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.


  1. Gordon, your example of the farm broadcast enhanced by the use of ICTs is a good one. I like Etienne Wenger’s informal / formal learning loops.

    When it comes to learning and ICTs, the thing that really interests me is how tacit knowledge transfers to codified knowledge through ICTs like SMS or radio (or combinations thereof). We can say that tacit knowledge comes from experience; tap our head to say, “it’s all up here!”

    The question is how can we get it out of our head and into words, text or any other code?

    Radio scriptwriting can be used to transfer farmers’ wonderful tacit knowledge into codified knowledge. Another way to do this is to record and re-broadcast their spoken word, their songs, their poetry, etc.. The advantage of scriptwriting is that it requires a radio broadcaster to research, organize, structure and stage the radio programme. Scriptwriting can also help the broadcaster think about bring non-linear elements (things that grab your attention or entertain you) into the programme.

    In my experience over the past decade of meeting rural radio stations around the world I have rarely found that radio broadcasters actually produce their own scripts. They might have a few notes before they go on-air, even an outline. The successful broadcasters will use their own experience (tacit knowledge) on-air to crack a joke, tell a story or liven up the programme.

    Today, the digital archiving of radio programmes offers radio stations new ways to turn tacit knowledge of the broadcaster or the farmer into knowledge goods. Sharing and being able to search radio programmes is an exciting opportunity for agriculture and rural development. Maybe as Radio Case Study in our project gets underway this August 2013 we can further discuss these opportunities.

  2. I can see how radio and text messaging could work in tandem to do what Gordon calls "a process that enables the collective value to emerge from the situated interactions that arise out of those everyday behaviors." When people hear a real person say something (on the radio, it can feel like that person is right there with you) that resonates with them (positively, negatively, in their curiosity) I can see that if they can continue to engage through SMS this would be very gratifying, as this brings them into the conversation.