Human-centered technologies for sensitive development
We often assume that educational technologies can erase the boundaries of time and space. Could they also erase poverty? Bridging the so-called â€œdigital divideâ€ is not simply a matter of shoveling Western technologies to the developing world, but takes sensitivity and adaptation to local cultures and contexts, involving local users not only as informants but also as co-designers. But even traditional methods of design and usability testing may not simply be applied everywhere. Here I describe a few European approaches, presented at a workshop organized by myself and others at the recent HCI 2007 conference in Lancaster, UK.
Danish design for diversity
Lone Dirckinck-Holmfeld of Aalborg University, and Janni Nielsen from the Copenhagen Business School, are looking at methods to handle cultural diversity and support collaborative networking. Specifically, they are developing a methodological foundation for the design of a user-friendly, flexible and configurable global Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system that is adoptable to cultural diversity. Their focus is on developing human-centered design methods and tools to handle cultural diversity.
The first ERP systems, developed in the 1980s, built upon accounting systems, with the aim to integrate all transactions within one system. The second generation enabled the sharing of data and practices across entire enterprises (SAP, Oracle are examples); these are typically intended for large, often global, companies. A new generation of ERP systems focuses on decision makers, and delivering relevant information in real time. These are aimed at small- to medium-sized enterprises doing business internationally.
Creating such systems for Western companies is challenge enough; for firms which are themselves based in the developing world it is doubly challenging, due not only to language and cultural differences, but also the cost of such systems. The projectâ€™s goal, therefore, is a comprehensive global ERP system, which can be localized to different countries, using component-based software development.
This necessitates an end user perspective. Firms that develop and sell such software quite naturally regard the companies they sell their product to as their customers. But the real end users are the employees in those target companies who will use the system, and they are sparingly addressed. When they are, it is in terms of roles â€” an administrator, secretary, or accountant. But users, Dirckinck-Holmfeld pointed out, are not roles; they are humans engaged in work which takes place in a given context and culture.
Dirckinck-Holmfeld is well placed to challenge the existing order. â€œWe are very much belonging to the Scandinavian approach to design, which has a long tradition of democratic design approaches.â€ This socio-cultural perspective, she says, is beginning to infiltrate the mainstream. â€œNow there is an understanding that the users â€” they are the experts, and we have to listen to the experts in order to design new products.â€
From this perspective, an ERP system is seen as an artifact mediating human interactions and transactions, in the service of human objectives. It views interaction and transaction as â€œacts of meaning,â€ and the point of departure is not the single user, but humans who are involved in communities of practice in specific cultures. Ethnography therefore plays a key role in the groupâ€™s research methodology, and has informed the approach they call â€œDialogue Designâ€ which has mutual learning as a basic principle.
Dirckinck-Holmfeld has been applying this approach to e-learning in developing countries for years. She has been part of an effort to start an Asian University for Women in Bangladesh, and is working with universities in Thailand and Malaysia. â€œThey want to transform their university pedagogy towards problem-oriented, project pedagogy, using ICT as a kind of motor for this transformation. The same idea,â€ she continues, â€œwe have been dealing with in a Latin American context with four universities â€” in Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Mexico.â€
Quality across borders
Davoud Masoumi, from Gothenburg University in Sweden (just across the water from Aalborg) is also studying e-learning in universities, in his case in his native Iran. He points to several recent e-learning efforts there â€” at Amirkabir University of Technology, Iran University of Science and Technology, Shiraz Virtual University, the Virtual University of Isfahan, Yazad University, as well as some Islamic virtual collages and centers. Despite the quantity of implementations in Iran alone, Masoumi believes that quality is the most decisive factor determining the future of e-learning â€” whether in the developed or developing world. But the definition of what quality means differs whether coming from an administrator, professor, lecturer or learner.
What is clear is that there is a gap between pedagogy and technology, with sound models from the former not always applied to the latter, and with a lack of rigorous evaluation studies. But teaching practices that work in the classroom do not always translate to the chat room, and efforts to simply get coursework online in response to real or perceived demand can be disastrous. Additionally, the lines between teaching and administration become blurred in a technological infrastructure. Masoumi looks at quality in terms of the design of the e-learning experience, learnersâ€™ actual experience in context, and evidence of learning outcomes. While it seems obvious to look at the quality of content and resources, quality, Masoumi believes, is ultimately dependent on the decisions and behaviors undertaken by teachers and learners. Pedagogical, organizational and technological factors all have to be taken into consideration.
Can e-learning really make distance meaningless, especially between the developed and developing worlds? According to Riad Saba, the developing world is most often treated as a market for techniques and technologies developed in the developed world. It is easy for Western companies to assume certain conditions which are not readily available in many countries. Saba, in his Ph.D. research at the University of Nottingham in the UK, has been looking at the practical aspects of implementing educational technologies in Lebanon. Like many countries, it presents challenges for using technology, such as a limited technical infrastructure and high cost of access.
Saba tried to run an Arabic language course for students based in the UK, linking directly to the University of Balamand in Lebanon via videoconferencing and in Second Life. Students were enthusiastic and the technologies promising. But the Lebanese government has a monopoly on telecommunications in the country, charging 30 to 40 times more than in the West. The Internet penetration rate is thus around 15 percent, and local service providers do not provide much bandwidth.
Second Life, in addition, uses some non-standard ports which are normally closed on a university network. There are larger issues. It is classified as a game by the University of Balamand, and by the government as a host for pornography as well as pedagogy. Additionally, work toward a university degree delivered over any medium besides the classroom is not recognized by the government. Second Life, not being purpose-built for education, lacks some useful features in this context, and Saba would like to see some features from learning systems such as Blackboard or Moodle incorporated.
Even humble videoconferencing did not fare much better. Because of the low bandwidth on the Lebanese side, students were not always able to see the instructorâ€™s mouth â€” which is often crucial in language learning. Time delays meant that students and instructors sometimes talked over each other. And crucially in this case, the restricted frequencies of voice encoding meant that some important Arabic sounds could not be heard.
Chatting with China
Such problems do not befall written chat, for those who have access to it and are literate enough to use it. In China it is wildly popular, report Hui Deng and Yinjuan Shao, also from the University of Nottingham. They described studies of informal and spontaneous learning by undergraduates, using QQ, the most popular instant messaging software in China,
They found that learners readily initiate learning through QQ without any guidance from teachers and tutors, and learning activities happen in informal settings as well as the classroom. Lecturers do tele-advising, while students take part in group projects, send files to each other, get questions immediately answered, get feedback and have discussions â€” even during lectures. They donâ€™t even mind if teachers join class group chats; in fact welcome it. A tutor or peer can capture screen activity at the click of a button, then explain it in a live chat. Class announcements, exam results, timetables and textbook contents are all shared this way, because nearly every undergraduate has a QQ account; one even regarded QQ as â€œintegrating his everyday life as naturally as the air, the water and the sun in their life.â€
Of course, successful collaboration depends on participation, and some students wished for a bit more. Some were also concerned that people used their real names. But generally they were very positive about the pedagogical benefits of the software. How did the authors conduct the study? They interviewed 17 undergraduates from a distance, with text and audio â€” using QQ itself.
Dorothy Rachovides, in contrast, had to travel to do her fieldwork. Budikote, a typical rural Indian village, is home to 600 families and has been affected by an ongoing drought. There is no running water or sanitation. What the village does have, however, is a community radio station, funded by UNESCO. And a pile of unused PDAs, locked in a school basement. If anyone ever decides to use them, they will be obsolete.
In pondering the StoryBank project she participates in, Rachovides, who splits her time between Greece and the UK, pondered what happens after researchers come and go, and after the research projects end.
In setting up a system for villagers to create their own multimedia stories, StoryBank is premised on active community involvement as its most important resource. â€œPeople take us into their homes, their places of worship and celebrations,â€ Rachovides writes. â€œShow us the problems of their village and their work places.â€ Their enthusiasm has resulted in many ideas for how the project should develop.
For their part, the researchers provided camera phones, MP3 players, laptops, and digital cameras. They installed touchscreens so that villagers could walk up and easily create stories. Ten camera phones go to ten different people every day, who not only author stories but train others to do the same. They might well have had none: when the project purchased its first batch of phones in the UK, they were deemed university property â€” not to be left in India. It took a donation from Nokia to get the villagers their goods.
Rachovides raised some important ethical concerns about researchersâ€™ overall aims in development projects. She suggested looking at the expectations of participants â€” if not material benefits, is hope enough? Projects need evaluation when they are finished, she said, and need to be followed up to ensure continued participation by locals. She called for more publications of project failures, or at least alternatives, changes or lessons learned.
More details about the above projects, including papers and video from the workshop, are available here.
A version of this article appears in Educational Technology Magazine in the March/April 2008 issue.