This is a story from rural Nigeria of an attempt to learn through the Internet.
It is remarkable because of the effort involved in trying to learn, the hurdles that were overcome, and the benefits that could have resulted if it had been successful. However it failed. There are useful lessons to be learned by looking at the details of failure. The experiences of failure can become a firm foundation for systems that are more robust.
The learner was Veronica. She is a teacher in rural Nigeria. Like many teachers in rural Nigeria she is also a farmer. (In UK terms it may be more helpful to think of her as having a smallholding or an allotment.)
The learning need
Veronica was growing ginger. It was the first time she'd tried it and the ginger was growing well enough that she wanted advice on harvesting and marketing it. People elsewhere were growing it as a cash crop. She was hoping to make a profit from her little experimental ginger crop. If her experiment worked then she planned to share her new found knowledge with other people in the community, so they could have an additional source of income. She turned to the Internet for the information that she needed.
Problems that she overcame
Veronica was a teacher in a rural area so she had no local access to the Internet. (There was no phone access then either, but anyhow a phone would not have changed the outcome.)
She had learned about the potential of the Internet on a Teachers Talking course. This was a course that had been provided when teachers needed to start teaching their pupils about ICT (Information and Communication Technology) .
Veronica sent a message to Fantsuam Foundation, to the place where she had done the TT course. Her message explained her need for information. It also explained that there was a deadline, because her crop would be ready for harvesting in August. She asked for someone to search on the Internet on her behalf.
What happened next
The administrator at Fantsuam Foundation sent Victoria's request on to me, because I had presented the course.
When Veronica's request came, I was very excited. I had tried to design a course that would be relevant to all the particiapnts even though most of them came from poorly resourced schools with hardly any access to books and even less likelihood of getting electricity or computers. Veronica's request demonstrated that, as a TT course participant, she had understood and remembered about the power of the Internet. Not only had she understood, but, against the odds, she was trying to apply what she had learned.
However, I was also sad, because, when her request came in I could not give much time to searching for information. (This was because my work with TT and all other aspects of Dadamac is unpaid, so time and resources are very stretched.)
I shared Victoria's request with some people I knew online to see if anyone could help. Three people came back with information that they found about ginger, but we could all see it was not helpful or appropriate. It was all to do with research on crops, or large scale production. There was nothing to help small scale farmers like Victoria and other people in her community.
What could have happened
What we really needed was someone (voluntary or paid) to act as a researcher on Veronica's behalf. That researcher could have tracked down information that would have been of practical use. Immediate thoughts that come to my mind are that maybe the researcher could have found out through the Life Long Learning for Farmers project that COL (Commonwealth of Learning) funded, or could have approached IITA (International Institute for Tropical Agriculture), or got advice from the permaculture community.
If we'd done TT as a funded project then we (the course organisers and I) wouldn't have had to stop helping as soon as the course finished. We could have encouraged participants to do what Veronica did, and we could have committed time and effort to finding answers to their questions.
(This is from memory - if I had a researcher I'd point him/her to the appropriate archives)
Veronica's request was sent to me by Florence. (Florence was working at Fantsuam Foundation in 2006 possibly 2006-7). I therefore think the request came in the summer of 2006.
Veronica probably attended a course in late 2004 or early 2006. These were the first two TT courses. Perhaps she attended on both dates.
Imagine if there had been a TT researcher who had been able to send Veronica the information that she needed. Imagine Veronica's successful sales of ginger in August 2006, and what she might have been able to buy with the money (very possibly for family needs). Imagine too Veronica sharing that knowledge with others.
It's said that in Nigeria when you teach a teacher you teach a community. If Veronica had leaned from the Internet how to harvest and sell ginger effectively she would have shared what she knew with the community.
She would have been encouraged to send other requests for information to the researcher, and she would have sent requests on behalf of others in her community as well.
Imagine how much we could all have learned between 2006 and 2013 if we had been helping Veronica and her community.
Really open learning
My idea of Really Open Learning is much more open than providing universtiy course materails. It includes stories like Veronica's.
By now, if there had been a researcher, Veronica and her community could been tapping into the global knowledge repository and the supportive community that can be found on the Internet for seven years.
Think what an impact that might have gradually made not just on farming and income, in her community but on other aspects of life that people have to deal with from cradle to grave. It would have been really open learning, including people who have never used any kind of computer, have minimal access to electricity, do not speak English, and who include a high proportion of illiterate people amongst them. None of those hurdles would exclude them, because, supported by us, Veronica (who of course is a teacher) would be acting as an intermediary.
Now think of it from another viewpoint. If we think of Open Learning as a part of the true peer-to-peer and Commoning culture then that is typically not a top-down culture. It is collaborative and for group benefit (see What is the commons? Excellent introduction by David Bollier: short video http://vimeo.com/63307682 ) If we had been doing research as requested by Veronica and her community it would not just have been the rural community that was doing the learning - we would have been learning too.
Imagine what we could have learned if we had been helping Veronica (By "we" I mean anyone who claims to be interested and concerned about things like equality, or "development", or ICT for Education and Development, or Open Learning or the digital divide or other related issues.)
Imagine the wealth of information and understanding we could have amassed through seven years of simply responding to the information needs of a community in rural Afrca.
Now imagine if we'd helped other TT participants, and their communites, in a similar way. Imagine the learning. Imagine the impact. Imagine the potential reduction in ignorance - not just in the village community but in the community of people on the "developed" side of the digital divide who are normally disconnected from the grass-roots realities of "developing" countries.
As an observer of many aspects of change, including changes in education, I look for patterns.
This story of Veronica is part of the pattern where innovative activity on the ground occurs in a way that is completely disconnected from top-down innovation. It is probably also an example of the same words holding different meanings to people in different orgainisational cultures (words like "learning").
Top down innovation usually comes from established institutions. Top down "open learning" is often only seen as the province of universities, and has strong similarities to what they were doing before the idea of Open Learning or Internet-enabled learning of any kind. In the context of established academia Open Learning is arguably supply driven, by suppliers who are exploring a new way to find people they can teach.
Veronica's need to learn was practical and needs led. She was looking for knowledge that she could apply to a genuine problem. She didn't need accreditation or anything. She just needed to learn. Thanks to the openness of the Internet people like Veronica should be able to learn what they need to learn. I believe that Veronica's need should be seen as an Open Learning need.
Maybe Veronica's kind of open learning is too vocational and practical to be of interest to established providers of information and knowledge. Maybe it is something that will continue to exist and develop outside of the established systems, along with other kinds of "invisible colleges" as described by Dougald Hine (see reference in Experiences of Invisible College in Action)
Veronica's story is a very real part of what is happening. As such I suggest that Veronica's kind of open learning need should at least be included in the thinking of researchers who are interested in Open Learning and other aspects of change in educational systems in the 21st century.
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