Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Communities of Practice and Low-cost ICTs (part 1)

Our project is framed around the interplay between community and technology.  Interplay is an important word because it refers to the idea of a reciprocal relationship between social practices and technological affordances.  In other words, the kinds of activities that people engage in when it comes to knowledge mobilization are enabled and constrained by the tools used for that purpose.

Even the simplest tool, such as paper and pencil and could be considered an "ICT" (information and communication technology).  A farmer placing a note on a community bulletin board is a form of knowledge mobilization "enhanced" by ICT.  But the affordances of that particular technique or tool will limit its usefulness.  Sure it's inexpensive and simple, but it also limited in its reach and ability to attract attention beyond the line of sight of that bulletin board.

Yet, another farmer comes along and reads the note, then texts his friend to relay the information.  A second tool is introduced, this one also low cost and simple to use, but with different affordances.  In this case, text messaging using a mobile phone allows for that message to reach a wider audience through the act of the farmer relaying it.  The farmer and the phone act, jointly, as an intermediary for that message.  It is a profoundly socio-technical act that would not be possible without ICT.

For me, the first necessary step when studying possibilities for enhancing KM through ICT is to understand in depth the social practices related to KM.  These social practices always and necessarily involve some form of ICT (language, paper, pencils, SMS, websites, etc.) but seeing them for what they are and how they might be enhanced is the task of the researcher.  Enhancement then means looking at the affordances of the ICTs and working with the community members to identify how these constrain KM practices on the one hand, but also what kind of possibilities are opened up by introducing low cost ICTs with different affordances.

Social practice drives the process of inquiry, recognizing that social practices will likely (and sometimes necessarily) evolve when new affordances are introduced.

Our social practices working group led by Naomi Krogman and Mary Beckie, with the assistance of graduate student Suraya Hudson, is playing a key role in developing and refining a methodology for studying social practices related to knowledge mobilization.  With this methodology we hope to be able to develop rich descriptions of KM practices that can then be used as the basis for exploring possibilities of enhancing these through the affordances presented by low cost ICTs such as mobile phones.

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