DRAFT: Appropriating ICTs for Cultural Articulation and Dialogue
Coordinator and Co-founder
Shikshantar: The Peoples’ Institute for Rethinking Education and Development
1. The Dialogue Divide
While India has been hyped around the world as one of the ICT hubs for the 21st century, there are still many nagging questions and concerns surround their use and development. Most of the discourse around ICTs has been focused on producing a cadre of “programmers” and “technocrats” to support industrialization, urbanization, and modernization and thereby enable countries to compete in today's global economy. ICTs are usually pursued to serve the ‘money world’ [read: GDP, trade, profit] and have little to do with the ‘living world’ and the lives of living people. In the realm of education, ICTs continue to be seen through school-colored glasses. Thus, the dominant frameworks around ICTs primarily focus on employing them as tools for facilitating more efficient teaching/training/transmission. Implicit in this approach is an inherent confusion that more information always leads to better decision-making and democracy.
In using ICTs in our work, our concern is not with the so-called “digital divide” (which serves as an effective marketing slogan for selling more computers) but rather with the growing Dialogue Divide. We believe that dialogue is a critical process for meaningful human learning, social justice and human evolution. In the 21st century, the spaces, tools, mechanisms and wisdom for such diverse forms of dialogue are collapsing. There is a growing need to regenerate diverse opportunities for dialogue among young people – across caste, gender, class; between generations; with our imaginations and consciences.
2. Shikshantar -- a center for cultural articulation and youth leadership
Over the past four years, we have tried to develop ourselves as an organic learning community: as a space for doing, for discovering one’s own path — not an individualistic path (which breeds selfishness), but one that is deeply connected with all beings in a web of life. From the very beginning, we have been committed to creating spaces where individuals and communities can together engage in dialogues to: (1) generate meaningful critiques to expose and transform/dismantle existing (unsustainable and exploitative) models of Education and Development, (2) reclaim control over their own learning processes, learning tools and learning ecologies, and (3) articulate (and continually re-articulate) their own complex shared visions and practices of Swaraj (rule over the self).
People from ages 10 months to 85 years informally volunteer (physically and virtually) as learning activists with Shikshantar. This group includes those who go to schools and colleges, those who have dropped out of school, working people, housewives, retired people, people from different parts of India and other communities in the world. There is no formal selection process. Nor are any degrees or formal qualifications required. Whenever any new volunteer wishes to “do” with us, we ask them to share what is special or unique about them and about their community or village. We also ask them to share meaningful questions that they are currently exploring and concerns they have about what’s happening around them in the world. They are then invited to get involved in some specific aspect of the work of Shikshantar.
On a daily level, the learning activists read and share articles, books, videos, art, theatre, songs, cooperative games, etc. that inspire/challenge them; devise their own projects according to their interests and talents; meet and interview diverse local people; create, as well as attend, workshops/conferences; and host study tours with other groups. At the core, we stress that the responsibility for one’s own learning and motivation rests with each and every individual. And every kind of work, if done honestly, is a learning opportunity and a spiritual act.
Much of the day-to-day efforts of learning activists are plugged into our work in Udaipur as a Learning City. This makes dialogue very real, contextualized and tangible. It opens up a lot of space for interesting discussions, new questions and critical meta-reflection. The entire process is geared towards shaking the lethargy of the mind, expressing oneself and one’s vision of life, imagining new futures and developing the courage to break the chains of the TINA (There Is No Alternative) mindset. Learning activists are also encouraged to weave their own decentralized learning webs around the city, the country and the world. There is no hierarchy in learning, so every human being (regardless of formal academic qualifications) is a potential learning resource. In all of the activities, learning activists are encouraged to identify new resources (beyond money) in Udaipur to support their work, and to use “waste” in creative new ways — which helps to break the myth that one needs a lot of money in order to do meaningful work.
Shikshantar utilizes several technologies (ranging from local musical instruments to traditional potter’s wheel to puppets to tape recorders to video cameras to computers) to encourage learning activists to become active co-creators of meaning, of identity, of popular culture, of the constant renewal of their communities. We believe that each learning activists should learn how to explore, experiment, and express themselves with different technologies so that they can create dynamic spaces for dialogue throughout the city that are nurturing and inspiring to new forms of self-initiated local community action.
3. Shikshantar’s Approach with ICTs
The technologies are never shared in isolation, as an ends in themselves. They are always situated within a larger context of practice and purpose. Learning activists are encouraged to think about why they choose to use a particular technology over other technologies. ICTs are also shared alongside other media so that dialogue is supported by mixed media environments (which acknowledge a variety of learning styles). When introducing ICTs, we believe that there is a continuous need to discuss the trade-offs for rural and urban communities that are associated with ICTs: what social problems are connected with ICTs (mental, emotional and physical dysfunction, social alienation and violence, info-glut, the superficialization of human expression, environmental degradation, etc.) and how to deal with these; how ICTs have actually contributed to increasing the concentration of wealth and power in certain institutions in the world; how to minimize our dependencies on the ICTs and the larger global market economy and to find local solutions for local problems. We like to share the example of the Amish who consciously evaluate the impacts of new technologies that are introduced into their community for a one-year probation period before deciding whether to keep a new technology or not. It is also important to debunk the myth that ICTs are neutral. There are lots of political and economic decisions which underlie their growth.
With all of the technologies we try to demystify the role of experts and professionals (and long training courses) and encourage learning activists to start using the technologies. There are three philosophies we stress to help learning activists reclaim their capacities as cultural co-creators:
a) Critical Media Awareness – to increase our understanding and enjoyment of how the media work, how they produce meaning, how they are organized, and how they construct reality and identity. We focus particularly on critically examining TV, Newspapers, Textbooks as well as exploring local forms community media. We try to highlight multiple truths and perspectives, decoding and interpretation of symbols and stereotypes, using different senses and different styles of communication, aesthetics, etc.
b) Self-Expression – to explore and reflect on our various life experiences and to give voice to one’s own narrative. We focus on understanding oneself, one’s expectations and aspirations, one’s imagination as well as one’s own value system, judgement and common sense. We also encourage each learning activist to experiment with and discover their own style of expression, to regenerate their own language and form their own standards for self-assessment.
c) Connections – to explore our commonalities and differences and to find ways to work together for mutual growth and renewal. For us, the ‘co-’ in ‘co-creators’ is a critical aspect of our work. That is, an understanding that my abilities to become a real creator are deeply inter-dependent on my capacities to support others in their creative journeys. We focus on building healthy relationships and discovering each other’s potentialities using tools such as appreciative inquiry. We also focus on how to collaborate with each other and work in teams together. We highlight how to plan together keeping complexity in mind.
There is no formal curriculum for these philosophies. We consciously try to explore them as we use different technologies in our day-to-day work. We do periodically hold 5-6 day unlearning workshops on different technologies to give some basic orientation new learning activists. This is both to establish a sense of seriousness and personal responsibility regarding the equipment as well as a freedom to experimenting outside the mental limits set by schooling. What usually happens is that young people who have been with us for a while and are familiar with using the technologies informally share many of the “technical tricks” with new people as they work on different projects together.
4. Some of our Experiences with Technologies
Some of the most exciting applications we have seen with computers in our work is the production of community magazines. Yuva Halchal (Youth Commotion or Youth Movement) is a monthly Hindi publication of personal experiences, ideas, reflections, experiments and perspectives developed and produced by youth. It is an invitation for writing, discussing, networking and creating new actions with other youth. The purpose of a ‘commotion’ or ‘shake up’ was to challenge and inspire youth to look at the ways in which they were learning in school, to re-value their own experiences and capacities, and to branch out and experiment with new ways of interacting and thinking and to see their actions as a larger process of change. Another magazine, Apne Vaat (Our Words), is produced in Mewari (the local language) by an intergenerational group. The magazine aims to regenerate local language and through that local knowledges, local imaginations and local wisdom. It features folk stories, proverbs, riddles, poems, songs, etc. The editors of the magazine has identified and contacted many new writers and storytellers (many of whom are illetterate).
We have also been using video cameras and simple editing equipment to encourage young people to explore their environments, their issues and tell their own stories. In the process, the community film-makers have to do a lot of research and interviews, talk to many people around them with whom they may never have really interacted. Young people have made small videos on local role models, local social movements, local food, etc.
In both cases, one finds lots of vibrant dialogue and interaction surrounding the use of the technologies. This is what gives the technology direction and what gives the city new life.
 Chris Dede (1995) describes, “Access to data does not automatically expand students’ knowledge, nor will the mere availability of information intrinsically create an internal framework of ideas that learners can apply in real world settings.” Neil Postman (1992) further adds, “In Technopoly, we are driven to fill our lives to ‘access’ information. For what purpose, or with what limitations, it is not for us to ask; and we are unaccustomed to asking, since the problem is unprecedented. The world has never before been confronted with information glut and has hardly had any time to reflect on its consequences.”
 Udaipur as a Learning City was begun with four process-goals in mind:
- Appreciating each individual’s full human potential;
- Building feelings and relationships of caring and mutuality;
- Challenging dehumanizing and destructive attitudes/institutions/systems; and
- Developing Udaipur’s own vision(s) of Swaraj.
See www.swaraj.org/shikshantar for more details.
 In India, certain political interest groups are eager to mobilize the public in banning specific productions that they find ‘offensive’. In reaction, zealous advocates of Freedom of Expression argue in black and white terms about issues of censorship. But it is the gray areas, which allow for local people to develop their own distinct logic and critical consciousness, to negotiate their different understandings of what is considered ‘artistic’ and what is against the ‘public interest’, and to create and evolve their own media policies, that should be further explored and developed.