UOC UNESCO Chair in Elearning | Fifth International Seminar – Tim Unwin: ICT4D as a tool to fight the digital divide

12 November, 2008

Notes from the UOC UNESCO Chair in e-Learning Fifth International Seminar. Fighting the Digital Divide through Education)

Mariana Patru, UNESCO

Mariana Patru, on the left, and Imma Tubella giving the openning remark of the seminar (picture by David Campos /UOC)The importance of Education in all stages of development.

The increasing changes that the Information Society and Globalization are bringing impact all aspects of life. Life long learning is one of the paradigmatic effects of the recent changes the World’s been in.

Beyond digital literacy, and digital exclusion because of lack of physical access, there’s a huge knowledge divide that needs to be fought: access to useful, culturally relevant knowledge.

ICT4D as a tool to fight the digital divide
Tim Unwin, Royal Holloway University of London and World Economic Forum’s Partnerships for Education programme with UNESCO.

Tim Unwin making his presentation (picture by David Campos /UOC)Fight the digital divide or build on individual strengths? Begin with information and communication needs, being the fundamental part “for Development”.


ICT4D partnerships have been very successful: they have been fostered per se, but also the private sector has had a leading role in ICT4D, in contrast with a lack of understanding among donor agencies. On the other hand, partnerships have worked well because ICT4D is still a complex an unknown area where collaboration is strongly needed.

But partnerships have also failed: partnerships with no clear goals or even meaning; focus on public-private partnerships, forgetting other kinds of organization; emphasis on the supply side; insufficient attention paid to partnership processes.

Sustainability is not something that can be thought of once the project is started — or near its “completion” — but should be included in the plan from the sheer beginning. Same with scale, trying to avoid pilot-project fever that think short run and narrow scope.

e-Learning for development?

The pros are many and quite well known. What are the cons?

  • Costs of ICT are high, and infrastructures scarce.
  • Tutorial support is required and more important than just content — though important too and needs to be localized indeed.
  • The focus should not be put in ICT training, or “office” software, but in Education. Education vs. training.

Main reasons of failure in ICT-led education projects in Africa

  • Understand context of delivery
  • Appreciate African interests
  • Overcome infrastructure issues
  • Provide relevant content
  • Top down
  • Suypply driven
  • Photo-opportunity “development”
Constructivism and 21st century skills

Learners involved, democratic environment, student centred learning, etc.

Critiques to constructivism:

  • learning might be behaviourally active, but is not necessarily cognitively active.
  • may not be delivered in teaching practices. Teaching practice mayh not deliver the theoretical realities
  • Ignores the reality of the African classroom
  • Emphasis on replicating “truths”
  • Modular thinking
  • Going for the easy option, e.g. go to the Wikipedia
  • Tendency towards plagiarism
  • Inability to think critically
  • Lowest common denominator attitude
  • Pandering to student “demand”

Most of ICT in education focusses on content and collaborative networking, but not in problem solving or critical thinking.

What kind of education for what kind of development?

Private sector and education. Engaged in setting a global agenda, and with strong interest in the knowledge economy.

Hegemonic model — economic growth and liberal democracy — need for focus on relative poverty — inequalities, access.

Emphasis on training for a knowledge economy while forgetting about critical ability and reflection.

Education is not a driver for economic growth. Key skills to be human, fighting the digital tyranny that constrains us rather than liberate us. Some ICTs (e.g. e-mail) do not let time enough to think creatively and take action.

Take control of technologies — and take control of those who control the technologies — to take control of our learning process. Re-define the role of the teacher and re-assert shared and communal educational agendas, while assuring equitable access.

Questions or opportunities for the future
  • Post-constructivism and the role of the teacher?
  • Processes of learning communities?
  • Enabling innovative problem solving and critical thinking?
  • How to provide appropriate infrastructure?
  • The tyranny of digital environments?

Q & A

Linda Roberts: is there any good practice in ICT4D and Education? A: Sadly enough, there are very few of them, e.g. some of them mobile-phone centred that enable the student to access some content without displacing the teacher.

Eduardo Toulouse: is it the clue teachers and the quality of teachers? what happens when infrastructure is a barrier for even the teachers? A: Yes, the clue is teacher quality. And to achieve this teachers have to be able to live on their own work. And, in some environments, thinking that they are going to engage in the production of materials and share them (at the connectivity cost) for nothing is ludicrous.

[…] from University of South Africa: is there any option left but believe in ICTs, despite all the drawbacks, “buts”, failures and so? A: Top-down approaches do not work, so this “hope” in ICTs has to be indeed grassroots founded.

Ismael Peña-López: what if we do not have teachers? can ICTs help to bring them on our community? can open educational resources help attract teachers? can OER help to create teachers out of the blue? A: OER can leverage already existing social structures to create learning communities. Peer learning, by leveraging peers and turning them into teachers can be a thrilling option. Communal education is the one to be put under the spotlight, and even a local facilitator can even be a bridge between a remote teacher and the community if the tools and the human network are well thread one with the other.

Q: What’s after post-constructivism? What about critical pedagogy? A: Isn’t this a Western approach as well? Even if Paolo Freire is brazilian, his ideas are well rooted in the West.

Paul West: ICTs can help the teacher to lighten his burden by making him more efficient, e.g. when correcting and marking exams. A: Agree. The debate is in whether doing old things in a new way vs. or new things the old way.

Sugata Mitra: is there a possibility for real change? for a shift of paradigm? A: We have to find the gaps and expand them.

Ismael Peña-López: is there a room for co-operation that avoids cultural imperialism, fosters endogenous development, relies on content while not forgetting the teacher, etc.? A: The critique is not in collaboration or in technology, but on pre-established mindsets, one-size-fits-all or magic solutions, etc. Of course collaboration can take place, but to define a solution, not just implement the solution.

Linda Roberts: how to engage the youngest? A: Mass media might be a first approach to get to them easily.

Teemu Leinonen: what’s the role of languages related to education, ICTs and development? A: There are several initiatives where ICTs are being used to support languages that are dying out. On the other hand, localization is not (just) translation into the local language.

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