Friday, May 31, 2013

Communities of Practice and Low-cost ICTs (Part 2)

In my previous post, I defined ICTs broadly to include any type of means by which information and communication might be conveyed.  This includes super low tech means such as paper and pencil, but also can include mobile phones or broadcast radio.

My point is that each technology has a set of affordances.  Affordances refer to the qualities of the technology that make it useful for some things and not so useful for other things.  Paper and pencil is cheap and easy to use.  If you're literate.  Mobile phones are cheap and easy to use, especially if you're not literate.  They also reach across space more easily than paper and pencil.  However, a handwritten note posted on a community bulletin board might be more effective in announcing a meeting or asking members of a community for some assistance.  It all depends on the needs and social practices associated with the knowledge mobilization activity.

All this to say, that in our project when we talk about low cost ICTs and knowledge mobilization, we prefer to talk about ICT "enhancing" social practices rather than replacing them.  Over time, social practices will evolve in conjunction with ICT use but at the introductory stage it is important to find ways to integrate them with social practices in a useful and relatively non-obtrusive way.

Suraya Hudson's observations from Kolli Hills are important in this regard.  Many of the participants she has spoken with so far have said that they really value face to face meetings and contact with others.  ICTs aren't regarded as something central to their livelihoods in this context.  However, as I have mentioned in my comments to Suraya, we need to follow these remarks up with another question to the participants: would it be useful if your mobile phone could help you to organize your face to face meetings?  Perhaps by allowing you to send one SMS and reach the whole group, rather than having to contact everyone separately?

Maybe it would.  We won't know until we ask, but the point is simply that ICT in the form of a mobile phone and SMS, is an enabler of face to face communication not a substitute.  That is what I mean when I refer to ICT "enhancing" social practices.

So what other practices might be enhanced?  Wenger, White & Smith in their book Digital Habitats, identify a wide range of social practices that are part of knowledge mobilization.  They classify these along two-related dimensions:  (1) people learn from and with each other;  (2) and people learn through formal as well as informal activities.

Let's look at a few of the practices mentioned by Wenger, et. al:

People learn from each other in a formal way when they organize a training workshop or undertake a systematic search for knowledge to solve a problem.

People learn with each other in a formal way when they develop and publish models of best practices based on peer knowledge.

People learn from each other in an informal way when they casually share stories or tips about how they solved a problem or discovered some new technique.

People learn with each other in an informal way when they share resources through casual exchanges, perhaps on a bulletin board or through activities that bring peers together in conversation (e.g., meals or community gatherings).

For many communities of practice, these activities are intimately bound to face to face gatherings.  And often that is how it should be.  However, we may find that some of them can be enhanced through a selective application of more advanced ICTs.

For example, farm radio broadcasting combined with SMS platform like FrontlineSMS, creates the potential for a hybrid practice to emerge that enables farmers to learn from experts in an informal way (casual listening) while creating an opportunity for them to learn with each other through the informal sharing of personal stories or tips in response to the expert knowledge.  SMS creates a written history of the sharing that can then be posted online as an archive for others to learn from each other long after the broadcast has aired.  That archive could then be curated by experts over time to create a formal learning artifact for the community.

In this example, the farm radio broadcasting as an existing practice has been enhanced with the addition of SMS platform.  Peer-sharing of ideas would normally take place after a broadcast as farmers and farm families talked about the broadcast but the sphere of influence might be relatively constrained in terms of space and time.  However, with the addition of SMS and the creation of an online database of listener comments provided by SMS, the potential reach of this knowledge is extended considerably--both geographically and over time.

The key here is being modest in what you ask of the community and tap into their intrinsic motivations to share.  But you also need to design the process so that it enables collective value to emerge from the situated interactions that arise out of those everyday behaviours.

That is the theory anyway!  We'll see how it plays in practice when we start doing our pilot studies.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Suraya's latest update

Posting on behalf of Suraya Hudson, who is currently in Kolli Hills, India with limited Internet access:

May 23, Kolli Hills, India

The past few weeks have a been a whirlwind filled with interviews, PRA's and participant observation.  Currently, the case study Community of Practices that we are working with are… 

1) Those who maintain nutrition gardens
2) Those who participate in fish rearing in community fish ponds
3) Those involved in the on-farm chicken rearing enterprise
(At this point, the chicken enterprise may be dropped from the list or replaced with seed-saving, depending on time!) 

I have been interviewing CoP group leaders, MSSRF staff (to get a lay of the land), custodian farmers and members of other local NGOS, trying to understand access to knowledge and forms of communication that are currently being used within the Kolli Hills.  Aside from the VRCs/VKCs, most communication seems to be done through meetings, daily face-to-face contact with MSSRF staff, and through the use cell phones.  One NGO drives through villages with a loud speaker on their car to announce meetings. Informal communication takes place mostly through the Mahatma Gandhi 100-day work scheme (guaranteed employment for 100 days/year), through work in the fields, when women go to collect water, at the twice-weekly nearby food market and during religious festivals. The PRA that I am working on now, is about existing vs. new knowledge.   Within each CoP this PRA will allow me to understand the types of activities involved in maintaining the respective practice, specifically where they learned each activity, to identify the activities for which people feel like they need more information, and finally, to identify the most ideal means of accessing that information. I have also managed to get my hands on some Kolli Hills folklore about agriculture which is getting translated now. 

So far, it seems as though community members are not terribly interested in using ICTs to gain information (despite the fact that almost every household has at least one cell phone).  Some women expressed that ICT's are only for "young or educated people".  Most households here do not own radios, although every household has a TV (a campaign scheme from the previous political leader in Tamil Nadu).  I have asked if people would be interested in tuning in to a television program that is specific to their CoP, and some women have said, "we don't understand TV".  People seem to currently be most keen on face-to-face contact, in the form of a presentation, meeting, or one-on-one discussion WITHIN their villages.  Some said they would be interested in including video in the presentations.  So far, the people that I have spoken to do not make regular use of the Village Resource/Knowledge centers that exist.  It seems as though people have some underlying beliefs that these types of things are inaccessible for them (uneducated, illiterate, etc).  The next PRA that I will try will involve looking more at group dynamics/organization/leadership within each CoP.  After this, I will talk to regular users of the VRC/VKCs as potential tech stewards.  Also, I am interested in speaking with different generations of people to understand the reasons why younger people may be more interested in using ICTs than older people.  Further, I would like to do a type of Venn diagram to understand the information outlets that are most often used/most efficient (although it seems as though MSSRF is really the only main outlet for farmers here).  

I welcome any advice or pointers for other things to look at! The time is flying by- I can't believe I have only 1 month left here in the beautiful Kolli Hills.

Suraya Hudson
MSc. Candidate
Department of Resource Economics and Environmental Sociology
University of Alberta

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Naomi's impressions of Sust Agr and ICTs

I spent two weeks in Chennai (city of 6 million in S. India) to visit the hub for the Swaminathan Foundation, but spent the majority of my time at Kolli Hills (Central Tamil Nadu, a remote ½ wooded, ½ agriculture area, dominated by Maliyali schedule tribe) with my graduate student Suraya Hudson (co-supervised by Mary Beckie).

It was astounding to me the level of involvement the Swaminathan Foundation has with ICTs on development efforts.  They use video conferencing, SMS, bulletin boards, email, and are even piloting a communication system to warn Sri Lankan and India fishermen when they are “trespassing” into each other’s off shore boundary for fishing rights.

Particularly notable is their more holistic approach to addressing sustainable agriculture (truly to sustain people and the planet), address malnutrition, and poverty.  There are “Village Resource Centres” (VRCs) in various regions of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Orissa (Indian states) and each of them covers a “Block”.  These VRCs oversee “Village Knowledge Centres” in their block (there may be 4-6 covered by each VRC) and there is a very organized way for on-the ground needs at the knowledge centres to be communicated back to the Resource Centres, which are then communicated back to “Cluster Leads” (at state level) in each Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Orissa.   

ICTs and face-to-face gatherings are used to teach the following:

  • Training and drudgery agri-machines
  • Promotion of under utilized native crops
  • Organizing health camps for women
  • Career guidance programming
  • Eye screening test for children
  •  Livestock management training
  •  Exposure visits
  • Tree plantation
  • Soil Testing camps
  • Forming children science camps
  • Phone-in program for livestock management and agricultural practices
  • Deepening the village pond
  • Promotion of on- and off- farm enterprises
  • Demo plot for vermicomposting in farmer’s fields
  • Promotion of nutritional gardens

It was very impressive to see what the Swaminathan organization has taken on, and the dedication of their staff.