PCF4 Innovation

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Fourth Pan Commonwealth Forum
Achieving Development Goals: Innovation


• Olabisi Kuboni
• Kinshuk
• Helen Lentell
• Wayne Mackintosh
• Lorraine Victor
• Renee Webb
• Paul West

The final version of this paper has been published on the web at: http://pcf4.dec.uwi.edu/addons/docs/sample4.doc

Purpose of this paper

This paper has been written to help stimulate the writing of papers for presentation at the Fourth Pan Commonwealth Forum on Open Learning (PCF4), which will take place in Jamaica from 30 October - 3 November, 2006. A scenario is posed to stimulate some of the possibilities that exist with present-day technologies. This does not imply that this group of technologies might be a good example, but the purpose rather is to instigate some critical discussion. Each of these technologies is used in developing countries and some may be appropriate, but others may be unsuitable for learning. We pose questions throughout this paper, which we hope will be answered by the contributors at PCF4. A paper about innovation could focus mainly on technological innovation or could be on innovation in education, which may have nothing to do with the advancements in electronics. Both are acceptable within this conference track and we will welcome the presentation of examples, case studies and real world experiences. The exposition of theories may be a useful input, but the focus at PCF4 is on solving real world challenges.

A scenario . . .

Anne, a learner who has to work full-time to support her studies is on her way to work. She travels in a minibus taxi with 11 other people and will be on the road for about an hour, after which she will walk for a further 20 minutes to reach her place of work. After settling in her seat, Anne puts on her small ear plugs and turns on her PDA-cellphone (a “smart phone”), which has an audio copy of the lecture from the night before. In place of listening to music, she would be listening to the recording taken during the class. She had found the lecture a little confusing and went online using her low-cost computer shortly after the evening class to download the audio recording the lecturer had made. This would be her opportunity to listen to the lecture a second time, to try to grasp the remaining concepts that were missed when she was getting tired in the late evening class. Reaching work, Anne had repeated an hour’s audio of the class and was feeling a little more confident about the concepts that had seemed so fuzzy the previous evening. During the trip to work, Anne sent a text message from her smartphone to a classmate and received a quick answer back about the meaning of a concept that was still unclear after having listened to the lecture again.

After a busy morning at work, Anne decided to join her class colleagues in an online discussion using her company PC. This was accomplished by browsing to the class’s discussion area on the institution’s website. Anne was able to return quickly to her work once the discussion had ended. The previous evening’s lecture had ended with homework, which required Anne to research a topic, discuss this with a class group and submit a joint paper. One of the recommended readings was a chapter from a book – a book of some 500 pages, which was both heavy to carry and very expensive. Fortunately, the institution had digital rights of the content for use by its learners and so Anne had been able to download the chapter to her smartphone. This came in handy during her lunch break, which she could now use for catching up on the recommended readings. Considering her hectic family life, these would otherwise go unread at home. She could start planning the assignment during the afternoon tea break. Then, in the 20 minutes after the end of the work day, when she would stay back in the office until it was time to get the minibus-taxi for the return home, she would type the structure of the assignment, email a copy to her class group, save it on a memory stick and take it home to attempt, late in the evening, to add to it.

Some of the above would seem familiar to those who have studied by night classes. The technologies that are now available in most Commonwealth countries increase the potential to support learners in their busy lives and to give them a better chance of succeeding. Each new electronic technology does NOT replace all previous ones, but rather add to the possibilities for providing additional or enhanced support to learners. We could add to the above scenario that Anne is unable to participate in a particular discussion group, because she needs to travel to a relative in a rural area. Fortunately, the institution has recently taken to broadcasting its discussion groups by radio, which she can now tune into while away. Having a question to pose to the panel, Anne uses her cellphone to send a text message, which is affordable and works well outside of city limits – where landlines do not exist. The secretary of the discussion group, having received Anne’s text message, relays this to the panel and Anne listens to them discussing the point she has raised. Learning technologies need to be matched to what people use in their daily lives and help to remove the barriers of time and distance.

Interlocking influences

Can we really innovate to accelerate development? Is there a constructive role for “innovation” in improving the situation for billions of people who remain under-served in a rapidly developing world? What are examples of innovation in learning that are not focused on an electronic technology? What innovation (electronic or otherwise) has shown or could be used to expand the access to education by millions of people currently “outside of the system”?

Innovation is sometimes described as ‘creativity that is successfully implemented in practice and is frequently closely linked to electronic technologies. Not all innovation, however, involves advancements in electronics. Are there examples of increasing the numbers of learners one facilitator can assist or to enable more people who are as yet insufficiently prepared to become learning facilitators? When we speak of innovation in learning, what does this mean in the real world? For open and distance learning, innovation includes a wide and potentially confusing field, from print publications and presentation technologies to telecommunications and computing technologies, from hand-held technologies (e.g. books and smartphones) to desktop technologies (computers). Focus needs to be placed on the objectives that education is trying to achieve, rather than popularising the next technical gadget that is coming to market. Educators have the challenge of monitoring the changes in technologies and determining how they may apply to learners living in “the real world”.

Education is faced with managing a difficult balance. Tony Bates summarises this challenge by saying: "Although technology should not drive our teaching, technology does drive change". What are the changes in ICTs that will benefit development and education in our futures?

Learner Centeredness

It is widely believed that learners use text messaging on cell phones, but do teachers? If we are to be “learner-centered”, to align learning and teaching systems with learners, we need to understand those technologies that are considered normal in learners’ environment. If the postal system underperforms and negatively affects learners, how can everyday electronic technologies be used to supplement traditional distance education systems? As indicated earlier, learners are well known to extensively use text messaging on cellphones, but few institutions seem to recognise the power of this simple-to-use technology.

Educators are believed to be committed to their task and will go many extra miles to help learners cope with new concepts. Educators are the epitome of the lifelong learner who needs to continually be one step ahead of the game. Who then, can the educator turn to when they find their learners more technologically advanced than themselves? What can institutions, governments and international organisations do to help educators keep abreast of developments. The creation of learning exercises, notes, examination papers, class attendance lists and monitoring of learners is all supported by electronic technologies. Educators need to find ways to bring their skills rapidly up to date and education systems need to support this need.

Each technology has an opportunity cost of its own. For example, a health care worker may find a library of reference books a wonderful resource in her clinic or to carry while she visits members of her community. The reality is that even if she could get the books, they are too heavy to carry, are bulky and easily damaged. An alternative could be a smartphone (or “eBook reader”) with a large collection of reference and self-study materials. Devices may be protected in drop-proof and wet-proof containers, are light and can be recharged using a small, flexible solar panel. A smartphone at a clinic could keep health care workers in contact with the doctors at a city hospital who provide support. And this can be done using both pictures and text if telecom policies allow for low cost bandwidth. It is often surprising to people in industrialised countries to find how well developed cellphone networks are in developing countries and how well they reach deep into rural areas. This above scenario may be repeated for teachers, agricultural extension workers and others. Electronic technologies that are now rapidly expanding in use are “Podcasts” and “Vodcasts” . These audio and video recordings, stored and played on smartphones and other hand held devices, can be quite informal recordings of discussions and presentations. These devices are in daily use for entertainment purposes (especially for playing music), while people are in transit – just look for the headphones people are wearing in a typical train or bus ride nowadays. They can easily be used for listening to class discussions, which the learner may have been unable to attend in person.

Learners have been shown to be able to teach themselves a new language and even the alphabet on a computer, with no teacher involvement. But do our education systems acknowledge and assimilate this knowledge? How can we more closely match the daily use of technologies by learners with the hopes of the education community? Can we use any of the available technologies to better facilitate learning where existing systems are not coping? Will the next generation of low-cost computers make the difference in making large scale access to computers a reality? Finally, how will the convergence of communications technologies affect the potential for providing improved learner support? The intention should not be to use electronic technologies for their own sake, but to complement existing methodologies and practices.

What innovation means

According to WiKiPedia: "Innovation is defined in the dictionary as the process of making changes to something established by introducing something new." It goes on to state that it applies ". . . to both radical or incremental changes to products, processes or services." and that it may be a " . . . process of making changes to something established by introducing something new . . . that adds value to customers".

WiKiPedia also provides the definition according to Joseph Schumpeter: "1) The introduction of a new good — that is one with which consumers are not yet familiar — or of a new quality of a good. 2) The introduction of a new method of production, which need by no means be founded upon a discovery scientifically new, and can also exist in a new way of handling a commodity commercially. 3) The opening of a new market, that is a market into which the particular branch of manufacture of the country in question has not previously entered, whether or not this market has existed before. 4) The conquest of a new source of supply of raw materials or half-manufactured goods, again irrespective of whether this source already exists or whether it has first to be created. 5) The carrying out of the new organization of any industry, like the creation of a monopoly position (for example through trustification) or the breaking up of a monopoly position". Clearly, these definitions show that innovation does not relate only to the next electronic gadget, but also includes process and services.

The future

How can we educate three billion more people? We are working against a backdrop of insufficient number of teachers being trained, teachers leaving the profession and there being hopelessly too few classrooms in developing countries. Can we reach more people using technology or are we wasting our time – what are the practical alternatives?

Can we put aside the politics of where something is developed (i.e. avoid the not-invented-here syndrome) and focus on gathering the best group of technologies to support the rapid expansion of learning, irrespective of who created the technology and from where it comes? Does this directly disadvantage developing countries? The challenge of closing the ever-widening gap between the haves and have-nots may rest with the willingness of the education community to view education from a new perspective – and to innovate. To provide education in unconventional ways may be one of a number of solutions. We may need to focus on education that closely aligns with what people most desperately need, and that can only be answered by those directly involved. Can education face a “three billion people challenge”, thereby bringing the people at the bottom of the world's pyramid into the world’s market economy?

The practicalities

We have known limitations – those of limited telecommunications bandwidth and indeed, the availability of and cost of simple telephones and cellphones, electricity, computers, and trained support staff. How have some countries managed to move from developing country status to developed country status? Are there lessons that other countries could learn from these examples?

What are the barriers, and more importantly, how do we overcome them? If we list challenges, let us also list the ways we might find solutions (at least the processes by which we can tackle them). Here are some questions to ponder:

1. what processes are needed to provide electricity and broadband access for all educational institutions (e.g. schools, colleges, universities); 2. what processes are needed to provide broadband access to all lifelong learners (adults who can pay reasonable rates for access); 3. what alternatives do institutions have if they are unlikely to be connected to a reliable electricity service in the foreseeable future; 4. what alternatives are there for introducing computers or increasing their numbers in schools and institutions of higher learning; and 5. if computers are to be installed in institutions, what processes are under way to ensure full training and support for teachers and learners to effectively integrate these into the teaching, learning and school management processes?

What are the innovations in education that can help meet the three-billion people challenge? Can you bring ANSWERS, CASE STUDIES and GOOD EXPERIENCES to PCF4 to share with colleagues from other developing countries?