Tuesday, 26 May 2009

People power?

Written for my Guardian column Spring 2005 this column addresses the democratising power of technology for individuals and groups to help each other. Looking back - spot on!


On the way to a Hong Kong, where I am helping with some ICT futures policy, I was lucky enough to be invited to post-tsunami Thailand. I've written before about the importance of mobile phones in learning lives around the world, but was still surprised to see just how hugely fashionable, and affordable, they are in Bankok.

After school the students, still in their immaculate uniforms, all assemble, in a huge bustling throng, on the floors of the shopping malls dedicated to phones. They chat, they look, they test, but they are really there simply because it's a cool place to be, the way earlier generations in other countries might have hung around milk bars.

Meanwhile, the computer stores in these Bangkok malls have retained their fourtysomething clientelle, but are now something of a child free zone. We would be foolish to ignore this kind of clear signal about the future. Seeing so many pavement stalls dedicated to selling "memorable" phone numbers was a bit of a surprise too!

I ran some family learning events in the retail heart of Bangkok, at a very large ICT facility built for drop in visits, one of several really significant investments in community learning by the Thai government. I had a good gang of parents and children all tasked with building a narrative in images and sounds, but without words. We had great fun and you could immediately see how family learning might move two, or even three, generations forward at once. But the moment the children's faces really lit up was at the end, after they had all shown their narratives to each other, when I simply compressed their work into a 3gp file (good old QuickTime!) and bluetoothed it back onto their phones. The children literally ran around showing their work, on their phones, to all and sundry. It was the first thing they had ever made for their phones, and you could begin to see how one democratising this technology can be as one learner helps and creates things for another.

This democratising power for individuals and groups to help each other potentially meets other needs too. The Tsunami in Thailand left behind many unforgettable stories, both of tragedy and of extraordinary luck. But it has also begun a serious economic debate about "micro-aid". What is it? Many in Europe were immediately moved by the disaster and put coins and notes into buckets to help. At the other end devastated families, schools and hospitals would have liked to put hands into those buckets for the immediate help they needed and this has raised the prospect of families directly aiding families without an NGO or government in between; hence the term "micro-aid".

Of course this is simply not yet possible, the communication links and banking regualtions are too complex. But already we can see that ICT can successfully put many providers together with many consumers. Success stories, from e-bay to skiing holiday bookings, show how well it can work for all. It will be phones not computers though that unlock the door to micro-aid once banks finally get their act together. That may take some time, but when learning is the need, the potential for learners to help each other is already vast and achievable. The need is worldwide and demonstrable.

Charles Clarke was a great advocate of UK schools helping other less well funded institutions globally, and gaining by learning from them too; he was absolutely right. The huge investmenmt by many countries in ICT infrastructure, and the spread of ever more powerful phones to many, has opened a door to this kind of mutual support on a vast scale. Successful online communities of practice always focus on the internal expertise of their members. Schools worldwide, rich and poor, have plenty of expertise to exchange with each other. Lots of excellent partnering projects, many involving UK schools, have hinted that this can work, but to achieve the really massive scale needed is a substantial undertaking.

Taking the philosophy of micro-aid, adding the opportunity of ICT investment, mixing with the ubiquity of phones and stirring in the ineguity of children sounds like a heady recipe. It is just what a troubled world needs though, and could start right now.

Why wait?

© Stephen Heppell 2005

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