Leapfrogging education?

You have probably heard about leapfrogging: in the context of development, it means that less developed countries may skip inferior or less efficient technologies and move directly towards more recent ones. This has happened in Africa, where mobile phones have leapfrogged landline telephones.

But can leapfrogging happen in education?

How many times have we heard that education is failing to address the world’s most pressing problems? Certainly, the highly compartmentalized academic environment has fallen behind the growing complexity and hybridity of global phenomena which require transdisciplinary approaches, such as climate change. But even beyond transdisciplinarity, what kind of citizens is contemporary education helping to shape? A standardized education might be an idea that looks good on paper, but on second thought it might actually hamper creativity by standardizing the modes of thinking. What sort of discussion can arise within a society where every individual thinks in the same way?

Let me turn to the writings of Ivan Illich. In his book, Deschooling Society, Illich makes strong claims against the way in which school-based education is regarded as the only legitimate source of learning in practically every corner of the globe. Below, some quotes from his book I translated from Spanish:

 School introduces youth into a world in which everything can be measured, including their imagination and even their own selves.

School prepares people for the alienating institutionalization of life, by teaching the necessity of being taught. Once this lesson is learned, people loose their incentive to develop independiently; they no longer find it attractive to relate to each other, and the surprises that life offers when it is not predetermined by institutional definition are closed.

But what about learning, then? Illich argues that … most learning is not the consequence of instruction. It is rather the result of an unfettered participation in a significant environment. Learning, in consequence, is not only for all, but also by all. Illich even foresaw the potential role of digital technologies in these learning webs.

But what do the thoughts of Ivan Illich have to do with leapfrogging, or agriculture? As I have argued before, most e-agriculture projects tend to reproduce a model of learning in which experts transfer information to non-experts, usually the farmers. That is, they reproduce a sort of school without walls, in which the lack of physical space does not undermine the authority and worldview of teachers and experts. In short, most e-agriculture projects that deal with learning are failing to liberate the potential of digital networks and turn them into true learing webs. Farmers become clients of institutionalized knowledge, even if schools are nowhere in sight. And this is not a good thing. I quote Illich again: Once a society has turned certain basic needs into demands for scientifically produced goods, poverty is defined by norms which technocrats can change according to their will.

Considering all this, I do believe that Sauti ya wakulima presents an alternative to institutionalized modes of learning, by strengthening peer-to-peer learning. Just as I write this post, the farmers who take part in the project have taken the initiative to interview other farmers at an agricultural fair in Morogoro, Tanzania. Through interviews, they extract knowledge and at the same time make it available online. Everybody can teach, everybody can learn. Even if an initiative such as Sauti ya wakulima is far from becoming institutionalized, it does resonate with a call made by Illich: we need research on possible uses of technology to create new institutions that are attentive to the reciprocal, creative and autonomous action among people. 

So, can we leapfrog schools in developing environments, and skip directly to more liberating forms of learning?

What’s behind those friendly faces?

From Mediae.org:

Shamba Shape Up is a practical, make-over style TV series aimed at East Africa’s rapidly growing rural and peri-urban TV audience and designed to deliver effective agricultural and livelihoods Research-Into-Use to benefit both farmers and international research organizations concerned with East Africa.

Through carefully explained, practical demonstrations, the series shows how different practical and accessible methods and approaches can bring about significant livelihood improvements on small farms, often at very low – or even no –cost.

Here’s the first episode of Shamba Shape Up:

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An agricultural guide to Sauti ya wakulima

The farmers who participate in Sauti ya wakulima have documented a great variety of issues related to their practices. On a previous post, I described how I have used six different study tags to classify their posts: creativity, knowledge, needs, advertisement, social capital and evidence.

In this post, I want to provide a guide to the Tanzanian farmers’ collaborative knowledge base, but this time from the perspective of agriculture. The following links are starting points to explore the great diversity of crops, techniques, innovations, knowledge and problems related to their practices: an invitation to discover real, on-the-ground issues, and also wonderful things!

Mr. Ndenga in his maize plot.

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An excerpt from “The Coming Famine”, by Julian Cribb

I fully subscribe to the ideas in the following excerpt, taken from “The Coming Famine“, a book by Julian Cribb. I would only add that, besides communicating scientific advances more effectively, it is also necessary to strengthen indigenous knowledge and facilitate its exchange among farmers. I wrote a post in this blog about the importance of indigenous knowledge a while ago.

Knowledge is delivered by many and various routes to farmers, both well-off and poor — by scientists and agricultural extension workers, by agribusiness companies, by farming media and the Internet, by nongovernmental organizations and aid agencies, by fellow farmers, and even by agents who buy farm produce. Compared even with the depleted scientific enterprise, the world agricultural knowledge chain is ramshackle, far more neglected and only as strong as its weakest link. One of the main reasons that advanced farming methods have caught on in some countries but not others is that the local agriculture departments have lacked the resources and skills to deliver the knowledge to millions of smallholders. Continue reading

Sauti ya wakulima on National Geographic NewsWatch

A few weeks ago, Ken Banks of FrontlineSMS invited me to write an article about Sauti ya wakulima for the blog series he produces for National Geographic NewsWatch. And now the article is live:

Smart phones meet smart farming: Indigenous knowledge sharing in Tanzania

National Geographic Daily News


The impact of mobile phones on the access to agricultural information

In the midst of a widespread enthusiasm about the possibilities that mobile technologies can offer to small-scale farmers, studying their actual impact becomes of crucial importance. This is precisely what scientist Kenneth Masuki at the World Agroforestry Centre set out to do, and the results of his research tentatively affirm (please note the cautious language) that farmers stand to gain if new pathways for direct contact with agricultural scientists and experts become established. according to Masuki, phones can facilitate access to markets as well as build social capital.

Map of Uganda

Dr. Masuki’s research was conducted in south western Uganda. According to the article published by the World Agroforestry Centre, a telecentre was given a base station and farmers in each parish were given mobile phones. The usages of these mobile phones were recorded by usage tracking forms. Usage was recorded either as social, market, natural resource management or agricultural. Continue reading

Community knowledge versus expert advice

This is post is the continuation of a previous one, in which I put forward the question of why would small-scale farmers need mobile technologies. Here I want to present a different answer, which relates to the concept of indigenous knowledge. But let’s start from the evidence offered by the current projects that deal with farming and phones.

Most of the current projects in this field are focused on providing farmers with access to agricultural information, which is based on expert advice. Expert advice is normally offered as a service by delivering packages of knowledge, generated by groups of agricultural experts, researchers or extension officers. While agricultural advice is vital to countless farmers in developing regions, and can certainly help them in improving their practices, it is modeled and implemented as a unidirectional flow of knowledge: from experts to farmers. This model reproduces a hierarchical view of learning, and tends to devalue or ignore the knowledge held by those without credentials or an academic degree.

Yet, in recent times, many scientists have recognized the great value and potential of incorporating indigenous knowledge into their research processes. Indigenous knowledge can be defined as the knowledge that an indigenous (local) community accumulates over generations of living in a particular environment.  This definition encompasses all forms of knowledge – technologies, know-how skills, practices and beliefs – that enable the community to achieve stable livelihoods in their environment. Continue reading

Agricultural advice through radio and SMS

from National Geographic News Watch:

John Cheburet is a Kenyan radio producer who hosts a radio show about ecologically friendly farming practices for small-scale farmers. He is seen (and heard) by the farming community as a friendly source of information which is vital for their livelihoods.

John Cheburet

John Cheburet. Source: J. Cheburet

John says: An important thing about radio is that farmers can listen to other farmers. It’s one thing for me to tell them about growing mushrooms, but when a fellow farmer tells them how to grow mushrooms, the impact is much greater. It is effective when farmers relive their story; how they started out and what made them adopt certain farming practices. Continue reading

Sauti ya wakulima

Sauti ya wakulima, “The voice of the farmers” in Kiswahili, is a collaborative knowledge base created by farmers from the Chambezi region of the Bagamoyo District in Tanzania by gathering audiovisual evidence of their practices using smartphones to publish images and voice recordings on the Internet. The project was started on March 2011, and is currently being sponsored by the North South Center of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, with the support of the Department of Botany of the University of Dar es Salaam.
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