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AECT Denver 2000 Session on

Let Them Eat Cake

The Learning Development Institute conducted a discussion session during the International Conference of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology, Denver, CO, October 25-28, 2000 (see for program details) on the issue of technology choices for learning in economically challenged environments. Following are details about the session:

Contributors to the one-hour discussion session on 'Let Them Eat Cake' were:

Session description:


International developers' advice to economically challenged nations and regions to adopt particular technologies, among other purposes to facilitate learning and development, often sounds like Marie Antoinette's advice to alleviate the plight of the poor: "Let them eat cake." Following a five-to-ten-minute presentation of the issues concerned, this session will be devoted to clarifying relevant questions and implications of different options for technological development.


RATIONALE: International developers' advice to economically challenged nations and regions to adopt technologies, among other purposes to facilitate learning and development, often sounds like Marie Antoinette's advice to alleviate the plight of the poor: "Let them eat cake." Such advice is neither necessarily right nor wrong. However, pertinent questions must be asked about the, sometimes serious and long-term, implications of proposed courses of action in introducing learning technologies. The facilitators of the proposed session draw on extensive knowledge and experience of working in and with developing regions and countries, where they have seen both negative and positive instances of the introduction of learning technologies. They wish to share their experience and engage in a critical discussion with conference participants who have similar concerns. They contend that there is no single correct answer to the multiple questions that can be raised. Thus, the objective for the session is to create enhanced awareness among participants of key questions pertinent to advising developing regions on technology options.

FORMAT AND CONTENT OF THE SESSION: The session will start with a short introduction (five to ten minutes) highlighting key issues and questions. These issues and questions are placed within the context of, on the one hand, current trends in technological development and, on the other, the pressures felt by those responsible for creating the conditions of learning in developing regions and nations.

Following the introduction, the remaining portion of the session will be interactive, participants being expected to contribute to critical reflection by sharing their experiences and thoughts. To help the process along, this reflection will be structured around thematic questions such as the following ones:
* To the extent that technology is a means and not an end, what are the real questions that should be asked before the technology question is raised?
* To the extent that technology is not just a means, but also an end in its own right, to what extent should patterns that emerge in the economically powerful part of the world drive developments among the less privileged?
* To what extent should existing economic conditions be the sole or major determinants of technology development policies in developing countries and regions?
* How can developing countries and regions be assisted to determine the relevance and validity of the advice they receive from foreign 'experts?'
In preparing the session - when and if approved - the facilitators will undertake a thorough review of the literature to distill the most relevant set of thematic questions for the purpose of the envisaged debate.

The above questions will be operationalized by confronting participants with statements such as those that can be found in policy recommendations by, for instance, international development-oriented organizations. As an example of such statements, the following ones - not necessarily to be used in the actual session - may be illustrative:
* Developing countries should move with extreme caution and restraint in adopting new information and communication technologies and adopt only such technologies - the so-called appropriate ones - that their economies can sustain.
* Developing countries must rapidly catch up with technological development trends in other parts of the world so as to become valid players in a global knowledge economy.
* New technologies must be harnessed to include the excluded, by developing open and distance learning options for those currently without access to the provision of traditional forms of education.
* The undue propagation of new information and communication technologies in developing countries may cause local knowledge and learning systems to suffer irreversible damage.
Again, the facilitators will undertake a more thorough review of the relevant literature to bring out the most salient, and often contradicting, pieces of advice directed at the undoubtedly perplexed developing countries and regions. In the above context they will explore e.g. the debate generated among subscribers of the moderated Global Knowledge for Development listserv that has gone on for several years; the virtual conference on technology and literacy conducted in preparation of the Fifth International Conference on Adult Education; the contributions made to the 'Learning and Technology' portfolio edited by UNESCO's Learning Without Frontiers; and the literature on multichannel learning.

Proposed points for discussion

The following points for discussion were proposed by the organizing team:

Propositions for discussion by Stephen Anzalone:

1. We seem to be overselling the potential benefits of the Internet; the wider accessibility of the Internet is not likely to be a major factor in reducing poverty in the poorer countries of the world.

2. We likely overestimate the immediate potential for sustained, scalable use of information technology to support learning in developing countries.

3. The fascination with information technology by the distance education community has contributed to a digital divide with distance educators in Africa. This is contributing to a failure to find new possibilities for distance education to play in the development of education in Africa.

4. We usually underestimate the immediate potential for the use of basic technologies like radio to support learning in developing countries. Seemingly one way broadcast media can be used to encourage active and interactive learning experiences.

5. Radio offers a powerful and affordable platform for educators in developing countries to use in the design of programs that demonstrate a commitment to learning rather than to the delivery of information. Developing the capacity to produce rich learning materials mediated through simple media is likely to show immediate benefits and provide a foundation for more effective use of other technology tools as they become available.

Propositions for discussion contributed by Don Ely:

Theme: "Technology is the Answer!!! But what was the question?"

1. What real needs/problems are being addressed? (Who defines them? How serious are they? Can a needs assessment be done?)

2. What is the scale of the project (innovation)? Is it local, regional, or nationwide? Can the project be scaled by levels?

3. What exists now? What learning resources? Are there trained teachers/professors? Where are the potential "breadthrough" locations?

4. What are the attitudes in the context of the project?

5. Are there institutional leaders who are competent and able to motivate? Are there supporters on the political front? Who are the advocates?

6. How can the ID process be the focus while the delivey systems (technology) are secondary? (See the theme above.)

7. What are the alternative options to high technology solutions? (Is there a place for low cost learning systems?)

8. What training is required and for whom?

Propositions for discussion contributed by Jan Visser:

1. There is much anxiety about the so-called digital divide. However, the digital divide is the reflection of other divides that are of a social or economic nature. Little anxiety exists about these other divides.

2. It is often said that technology is a mere set of tools. However, those tools, and particularly the ways of using them, change over time in dialectical relationship with whoever uses them. Technology is not neutral.

3. New media, whatever their nature at a particular point in the history of technological development, have often been seen as a panacea for all existing problems in the world and therefore been treated as a substitute for everything else that came before. This approach has invariably proved to be unproductive. The media that we currently perceive as new, i.e. the new information and communication technologies, are best seen as an innovation that has its own intrinsic value and, in addition, provides an opportunity to rethink and redefine the use of all other already existing technologies.

4. Despite centuries old criticism, the process of schooling remains, in most parts of the world, largely based on the same outdated principles of factory-like preparation of young people for their roles in life and pedagogical approaches that assume that the learner best remain passive and silent in the process of receiving the knowledge and wisdom of those who teach. With the emergence of new media that are fundamentally interactive, we now have the opportunity to change the learning landscape once and forever, and we better do it now, before it is too late.

Propositions for discussion contibuted by Yusra Laila Visser:

1. The emphasis placed by foreign ‘experts’ and donor agencies on adopting en vogue educational media “just because” creates a climate in educational planning that downplays addressing more fundamental questions about the appropriateness of the use of Western education paradigms and practices in developing regions.

2. As long as the developing regions do not have internal capabilities to distribute, repair and maintain the technologies that they use for educational purposes, they will remain in the position dependent on support from external ‘experts’ and funding agencies for configuring their educational systems in the present and the future. This sustains the conditions at the root of the problems in international development and education.

3. The funding bodies that provide the financial support for the development and implementation of educational technologies in developing regions should not be stakeholders in this process.

Propositions for discussion contributed by David Berg:

1. “Let’s make an Internet portal” is the thing to say currently for some intergovernmental agencies. Bridging the digital divide and providing access to easy-to-find resources through an Internet portal are two main reasons for these initiatives.

2. Portals (or knowledge management systems for that matter) are, as currently conceived, inherently characterized by a central entity that is acquiring, producing, selecting and publishing material. This presents a missed opportunity. The Internet is what it is because of the lack of centralized control (apart from standard setting on the level of communication protocols). Building centrally controlled Internet portals on a global scale is a lost cause.