Thoughts on education, infrastructure and development

UNSDG

Technology is so embedded in most people’s daily lives that in some cases, e.g. urban settings, it is no longer a choice whether or not to use it, as one would need to make a huge effort to be able to cope in society without it.  Looking at the internet, for example; Graham (2019) points out that from 2012 to 2017 over one billion people started using the internet and these people (internet users) are now the majority in the world.  As it was the case historically with most technology (thus expected and well documented), Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) has spread quicker where there was more money.  This is true in terms of countries as a whole, but this inequality is also observed within countries where the citizen’s income can be directly linked to their ICT usage.  The last statement is one of the areas where ICT has organically entered the development and social change field, as some schools of thought believe that ICT is increasing the gap between the rich and the poor.  On the other hand, some development scholars and practitioners see ICT as a tool itself to decrease this inequality.  In the four blog posts I have written previously this month I have informally referenced topics linked to these contradicting ideas.  Today, I will elaborate on their content, reflecting on the academic literature which I have been reading on the subject.

My first and third blog posts were on the topic of electronic education, particularly in the form of informal education and ‘edutainment’, education via entertainment, an approach also successfully used in behavioral change (Wein 2018 as cited in Denskus 2018).  There is uncertainty about the impact of the internet, and social media in particular, on young people.  This includes concerns on the potential detriment to their education leading to some parents banning their access to phones and other ICT.  However, others believe that if formal education embraces social media and other forms of electronic and interactive learning, the pupil would benefit (Miller et al. 2016).  To some extent it seems that the choices individuals make on ‘how’ rather than ‘whether’ they will spend time on social media is a key point for this discussion.

There is a variety of open education platforms available online and Heeks (2017) discusses some of the issues encountered by massive open online courses (MOOCS).  For example, the fact that the majority of MOOCS attendees already hold degrees shows that these courses are not very popular among those who could benefit from such courses the most.  MOOCS have also very high drop-out rates.  In Kenya, for instance, only 6% of the student completed all the modules of a course in Human Rights (Heeks 2017).  There are a myriad of reasons why not enough people are fully benefiting from MOOCs or similar educational or edutainment platforms.  When discussing the Capability Approach, one of the theories used for human development, Sein et al. (2019, p. 6) explains: ‘there are three sets of conversion factors that can enable or inhibit the individuals from improving their lives.  The conversion factors include personal factors such as age, gender and religion; social factors such as rules, regulations and cultural tradition; and environmental factors, e.g. the environment and the infrastructure of a country’.  There is also a potential lack of knowledge about the existence of such platforms or how to use them.  On my blog post ‘Three ways to be glued to your screen and feel good’, I tried to use humor and personal experience to promote the idea that some of the time one used solely for entertainment (or social media), could also be used for education, via edutainment.

Sein et al. (2019) also discusses the dynamics and motives encouraging people to create content to freely share (including peer-production) in open developments (such as open education projects).  In my blog post ‘Rural life through a glamorous lens’ I compared the common and individual initial motivations of two different video sharing projects, how these motivations changed along the way and how this influenced the approaches used for their videos’ productions, which consequently was massively reflected in the scale of their audiences.  The first project was from the Chinese internet celebrity Li Ziqi and the second was from a group of organic farmers from a cooperative in Kerala, India.  Both projects are therefore based in the Global South and from a rural setting.  Li’s initial motivation was to educate people living in urban areas about where their food comes from.  However, the cinematic quality behind her recent videos and their pace, suggests that her motives have changed and are more focused on ensuring that the audience is entertained (and relaxed, as she puts it) and will return for more.  If they learn about rural life as well, it is a bonus.

The motivation behind the Farmers videos, on the other hand, was representation.  Tired of being shown to the world as needy, they decided to make their own videos showing that they were doing rather ok.  In their videos they showed some of their farming approaches and vast knowledge about their land and areas of expertise.  The videos were authentic using no special effects; moreover, the knowledge shared turned out to be educational for those whom the video was shared with.  A question I raised is whether a bit more production and a touch of entertainment feel to these videos would help them reach a larger audience; not only in sharing some of their expertise with other farmers and potential farmers, but also in promoting the message that rural life, vastly perceived as hard, can be also pleasant as well as sustainable, just as Li did.

My second and fourth blog posts touched on the issue of infrastructure, having as background the context of my visit to Goa, India.  In the beginning of one of his books, Heeks (2017, p. 26) paraphrases Mitullah et al. (2016): ‘Internet connectivity is now widespread in developing countries, and mobile telephony close to ubiquitous: far more people now have access to a mobile than have access to sewerage, piped water or electricity’.  Nevertheless, despite making sure I would have access to Wi-Fi in my accommodation while in Goa, so that I could carry on working on this blog assignment, I did not consider checking the quality of the Wi-Fi service, which was mostly unreliable.  On my blog post ‘Technology in the dark’, I mention the irony of having Wi-Fi available everywhere (at least in theory) in the relatively remote place I was staying in Goa, whilst at the same time experienced regular power cuts, some of them for hours.  As Heek (2017, p. 76) simply puts: ‘ICT cannot work without electricity’.

On the other hand, the mobile phone data technology seems to be working very well in Goa.  In the ‘Technology in the dark’ post I also discussed how available amongst the general population such technology seems to be.  In the development circuit, the ‘information dissemination’ function of mobile phone technology is regarded as transformative.  For example, farmers could now quickly find out market prices of different crops in different places and chose where to sell their products, relying less on the middle man and increasing their profits.  Indeed, such practices have started taking place in some places but the reach and outcomes were not as transformative as initially predicted (Heeks 2017; Graham 2019).  In the same blog post I also discussed the lack of investment in transport infrastructure in Goa, which based on my personal experience, felt years behind their ICT infrastructure.  The explanation could be: ‘Though figures vary considerably, an overall conclusion could be that while GDP payoffs for ICT investments are “usually among the highest” when compared to investments in energy, water and transport’ (Heeks 2017, p.76).

Another issue with deficient infrastructure is that often citizens in some countries do not feel they have the power to demand these basic services or to criticize their governments for the lack of such provisions.  Heeks (2017, p. 355) explains ‘Ordinarily, citizens have little power vis-à-vis government and have no effective mechanism to exercise control and force a change in behaviour.’  ICT has been used as a tool to try to mitigate this issue.  An example is the CGNet Swara project which was set up in 2010 in central India.  Citizens could use the system to record complaints on deficiencies from the government in diverse areas such as: water, power, health care, etc.  There were hundreds of successful cases, some had been previously unresolved for two years but after being logged with CGNet Swara, were resolved within 19 days.  Unfortunately, similar platforms in other countries did not have the same success for different reasons.  Some citizens felt it was not their responsibility to hold the government accountable for their actions, others felt that complaining would be a waste of time as a positive outcome would not be realised and some feared that some kind of punishment would be the outcome of their complaint (Heeks 2017).

Finally, on my last blog post ‘Waste it not!’ I discussed waste management, a topic which is closed linked to goal 12 of the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals: ‘Responsible consumption and production’.  Development actions are predominantly focused on developing countries, as clearly showed by the sentence about the importance of ‘supporting developing countries to move towards more sustainable patterns of consumption by 2030’ (UNDP 2020) even though the following sentence reads ‘A large share of the world population is still consuming far too little to meet even their basic needs’ (UNDP 2020) showing that, at least when related to consumption, it is as important (if not more) for this goal to be achieved in the developed world too.  My blog post focused on waste management as a shared responsibility between the government, providing the best collection system possible, and the citizen/business, reducing, segregating, recycling and disposing of its waste properly.  The post also discussed how ICT can be used to educate citizens about waste management or even help local authorities identify perpetrators of waste crimes, such as fly-tipping and burning plastic.  However, ICT has also become part of problem.

About one quarter of all ICT equipment, such as mobile phones, monitors, PCs, laptops, tablets, servers, and so on produced each year are disposed of.  This accounts for about 10m tones of e-waste every year and this number is increasing by about 5% per year (Heeks 2017).  This is due to a combination of more people using ICT and also the fact that consumers are obliged to discard of equipment that still functions just because the system becomes incompatible with new upgrades (Heeks 2017).

I have learned a lot taking part in this assignment, especially by reading the ICT4D literature, but it has also been challenging from a technical and group dynamics point of view.  I work with project management in a local authority and am familiar with communication strategies and stakeholder engagement.  However, all websites and social media accounts (e.g. twitter) when necessary, are managed by my organization’s comms team.  I also hardly used social media in my personal life, apart from What’s app, which I use on a daily basis.  I do have a Facebook account but I hardly visit it.  This is not because I am technophobic, quite the opposite, I use several applications for my work and enjoy learning new skills, but I simply do not feel the need nor have the time to engage with social media.  Therefore, my previous experience building a blog or creating a social media audience was nil.

Two members on my group both worked in the communication field and had experience with both blogs and social media so we agreed that they would take the lead in building and design our group blog.  It was my intention to learn and contribute more than only publishing my own posts, but this proved rather difficult due to the limited time and unreliable internet connection I had (as I was in India).  Although even publishing posts is time consuming when one tries to add featured images, categories, etc.  I regret the workload pressure and frustration this has created on the only two members of the group working in the blog design and the missed opportunity to learn more of the design technicalities behind a blog.  Nevertheless, I do feel that, with enough time, I would be capable of building and design a professional looking WordPress blog.  This assignment has also made me reflect on my attitude and prejudices towards social media as a professional communication tool and I now acknowledge its value (and even managed to create a twitter account for this blog), particularly when trying to reach a younger audience.

References

Denskus, T. 2018 Aidnography Links & Contents I Liked 293 [ONLINE] Available at: http://aidnography.blogspot.com/2018/09/development-ict4d-digital-communication-academia-link-review-293.html [Accessed 27 March 2020]

Graham, M. 2019 Digital Economies at Global Margins. Ottawa, ON/Boston, MA: IDRC/MIT Press.  Available at:  https://www.idrc.ca/en/book/digital-economies-global-margins

Heeks, R. 2017 Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D) Abingdon: Routledge.

Miller, D.; Costa, E.; Haynes, N. et al. 2016 How the world changed social media London: UCL Press.  Available at: https://www.uclpress.co.uk/products/83038

Sein, M.K., Thapa, D, Hatakka, M. & Sæbø, Ø. 2019 A holistic perspective on the theoretical foundations for ICT4D research Information Technology for Development 25:1, 7-25. Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/02681102.2018.1503589

UNDP, 2020 Sustainable Development Goals. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/sustainable-development-goals/goal-12-responsible-consumption-and-production.html. [Accessed 27 March 2020]

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