political, ethical, social…
  • Impact: social, economical…
  • They represent huge investments.

There are huge design-reality gaps between what happens in the lab, or the design of the intervention, and what is at last implemented. There is more need for context, and here the concept of social representation comes very handy.

  • Enables individuals to orientate themselves and interpret their (new) world.
  • It is a relationship between one’s ego, the others and objects (or the object of their relationship): there is inter-subjectivity. And this relationship happens in a context.
  • As realities change along time, so do relationships and thus the social representations that people have.

Applications of social representation theory:

  • Inclusion of context.
  • Participatory action research, design-oriented approach.
  • Used to inform policy-makers and to find drivers for individual actions.

Field work

10 CMC out of 34 centres in Mozambique, chosen by kind of ownership, who was managing them, what kind of services were they providing, location. Most of them provide community radio, computers and connectivity; some of them did not offer Internet connection and two of them had only the community radio working.

Qualitative interviews were carried on, including photo-elicitation, as it fosters the reflection, empowers the interviewee, decreases the risk of pre-conceived responses, offers richer data to the researcher, etc. Photo-elicitation was participant-driven: participants were asked to provide their own pictures as an answer to the questions produced by the interviewer.

Data analysis

Photo-taxonomy; deductive content analysis on photos-related text; inductive content analysis; automatic analysis of the reciprocal relationships among textual units.

Outcomes

CMC are perceived as two parts: community radio and a telecentre.

Community radio is about information and having political role. It also has a strong role in building community, both at the local level as at the national level, establishing a link with the rest of the country. Community radio is also related with edutainment: education and entertainment.

The telecentre is about learning, and learning how to use a computer, basic software packages, etc. It is not perceived as a communication space but, on the contrary, as a business centre where one can carry one different tasks as photocopying, etc. The telecentre is also a financial resources centre, as it provides income after some services.

As seen, with social representation theory, de design-reality gap is addressed and the methodology can be used for policy-making. It can provide insights on appropriation and reinvention of a (new) social object.

Telecentres do not offer contextualized services, as the community radio does. There is a need for more advanced services.

Discussion

Erkki Sutinen: does the name CMS still carry too much meaning? Cannot we use a name that is not a definition on itself? Does this make any different in the usage or the appropriation of the venue, because it is artificial? Or does the definition constrains the evolution of the service? Vannini: What the research tells is that the definition is needed for people to understand and to appropriate a new object/venue/service. Of course we do not have to be slaves of our definitions and these have to be flexible.

Erkki Sutinen: can we develop schools in other means, e.g. merging with telecentres, and create a new kind of institution? Can we get rid of CMS and build instead new kind of services that put together many needs with many solutions? Vannini: Agreed. That is exactly the role of the community radio, that goes beyond a “mere radio”. There are many things that telecentres could copy from community radios, especially in what relates to everything else that a community radio represents.

Ismael Peña-López: how can we “simplify” this methodology and embed it in the usual e-readiness indicators? Vannini: there are methods of social representation that can be scaled, but nevertheless people should be asked and participate and tell what is happening at their level, and inform indicators.

Ismael Peña-López: could we use big data analysis and content analysis to infer what people is thinking of CMC and the use they are doing? Vannini: sure, but we may risk excluding important people from our analysis that are using the centres but not participating in these social netorking sites.

Erkki Sutinen: is there any feeling of status embedded in the technology, of proudness of having the telecentre in their community? Where there technical issues or fears that people did not take into account because of the aforementioned “proudness”? Vannini: yes, there was some status-factor, but it did not seem very important. Indeed, there were technical issues but generally related with macro-level issues like power outages, etc. At the micro level, there sure is room for improvement when it comes to educating and training telecentre managers: this would definitely make a difference.

Erkki Sutinen: can we measure not only representation but attitudes after this methodology? Vannini: this analysis was not done, but we can tell, from the interviews, that many people did not have the attitudes related with creativity, or challenging how things are.

Ismael Peña-López: can this research identify developmental outcomes due to CMC? could they go a step beyond, from empowerment to governance? Vannini: the research was a snapshot of a given reality, not the analysis of an evolution. But, during interviews many people stated how they had gained empowerment, how they could no make some decisions about their lives that they could not before. This was especially relevant with connected centres.

Erkki Sutinen: why this methodology? why not? Vannini: maybe more time with less centres would have been better. But this methodology was very useful given the time available and space to be covered.

Ismael Peña-López: we now have telecenters, hubs, co-working spaces, libraries, fab-labs, etc. You have 20 billion Meticals, or half a billion Swiss Francs, what do you do? Do you create more CMC? Both in Mozambique and Switzerland? Vannini: would invest on education of the operators and in the community at large.

Erkki Sutinen: is the idea of an ICT4D discipline over? what is the agenda of the research on ICT4D? Vannini: won’t get obsolete until all differences are reduced to their minimum expression. It is true that a middle class is emerging, but still poorer communities exist, and not only in Africa but everywhere, and are somewhat becoming more important indeed in some areas.

Lorenzo Cantoni: how would a research be designed to measure the impact of mobile technologies on CMC in particular and in developing areas in general? Vannini: first of all, not only individual or isolated appropriation should be measured, but how different technologies are being integrated among themselves.

PS: congratulations, doctor Vannini!