Thursday, February 26, 2009

Thoughts On Solutions

Submitted to the UNESCO OER Discussion, February 26, 2009

1. We have to accept that in some communities there will be priorities other than education. The need for clean water and safe food may be much more pressing, for example. In this discussion, we read of places without access to electricity. Providing electricity in such cases is of primary importance. Electricity - whether solar or wind generated or even from hydro or human power - can do so much more than power computers: it provides water, refrigeration, light, and more. Electrification is a key requirement, and in my estimation, for such regions, talk of OERs is a distraction.

2. The corollary to that is, that the design of a program regarding OERs should not be based on the needs of regions where other priorities - such as electrification - are significantly greater than the need for OERs. We may be told (by publishers?) to focus our efforts on non-digital technologies. This is a distraction and a distortion of the idea of open educational resources. Attempting to employ non-digital means to distribute OERs is significantly more expensive; this is why the idea of OERs really became feasible only with the advent of digital technologies.

3. After basic civic infrastructure, and after electricity, the next prior condition for OERs is a viewing and playing platform. It is clear that significant advances have been made here in the last few years, catalyzed by such projects as the Simputer and the One Laptop Per Child, and ultimately made possible by flash memory, lo wattage CPUs, and advanced display technology. The availability of low-cost computing greatly increases access to digital materials, and projects that increase such access (microloans for the purchase of a netbook, for example) should be contemplated. While mobile phones are touted as a viable platform, this should be regarded with some caution: data rates on mobile phones are very high, displays and computing capacity are minimal, and mobile phones are closed systems (the telco retains control over the platform (the hardware and operating system)).

4. Given access to suitable platforms, the next major requirement is typically construed as access to open educational resources themselves. As backbone connectivity is often prohibitively expensive, we often hear proposals for the encoding of content onto flash memory and DVD for distribution and possibly sale. While access to materials is desirable, and should be promoted, this misconstrues the need. Just as a telephone system is valuable for the conversations it can carry, so also a computer network is valuable for the communications it sustains. It is not a substitute for lack of telephone connectivity to simply record some telephone conversations and distribute them to recipients. The next requirement after computation, therefore, is not content, it is connectivity.

5. Where possible, computers should be deployed in clusters and network connectivity established. Even if backbone connectivity to the internet cannot be sustained (because of cost and availability) local connectivity can be used to share communications and resources. Wireless mesh networks, wider area WiMax network, and regional iBurst networks, are all either viable or soon to be viable technologies. With such networks, the physical distribution of resources (ie., content on flash memory or DVD) can focus on single nodes, to be propagated as needed from there via the local network.

6. The production of open educational resources ought to be thought of as a community process, with the distribution of these resources established through a process of sharing rather than giving or sales. When the various considerations regarding the sustainability of OERs are taken into account, as I do here then it seems clear that, unless the creation and management of OERs is community-based, the result will be a requirement for a significant overhead. When we think of OERs as something that are given, then we are inclined to channel resources to the givers, in order to sustain the giving. The givers, however, are typically those least in need of resources: it is no coincidence that the givers are large institutions such as MIT, Stanford, and Open University. But it is a misapplication of funds to channel resources to such large institutions, the entities in the value chain least in need of additional subsidy and support.

7. Models and instances of knowledge creation and sharing ought to be instantiated and propagated. The recent effort by the Indian government to document and share traditional and regional knowledge is an excellent case in point. Such initiatives depict the creation of OER programs not merely as the passive recipients of knowledge, but as active creators and sharers of knowledge. An OER training package is proposed, not so much on the receipt and use of OERs, but rather, on the creation and distribution of OERs. As people begin to create and share their own knowledge, they begin to see the value and insight in others'.

In summary:

- the key is to focus on connectivity, not content
- low-cost 'netbook' computers are encouraged, with an emphasis on local connectivity
- resources should not be directed toward 'givers', as they are the entities least in need of support
- resources should be directed toward helping intended 'recipients' share their own knowledge

I hope this is useful.

Update - February 28, 2009

I would like to respond to Moyomola's comment,

Bolarin, Moyomola (ICARDA) wrote:
> Dear Stephen,
> Your thoughts on solutions raised many questions within me, one of which I can only express now. To begin with, in your summary, you think “the key is to focus on connectivity, not content”
> My question: Will there be a need for connectivity where there are no content to connect? In which case availability of “content” is the driving force for “connectivity.”
Again, as I stated earlier, in small villages where there is no electricity, the priority may be to provide electricity, not OERs.

That said, it must be stressed, by 'connectivity' I do not mean broadband access to the rest of the world. As I tried to emphasize in my previous post, what I meant most especially was connectivity with each other. This can be accomplished without paying any internet access fees, if the computers are equipped with wireless mesh network capacity.

You ask, "will there be a need for connectivity where there are no content?" That is like asking, "will there be a need for a telephone service without pre-recorded messages?" It is to mistake the internet as a content-access system, when in reality it is a communications system. The internet is much more than merely a means of receiving content.

If people are connected, they will produce their own content. If they have a means to create, to communicate, to record, share and save, they will create their own knowledge and share this knowledge. We know this because this is what has happened in all other areas that have received the internet. In classrooms, in businesses, in homes, people are sending messages back and forth, creating accounts on social networks, uploading photos and videos, writing poems, creating software, and so much more.

Now this does not mean that there should be utterly no content, and utterly no connectivity. I believe that it would be useful to have a computer in local networks that contains a library of content - a copy of wikipedia, for example, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Open University courses, Flickr photo libraries, WikiEducator courses, maybe even my own website (heh). Content that would be selected and downloaded or brought in on Flash memory or DVD, once, for the whole community, after discussion of the matter.

But even this content is much less useful without community connectivity. There is a big difference between reading something all by yourself, and reading it as a part of a group and creating and sharing things based on it. Indeed, the need for content is generated by community and communication. The ability to use content is created through community and communication.

Finally, community and connectivity, unlike mere content only, are a means of generating value and wealth for a community. By capturing and creating its own knowledge, a community is creating something of value. Whether or not this value can be monetized, what is important is that the members of the community are not merely passive recipients of their learning, but also actual creators of that learning. By developing this capacity, they become able to take part in online commerce, first among themselves, and then with the rest of the world.

Moyomola, I have never been to your village (but I would love to visit one day - does it have a website?). But I have been in communities large and small, in South Africa and Lesotho, in Colombia, in Malaysia. What I see is not simply a desire to read stuff and to watch TV, but to create and share. As soon as people see what can be done with this technology, very simply and very cheaply, their faces light up and they want to begin to create. And they don't stop.

-- Stephen

p.s. I would like to add two remarks, to add some context for the rest of the discussion members.

First, I would like to make the observation that, insofar as there is a need for content, as described above, the content already exists or can continue to be developed through voluntary (community-based) effort. The same is the case for software, with organizations developing packages of free community applications for learning communities. for example. These are available for free; there should be no need to purchase commercial packages.

Second, where expenditures are required, it seems to me, it would be much more appropriate that they occur in recipient countries rather than donor countries. For example, suppose it were determined that there were a need to create copies of DVDs to distribute community applications and contents. Then, blank DVDs should be purchased from local vendors and local staff hired to create copies. Additionally, if it were determined that certain network infrastructure were needed to create community mesh networks. Then, an enterprise should be established in a recipient country to manufacture and distribute these components. To reiterate the wider point: it just seems wrong to me to see the bulk of money intended for world development end up in the pockets of people and agencies based in North America and Europe.

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