October 23, 2005

Is this blog dead? Nope, a new paper!

Well, not entirely. It was intended as a tool for a specific project which is over, but I think there's some relevant stuff going on so I may try to keep it alive. To begin with, I have just completed a paper that is related to the overall issue and included it here for everyone's reading pleasure: Information and communication technologies in development education: Preparing educators with open source software and constructivist learning approaches.
Tryggvi Thayer

Information and communication technologies in development education: Preparing educators with open source software and constructivist learning approaches.

Tryggvi Thayer (tryggvi_bt at yahoo dot com)

Introduction. The purpose of this paper is to address the need for better articulated strategies and goals in programs and initiatives that promote the adoption of information and communication technologies (ICTs) for development and development education. More specifically, it addresses the question of how educators in the least developed countries (LDCs) can best be prepared to make optimal use of ICTs in development education to achieve development goals. The author examines some underlying assumptions common in ICT for development programs from a development theory perspective and discusses why these approaches fail to produce the intended outcomes. In response to the issues identified, the author suggests a constructivist approach to educator training using open source software (OSS) to facilitate and promote the development of relevant and specifically tailored computer-based educational tools for development education.

ICTs and development education. ICTs have had a profound impact on the way we communicate, the way we do business, and the way we learn. It is no surprise then the impact that ICTs have had on education. Not only are they an ideal tool to facilitate learning by providing access to learning resources, but they are also an integral part of the environment that we need to prepare today�s learners for. This point is acknowledged in the UNESCO�s Dakar Framework for Action for the �Education for All� (EFA) initiative which clearly states, �Information and communication technologies (ICTs) must be harnessed to support EFA goals at an affordable cost.� (UNESCO, 2000) As such, the EFA goals are focusing not only on inequality in terms of access to education, but also inequality in terms of access to ICTs.

In development education there have been high expectations in regards to the potential of ICTs. The difficulties of development education in general, such as availability of resources and delivery of education to remote areas, seem easily overcome with ICTs. In recent years increasingly cheaper ICTs have made this an even more attractive means of dealing with the educational needs of LDCs. The result has been a proliferation of programs and initiatives that aim to make ICTs available to LDCs for education and development purposes. Despite the efforts of development agencies and other benefactors, research has shown that the results of many past efforts to promote development through the introduction of ICTs are questionable at best. While many quantitative indicators associated with adoption of ICTs may look impressive the intended outcomes in terms of human and economic development seldom reflect the same optimism (Birdsall & Birdsall, 2005).

ICTs as facilitators of change. It is remarkable how little research there is into why past and existing ICT related initiatives that aim to make the technology available to LDCs are not producing the intended outcomes in terms of human and economic development. Looking at the issue from a development theory perspective reveals that ICT initiatives that focus primarily on introducing technology into LDCs, without considering how the technology is to be used, are ignoring lessons of the past. The currently common assumption that ICTs can, in and of themselves, prompt development has been referred to as �leapfrogging development� (Singh, 1999). The hypothesis of �leapfrogging development� is that by implementing cheap off-the-shelf ICTs, developing countries can �leapfrog� over the stages of modernization needed to reach development goals as dictated by modernization theory (Singh, 1999). Although supporters of this type of �leapfrogging� often cite the impact of cellular telephony in developing countries as verification of the effectiveness of this strategy, these claims have not been supported by recent research (Alhassan, 2004). The mistake in the �leapfrogging development� assumption is that in proposing an alternative to the traditional modernization approach to development, �leapfrogging� nonetheless takes the modernization model as its measure of success. As past research has shown, modernization theory does not provide an adequate model for development, nor the evaluation of the effectiveness of a given strategy, because the stages of modernization that the theory is based on are assumed to apply to developing countries without any evidence that this is truly the case (F�gerlind & Saha, 1989).

These considerations lead to the obvious suggestion that programs that promote ICTs for development need to have more clearly formulated strategies and goals. The less obvious conclusion, which is especially relevant for development education, is that the beneficiaries of these programs need to be more involved in formulating these strategies in line with their anticipated outcomes. In the case of ICTs for development education, computers, the Internet, and computer applications are the primary focus of development initiatives. It is unrealistic to assume that existing technology and applications, the majority of which have been created for and by �Western� developed countries, will suit the needs of LDCs. On the other hand, given the time and cost involved in developing computer applications, it must be considered beneficial to be able to build on the experience gained in developing countries. In this context open source software (OSS) may provide an ideal jumping board for adaptation of existing applications due to the open nature of the application development process. The nature of OSS communities also suggest that they may serve as an ideal training environment for educators in developing countries preparing to make use of ICTs in education.

OSS � Free as in �freedom�. OSS refers to an open collaboration model for developing computer software. Although there are several variations on the guiding principles, the essentials are that a software development project is open to anyone who wishes to contribute and that the resulting source code, i.e. the human readable blueprint of the software, is freely distributed and may be modified by anyone wishing to do so. This differs greatly from the closed proprietary model that treats its source code as closely guarded intellectual property to be revealed to no one outside the organization.

There are many differing opinions about the benefits of OSS for developing countries. While some see it as a cheap alternative to proprietary software (PS), to be evaluated in terms of overall cost, including support and training (Bridges.org, 2005), others focus on the benefits of its flexibility and openness (Ghosh, 2004). OSS and the communities involved in its development are a far more complex phenomenon that includes both of these dimensions and more. What both of these views miss is what has been identified as a crucial element of the attraction of OSS for developers, i.e. �ownership� (Thayer & Walsher, 2005). �Ownership� in this sense refers to users and developers vested interest in, and control over the software, not that it is the property of any individual, group, or organization. Having ownership of the software and the source code means that users and developers are able to adapt the software to their specific needs at the time when they need it and are able to contribute to its development on their own terms. This is especially significant for LDCs since many of these countries are not considered by software companies to be a viable enough market to justify the time and cost of specially tailoring PS.

Another important aspect of OSS communities that is often overlooked is that they are learning communities. A recent study has shown that the most common reason cited for developers� getting involved with OSS development is to advance their own programming skills (International Institute of Infonomics, 2002). OSS communities have constructed their own methods and tools for facilitating learning, including �massive peer review�, extensive documentation, and a number of interactive collaborative tools (Mulgan et al, 2005; Scharff, 2002; Taylor & Riley, 2005). The result is that anyone interested in a specific OSS project can get involved in any number of ways, ranging from coding and debugging to documentation and end-user support, at any time by familiarizing themselves with as much of the development process as they see fit.

OSS and constructivist learning environments. OSS communities have been said to be quintessential constructivist learning environments (Koohang & Harman, 2005). Wilson describes a constructivist learning environment as �a place where learners may work together and support each other as they use a variety of tools and information resources in their pursuit of learning goals and problem-solving activities� (as cited in Hannafin & Hill, 2002). This certainly describes OSS communities that structure themselves around specific issues relating to the software being developed and use several tools to tackle the tasks at hand. But, it must be added that there are many ways of participating in OSS projects. In most projects only a handful of the larger community are actually involved in writing software code, i.e. providing the solutions to problems. The majority of participants are involved in testing software for coding errors and reporting those errors, while others are involved with creating documentation and planning for future development, i.e. identifying and formulating problems needing to be solved. In fact the wide range of opportunities for participation mean that anyone, whether they are a programmer or merely an end user, can contribute in some way. This is relevant for LDCs because it means that they need not have advanced knowledge of software development to play a significant role in OSS projects, merely that they are able to provide constructive feedback to inform ongoing development. OSS, viewed as a learning community, therefore presents itself as a potential model for training future users of technology in a manner that allows them to simultaneously have an impact on the construction of the software itself. As such OSS development environments may provide an attractive means of training educators in LDCs to prepare them to use ICTs in their own educational environments. Using OSS for training can increase educators� sense of ownership in the technology being used by allowing them to tailor the technology to their educational needs, rather than tailoring their education to the software available.

As an educational tool, OSS would seem to be best suited to constructivist learning strategies, because the OSS development process is itself a constructivist process. Such a strategy would inevitably focus on problem solving, which is widely regarded as a key task in constructivist learning environments (Jonassen, 2002). This approach to designing constructivist environments emphasizes the problem solving, but when considering the potential of OSS as an educational tool problem identification and formulation present themselves as learning processes in and of themselves. This aspect of a problem solving approach is as important, and perhaps even more important, than the problem solving itself because it is at this stage where ownership is initially established. For a problem to be solved there needs to be a problem. Of course, it is important that the problem is solved, but once it is the process should be considered as a whole. Considered as a complete process, the contribution of the problem solver is certainly no more than the contribution of the problem identifier. The significance of the contribution of each party would ultimately depend on what the expected learning outcomes are. In OSS projects, not everyone is expecting to learn software development. But, by participating in the many other ways possible, be it producing documentation or merely identifying bugs in the software, participants are engaging in a collaborative learning activity that seeks to increase a general understanding of what the specific software should do and how it should do it.

Constructing learning environments about ICTs for educators. Creating constructivist learning environments around OSS should be a fairly straightforward task since OSS is essentially a constructivist environment to begin with. OSS communities have developed many useful tools, such as concurrent versioning systems, wikis, blogs, and messageboards, that are themselves open source, to support their activities. These tools and other software applications are almost always easily accessible on the Internet, or where Internet connectivity is limited, on CD-ROM. Open source system software is usually distributed on multiple CD-ROMS and includes software needed for day to day computing tasks, for running network services, and for software development, including the previously mentioned OSS collaboration tools. Therefore, a single Linux distribution (ex. Mandrake, Debian, Fedora) will usually include everything required to set up a computer with the services and applications needed to operate, or even simulate, a computer network with all of the features of the Internet. Of course, a connection to the Internet is ideal, but it would be unrealistic to assume that this will always be possible. In the case where it is not possible, the Internet can be simulated using open source web server software, web browsers, and any number of connected computers. All of this software and the OSS collaboration tools can be directly applied to learning environments with little or no change other than necessary translation and localization.

Once a network environment has been set up, users (in this scenario the users are also learners) can begin to familiarize themselves with the computing environment and identifying necessary changes to meet their needs. Using the applications common to OSS environments, such as wikis and messageboards, users/learners can, with little instruction, start documenting their experiences with the software and reflecting on those experiences collaboratively. The obvious starting points would be the translation and localization of the collaboration tools themselves. At some stage in this process it will be necessary for developers to become involved so that the users/learners have the opportunity to see the impact of their work. Nevertheless, they need not be involved at all times. In this manner, users/learners will gradually construct their own learning environment by integrating more and more tools into their work environment that they themselves have adapted according to their proficiency with the technology and their needs.

In this approach problem solving is not the primary goal as far as users/learners are concerned. The primary task of the users/learners in this scenario is the identification of problems that need solving. Who eventually solves the problem is not relevant. The process of identifying and formulating problems, and seeing the results once they are solved, is sufficient to promote ownership in the software being developed. Promoting ownership in this manner will help users/learners overcome any apprehensions initially felt concerning the use of the technology in educational settings and will increase the perceived relevance and usefulness of the technology.

Conclusions. Research has shown that, in the context of development education, problems related to accessibility of ICTs are only one side of the coin. Without qualified educators that have a clear understanding of the technology and that are able to use it effectively, the technology itself is useless. Furthermore, in the case of computers and the Internet, applications need to be tailored to the needs of LDCs. Constructivist learning strategies aim to further knowledge development by promoting ownership of the artifacts involved in well defined problem solving tasks. Although the ultimate goal is the solution of the problem, initial problem identification and formulation can, in and of itself, contribute to a sense of ownership and knowledge development. This type of strategy may be an effective means of training educators in LDCs by involving them in the adaptation, translation, and localization of computer applications to be used in development education. Such an approach to teacher training in LDCs can be a cost effective way of paving the way for the use of ICTs in development training since the collaborative tools and other necessary software are already freely available through OSS communities.


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Posted by thay0012 at October 23, 2005 9:22 AM