SHIKSHANTAR:

The Peoples' Institute for Rethinking Education and Development

DRAFT November, 1999

Initial Needs Assessment:

Community Technology Center for Learning and Empowerment

Jennifer Johnson and Shilpa Jain

The growth of information and communications technologies (ICTs) in the last decade has been staggering. Our increasing reliance and dependence on computers, cellular phones, faxes, and modems, the exponential expansion of the World Wide Web, and the influx of high-tech gadgets and push-button devices, all make it clear that we are thoroughly engulfed in the Information and Communication Age. But what do ICTs mean for understanding and realizing our human potential, enhancing cultural diversity, challenging injustice and exploitation, empowering communities and strengthening of social bonds, and creating new directions for development which stimulate the recovery of human dignity and the human spirit? The connections between ICTs and these lifelong learning agendas have not yet been well drawn out. This has led Charles Handy (1994) to grimly predict that "Loneliness may be the real disease of the next century, as we live alone, work alone, and play alone, insulated by our modems, our Walkmans, and our televisions." Unfortunately, more often than not, the discourse around ICTs in so-called developing countries is focused on producing a cadre of "technocrats" to support industrialization, urbanization, and modernization and thereby enable countries to compete in today's global economy. ICTs are typically supported in the name of the ‘money world’ [read: GDP, trade, profit] and have little to do with the ‘living world’ and the lives of living people (Korten, 1998).

Today, very few spaces exist in developing countries (or most developed ones, for that matter) for individuals and communities to understand, discuss and critically reflect on the complex changes and problems taking place around them, or to explore, discover and develop creative new approaches for improving their lives and the lives of those to come. In Udaipur — and indeed in India as a whole — schools, centers and a number of Internet/fax/telephone offices are beginning to offer ICTs to the public. This availability raises several questions:

These questions have prompted an exploratory investigation, both into the discourses on ICTs as means for learning and empowerment and into the spaces and opportunities for these new roles for ICTs in Udaipur. This Initial Needs Assessment is divided into four parts: (1) various perspectives/frameworks that currently drive the applications of ICTs in education and emerging new thinking about ICTs; (2) international and Indian examples of innovative uses of ICTs as tools for human regeneration and liberation; (3) analysis of the current scenario of ICTs use in Udaipur and potential opportunities and spaces; and (4) recommendations for using ICTs to further develop Udaipur as a Learning City. It is hoped that this paper will help to advance a process of new thinking, dialogue and action around ICTs and their roles in the 21st century in Udaipur/Rajasthan/India.

Perspectives/Frameworks on ICTs

The dominant frameworks around ICTs primarily focus on employing them as tools for facilitating efficient teaching/training/transmission. A somewhat rigid dichotomy has grown from these: Either computers, the Internet, and the television offer institutions alternative mechanisms for teaching information and bridging the knowledge gap, or they are socially destructive and emotionally/intellectually damaging. By first exploring these polarized perspectives, we can better understand both their limitations and strengths and, more importantly, how we must move beyond these frameworks in order to develop a new vision of ICTs.

The "positive" perspective on ICTs lauds its potential as a great expander of educational opportunities. Multimedia capabilities, educational software, and the Internet open the door for worldwide information access and transfer. As Gerald Lesser, founder of Sesame Street, describes with the case of television, "its greatest power is its capacity to transport, to show the world to children – to display people, events, and ideas that they have never encountered before and are unlikely ever to have the opportunity to confront" (UNESCO 1997). By offering "multi-sensory, reflective, and collaborative learning environments unrestrained by time, place, and formal structures," new technologies further expand the way learners can engage with ideas and people from around the world (UNESCO 1997).

Some of the potentials of ICTs were highlighted by an evaluation conducted by Gregoire (1996) on technologies and education in elementary and secondary schools. They noted that new technologies stimulated the development of intellectual skills such as reasoning and problem-solving ability and contributed in several ways to better learning in various subjects. Students’ attitudes towards learning also changed with ICTs. Many students showed greater spontaneous interest in and were willing to devote to more attention to the activities that used new technology, as opposed to those activities in a traditional setting using traditional resources. ICTs further promoted cooperation among students in the same class and among students in different schools, and students took greater interest in assessing their own learning when new technologies were present. Finally, ICTs encouraged students to become more aware of other realities, to execute projects with a genuine relevance for themselves, to link knowledge in diverse and creative ways, and to search for more extensive information on a subject or for a greater number of relationships among various pieces of knowledge or data.

While these advocates present ICTs as a positive tool for teaching, others caution us against jumping wholeheartedly on the technology bandwagon. In his article, "The Computer Delusion" (1997), Oppenheimer claims that the ‘success story’ studies used to argue for technology in classrooms are flawed, statistically unreliable, not easily replicable, and do not control for influences such as differences between teaching methods. More importantly, Oppenheimer raises issues such as whether young children should be exposed to technology at an early age for fear of emotionally or intellectually stunting their natural development. He warns that hi-tech children develop ‘hypertext’ minds that leap around and are not sequential. They might be able to calculate faster, but they cannot learn to innovate and might find it difficult to differentiate between the real world and the virtual one. He also raises issues about costs of upkeep, maintenance and training over the years. "When schools invest in computers instead of books, will children forget how to enjoy a book when it is not as entertaining as a computer?" Finally, Oppenheimer warns that computers can lead to social isolation and may cause children to lose the skills of listening, conversing, and interacting with other people.

Others still point to the lack of access for marginalized groups. They argue that ICTs reinforce (and oftentimes increase) the gap between the haves and the have-nots and force external images and values on people, thereby reducing cultural diversity. Most people, whether they are in villages or cities, do not have physical access to ICTs, electricity or telephone lines. Access is further limited for those not speaking an international language such as English, French, Spanish, or Chinese. Even when available, the technology does not fit well into the local cultural context and its needs. There are very few opportunities for people themselves to explore and decide what technologies they require and how they would like to use them.

Perhaps the critics' strongest argument is that technology does not equal learning. It can not and will not be the ‘magic bullet’ — the quick and easy cure for the many ills of schooling. Access to technology merely provides access to information, experiences, and to multi-channel approaches of obtaining data (Visser 1995). "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" (Dede 1995). While repetitive ‘drill and skill’ software may improve some forms of surface (superficial) learning, ICTs do not necessarily enhance deeper and more dynamic forms of learning which foster creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, self-confidence, leadership, etc.

How do we negotiate these conflicting accounts of ICTs? While technologies do have the potential to facilitate powerful and dynamic learning processes, they have primarily been seen as vehicles for improving a narrow set of skills in a subject/homework/exam-dominated school classroom. They see the learning process as a one-way transmission of information that must be highly controlled by the expert. Rarely do children or adults have the opportunity to freely explore and create their own ideas, images, symbols, languages, visions or action plans with ICTs. Nor do ICTs consciously provide many opportunities for children and adults to come together and engage in meaningful dialogue around issues and agendas of common concern. When children and adults do get these opportunities, as in some of the experiences of Gregorie, some exciting things can happen. Similarly, though using ICTs can lead to social, emotional, and intellectual dysfunction, these outcomes are not inevitable. For example, families can counteract the negative influences of technology by critical media awareness, moderation and healthy family communication. In addition to modeling a balanced relationship with technology, parents and other family members can support children in "taking charge of the computer and carrying out self-initiated projects" (Pappert 1996), or what is referred to as project-based learning, experiential learning, and collaborative learning. Activities that consciously think about the pedagogy and integrate ICTs with processes of learning, discovery, creation and interaction can stave off the next generation of cyber-junkies.

From this analysis emerges the lesson that we must stop looking at ICTs through "school-colored glasses" (Pappert 1996). The problem that undermines most education and technology initiatives is that they keep trying to fit the ICTs into the four walls of the school and into the pedagogy of teaching/training/transmission and ultimately external control. We must think of the functions of ICTs beyond transmitting information, teaching narrow skills through repetitive drilling, or training for programmer jobs. We must see the learner as more than a passive recipient.

The goals underlying ICTs must be re-configured and re-contextualized. ICTs must provide human beings with new opportunities to critically examine and reflect on the world, better understand ourselves and our vast potential, express our ideas and values, dialogue with others, challenge injustices, and, in the process, build more healthy, trusting communities. Here we can apply Freire and Macedo's discussion about the role of literacy to the arena of technology. "For the notion of [ICTs] literacy to become meaningful, it has to be situated within a theory of cultural production and viewed as an integral part of the way people produce, transform, and reproduce meaning" (1987). In other words, a technological literacy that reproduces the dominant ideologies and formations of power, injustices, and oppression has little place in our vision of liberation and positive regeneration of society. Instead, knowledge of ICTs should be a route to "emancipatory change" and self-empowerment — where beyond simply learning how to use software and hardware, individuals and communities use technologies to take a critical look at the ideologies and power structures which manipulate them, at what knowledges are being taught and to whose benefit, and at how they can become pro-active change agents involved in creating new visions and practices of sustainable and democratic living. Unfortunately, most people in developing countries today see ICTs as a vehicle to get a job as a computer programmer and escape to the United States rather than as an opportunity for larger social change.

The challenge before us is how to create and sustain learning environments that utilize technology in these creative, reflective, empowering and transformative ways. A few conditions seem essential. First, how the medium is used is more important than what medium is used (Visser 1995). In other words, our focus must be on processes and opportunities rather than on the specific technologies of computers, video cameras, or radio. Congruent with the concept of multiple intelligences (Gardner, 1993), different kinds of activities, languages and interfaces will open up the potential of ICTs for many more people. A combination of media will often better facilitate learning than a single medium. The technologies should be "compatible with local, cultural and economic conditions […] and utilize locally available materials and energy resources, with tools and processes maintained and operationally controlled by the local population" (Ureubu 1997). This outlook encourages engagement with traditional forms of communication and expression (dance, music, art, puppets, etc), alongside new ICTs, to further foster the creation of new media and the articulation of one's culture and identity. It also demands that the learning environment and the specific applications of the ICTs grow out of the cultures and needs of local people from the community, and they should take responsibility for its development, upkeep, and evolution.

Thus, in using ICTs, individuals/communities should hold a larger vision of learning. This vision involves processes of critical self-reflection, thinking, questioning, exploring, interacting, meaning-making, creating, connecting, and discovering. These processes directly link to a notion of empowerment, in which "individuals/communities engage in learning [to] create, appropriate and share knowledge, tools and techniques in order to change and improve the quality of their own lives and societies. Through empowerment, individuals not only manage and adapt to change but also contribute to/generate changes in their lives/environments" (UNESCO). In seeking to change their lives and environments, empowered communities have the potential to completely transform our currently inadequate (and often destructive) economic, political, and social systems and pave the way for a more sustainable, just, and meaningful future. ICTs can play a powerful role in the construction of this new future.

Innovative Examples from Around the World

Internationally, some organizations have attempted to use ICTs to link learning and empowerment for change. Although still in their nascent stages — both in terms of hardware and software — these experiments offer us examples of looking at ICTs and other media in innovative ways:

A technology/social meeting center in England called Borderlands has been created for dialogue and action. Borderlands was inspired by a desire "to create a place where people can meet, talk, reflect, learn and teach, read and study, do ‘cultured’ things together, organize, administer and manage their networks or activities; where consultation, consulting, and counseling can happen; and where a broad spectrum of basic resources are made available and accessible… In short, a place where people can develop other ways of doing things together" (Boulet 1998). Using technology, Borderlands attempts to respond to four main needs: (1) a profound redevelopment of communities; (2) more ecologically, sustainable local living; (3) international and intercultural learning exchange and awareness; and (4) critical self-reflection and active and participatory research.

In the United States, a program called Barrios Unidos teams undergraduates from local colleges with youths from low-income neighborhoods. They meet in a community computer center and use technology to share goals and initiate projects. The older students learn about the realities of inner city living, while the youth learn about college life. Using technology as a basis for co-learning, both groups interact with each other in a meaningful ways. In the process, they dismantle stereotypes and foster relationships, which ultimately challenge existing hierarchies and injustices.

In Boston, Massachusetts, the Computer Museum and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab organized The Computer Clubhouse. Rather than just learning computer techniques or programs, participants learn to express themselves fluently with new technology, where fluency means "the ability to articulate a complex idea or tell an engaging story," or create something of significance (Resnick and Rusk 1996). The Clubhouse is aimed at youth aged 10 to 16, and 98% of the participants come from underserved populations. The inner-city youth use their technological fluency to create art, music, multimedia presentations, websites, robotic constructions, and whatever else they can imagine, in this learning community. The Clubhouse operates on four broad principles: (1) to support learning by designing technology-based artistic projects; (2) to help youth build on their own interests as motivation for learning; (3) to cultivate a community of people who know how to explore, experiment, and express themselves with the technology; and (4) to create an environment of respect and trust with a culture of freedom and self-esteem.

In the Olympia School District, in Washington, USA, a program called Generation WHY (Worldwide Horizons for Youth) has youth serve as partners in the technology classroom. The youth learn information literacy, research, lesson planning, presentation, mentoring and leadership skills in the 18-week Generation WHY course. Using their knowledge, the students mentor and collaborate with their teachers and communicate via Internet with other students throughout the USA. Graduates of the Generation WHY program work with schools, administrators, personnel, pre-service teacher training institutions, and the community to "use the power of technology to improve learning and teaching." Although this program operates within the existing school structure, it creates dynamic relationships between students and teachers that erase vertical ‘top-down’ structures of learning. In the process, students also take partial ownership of their learning.

While the four projects are still in their formative stages, and much experimentation and contextualization still has to take place, they all attempt to explore and utilize ICTs in non-traditional ways that break out of the paradigm of teaching/training/transmission and seek to build new spaces for creative reflection, dialogue and action.

In contrast, India's discourse around and usage of ICTs appears to be quite limited. For example, the Government of India plans to draft a national policy so that India will "emerge as an IT [information technology] superpower within the next 10 years" (Kumar). But the terms of reference in this plan are purely economic, functional and infrastructural. Thus, the strategies of the plan focus on either enlarging access to ICTs ("massive expansion of Internet use by all sections of society" and "dramatically increasing personal computer density") or expanding the usage of ICTs (into "all areas of national economy, agriculture, industry, trade and services" and in learning "Indian languages") (Kumar).

India's ICTs projects appear to follow the same line. For example, the Society for Electronics and Computer Technology (SECT) promotes vocational and technical education in Bhopal. Engineers and academicians formed SECT in 1984 to address the issues of literacy and electronic awareness in schools. Through its 110 Multi-purpose Rural Electronics and Computer Centers, it has reached over 10,000 students by offering courses, like the Computer Literacy and Awareness Program, and books on computers in Hindi. Though SECT has four stated services — technical training, servicing, production, and publications — it is not clear how this program links technology with larger notions of lifelong learning and self- or community-empowerment. More specifically, it is not clear whether people are actually able to apply what they learn in improving their everyday lives.

Similarly, the computer company, Intel, sponsors Project Vidya, a multimedia ‘cyber-bus’ that travels to 60 villages in the Garhwal Himalayas. It attempts to expose about 400 children in each village to computers, while teaching about subjects like health, hygiene, nutrition and history. The hope is that "multimedia computers can help solve the twin problems of low literacy and high drop-out rates plaguing education in rural India" (The Hindu). Again, in seeking a one-way transmission of discrete pieces of information, the project does not appear to address the larger issues of community empowerment or learning.

ICTs in Udaipur

What is the discourse around and usage of ICTs like in Udaipur? Six computer technology centers (NIIT, IICTs, TULEC, CMC, APTECH, ARENA Multimedia) and three schools that use computers in the classroom (The Study, The Basic School, and Maharana Mewar Public School) were visited to analyze the technology learning environment in Udaipur.

Despite differences in their fee structures, the technology centers essentially follow the same programming and pedagogy. All six specialize in training students in software programs and computer programming using one-day, to six-month, to three-year certificate programs. All six offer job placement in various companies, although representatives from the training centers say that a majority of the students are learning computers for their own knowledge or interest, and are not actively seeking employment. All also divide their teaching into three main components: theory instruction, practical laboratory, and testing/projects. One center adds a "question and answer" component that offers students extra time to interact with the instructor to settle any lingering questions.

Pedagogically, all six centers claimed to rely on collaboration and active learning, although this did not appear to be the actual case. For example, when observed in the theory classes, students listened as the teacher used an overhead to demonstrate how the programs worked. In this way, the instructor imparted knowledge to the students, leaving little room for dialogue around anything other than clarification. In the practical laboratory, two students sit together at one computer, to collaborate, learn together, and solve problems on their own. Again, if they need additional clarification, they may ask the instructor. The testing/projects phase of the programs attempt to show the students’ culmination of expertise in the semester. While two to four students work together on a project, not much more is known about the topics or who decides the topics.

The average computer school pupil is finished with schooling or is currently a college student, but the centers also target business people, housewives, youth, elders, and the general public. The centers use slogans and other marketing tools to increase their enrollment and thus keep themselves in business. They simply focus on teaching students how to use hardware and software and do not explain how to transfer technology to other settings, much less suggest that technology be used to transform learning or empower individuals and communities. Basically, the students learn ICTs for fun or for future employment — not to creatively articulate their culture or identities or to improve themselves or their communities.

The three schools also follow this mainstream functional discourse around and usage of ICTs. This analysis emerged from meeting with the computer teacher, observing the computer lab and students, and interviewing the teacher about teaching pedagogy. Despite the differences in the populations they serve, the quality of their facilities, the content of their instruction, and their overall philosophies, all three schools focus on teaching computer literacy (how to use computer hardware and software). For example, both The Study and the Maharana Mewar Public School have had a computer center for about eight years. The labs in both of these exclusive and expensive elite schools have several computers and Microsoft software; The Study also has Internet access and several educational CDs available. Students work in pairs in their weekly computer class, and many students have computers at home. At The Study, in the younger grades, students play educational CDs to improve math, spelling, reading, geography, and other topics. The older grades begin to learn Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, and use the Internet to search for college admission information or other work- or school-related information. At Maharana Mewar Public School, older students prepare ‘commercially-based’ final projects, using spreadsheets or database prototypes to mimic work in the commercial sector.

Despite its Gandhian philosophy and the newness of its computer lab, The Basic School too advocates the same type of computer literacy. Most students are from lower class, semi-rural communities in neighboring villages. For the most part, the students ‘learn by doing’: working in the garden, repairing electronics, sewing, and woodworking. However, the school is not clear on how computers can benefit rural communities, so there exists a disconnect between the school's philosophy and the mainstream functional use of their computers. At this point, the students simply work in pairs to learn and practice the Microsoft Office software.

Thus, similar to the commercial computer centers, the schools tend to focus on the basics of computer literacy and not on technology for learning or empowerment. Even the Basic School, known for its community projects, still focuses on simply learning how to use the hardware and software for employment into an urban, white-collar job. Schools and technology centers in Udaipur do not appear to relate ICTs to empowerment, collaborative social action, critical thinking, or creativity. Students learn the programs, but lack the ability to creatively apply them, evolve them, or utilize them in personally or socially transformative ways. Nor do the technology centers or schools make efforts to involve the community or parents in the processes of learning, understanding, applying, creating, or critiquing media and development. Also, the cost for almost all the computer opportunities is quite high. The technical schools can charge about Rs. 9000 for a six-month course. Yet the average salary of an working-class, adult male in Udaipur is around Rs. 2000-3000 per month, and for a working-class, adult female perhaps Rs. 1000-2000. Thus, rather than tackling issues of justice and empowerment, these programs appear to be widening the gap between the information haves and the information have-nots.

Where Do We Go From Here?

From this initial investigation, it seems a void exists. Udaipur, like most of India, lacks spaces that describe and use technology for collaborative and intergenerational learning, critiquing and creating new media, interacting with other artistic forms of expression and communication, opening dialogue and creatively articulating culture and identities, and empowering individuals and communities to constructively change their lives and societies. Such spaces should be ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people’ to talk about and facilitate their pressing problems and concerns and to create alternative media, socially constructive projects, and new ideologies and visions of the future. In short, these spaces should combine dialogue, reflection, and action for meaningful expression and change.

Given the limited time spent on the study (three weeks), further detailed investigation is needed to better understand how to proceed. Particularly, the government schools and lower-end technology centers should be visited to assess how they are using technologies. Two other parallel processes are suggested. One is a feasibility study to assess the cost, location, personnel, and other logistical issues of a community technology center. Simultaneously, a local consultation process must be undertaken to better understand the needs, interests, and knowledges of the people in Udaipur, specifically related to technologies and media. Discussion, and perhaps collaboration, with those who have embarked upon linking technology with learning and empowerment, might also be worthwhile to gain insights, information, and inspiration on these processes.

For the feasibility study, we should explore the following questions:

For the local participatory consultation on technologies and the media, the following questions should be further explored:

Contacts at Schools and Technology Centers:

  1. TULEC: Dinesh Choudhary, Computer Educator
  2. NIIT: Srujan Kumar Kalluri
  3. CMC: Maneesh Jain, Computer Educator
  4. APTECH: Mahendra S. Panwar, Computer Educator
  5. IICTs: D. P. Dhakar, Computer Instructor
  6. ARENA Multimedia: Pankaj Joshi
  7. The Study: Mrs. Singh
  8. The Basic School: Principal and Computer Instructor
  9. Maharana Mewar Public School: Raghvendra Sharme, Computer Teacher

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