Thoughts on Information for Change II

Today I attended the Information for Change II workshop held at the Cape Town Book Fair. It is still a little unclear exactly how I came to be there, apart from driving I mean. Bill Carman and Steve Song arranged it so that I got to present a poster on our latest pet idea, the print aggregator.

The poster and idea were very well received. There seemed to be a lot of interest from a broad spectrum of people, as broad as possible given it was a workshop. I, along with a number of other presenters, was given a few minutes at the end of the day to present my poster to the audience at large. Again, I felt it was well received in general.

I discovered a number of community projects that might be entry points for Siyavula into new communities that we currently have little or no contact with. That alone makes the entire exercise worth it.

Here are a few other points about the workshop that I'd like to make a note of:

The highlight for me was the first talk, by Firoze Manji of Fahamu. His talk touched on a lot of realities in Africa while he described learnings from the experiences of providing Pambazuka. I must admit my ignorance, it was all new to me, I hadn't heard of Firoze, Fahamu or Pambazuka before but I wish I had.

Pambazuka is a weekly newsletter that covers 26 different categories of information all relating to social justice. It provides a place for real dialogue around issues in Africa and all the articles are written by unpaid contributors from throughout our continent. It has been extremely successful and the current drive is to make it even more accessible than the current text-based email version. Radio and newsprint were mentioned as options. I cannot do this project justice but the talks will be online soon and I recommend you listen to this one yourself.

I really liked his whole talk but two things in particular resonated with me:

  • We must be wary of ensuring that the use of technology does not exacerbate the digital divide.
  • Fahamu is moving from electronic dissemination back to print. They find that this is what people want and need.

On the first point, this is something we need to watch out for with Siyavula. We have to constantly work on getting resources to those who are under-resourced. There is a real danger that Siyavula helps those who have resources (access) already but not those that don't and widens the gap.

The issue of hardcopy ties in closely with the first point, the accessibility criteria for the majority of learners in SA is still printed hardcopy. We must not lose site of that and tools like the print-aggregator can help us provide for the high-end of the under-resourced spectrum but we still need ways to help the very low end.

A number of other points came up that resonated with me:

  • Quality of collaboratively developed resources was brought into question yet again. This requires a much longer discussion than I am in the mood for right now but it is very important that we address this very soon. The short answer comes down to who developed them and how, sure they could be terrible but they could incredible. The devil is in the details, something the detractors don't mention.
  • Comments were made about the ability of the NGOs to produce quality material. The represented NGOs argued strongly about their own ability to produce good material, taking both sides of the argument. The real issue here is that the discussion was initiated by an individual speaking on behalf of NGOs in general, yet his opinion was not shared by the other NGOs present. We see a lot of sweeping statements based on anecdotal evidence. The devil is in the details, some NGOs clearly produce rubbish and some produce pearls.
  • Successes using mobile phones to empower learners in large classes were presented. This discussion was too brief but there are exciting projects going on in this space and we need to follow them.

On the whole, it was fun and I learnt quite a bit, most of which I have probably forgotten already, and I enjoyed all the talks. I just haven't yet figured out conference blogging.

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