ICT for Development and Education: Exit LIFI

claude80By Claude Almansi
Staff Writer

Thanks –

to all members of the LIFI (Laboratorio di Ingegneria della Formazione e Innovazione, or Laboratory of Educational Engineering and Innovation) team [1] for their concrete and theoretical work in the field of ICT (Information and Communications Technologies) for development and education, which I had the privilege to follow rather closely as translator of many of their texts since 1998.

Thanks also to Lynn Zimmerman and Steve Eskow for the discussion they started in this blog on the imperialistic characteristics of online and traditional approaches to teaching: her “Access: The New Imperialism?” and his “The Campus: The Old Imperialism?” articles are very relevant to the social and cultural situation in which the LIFI team had to operate: while Switzerland became technically highly connected fairly early, ICT literacy progressed more slowly, and powers-that-be in education were – and still are to some extent – very wary of these “new” technologies. It is in this background claude_jan29that the LIFI team nevertheless managed to offer opportunities for vocational training (both basic and lifelong) via ICT to people living in remote Alpine areas, but also in (African) Guinea, where creating new brick-and-mortar schools would have been much more expensive.

Progetto Poschiavo – LIFI movingAlps

In 1997, a group of researchers based in Lugano (CH) started organizing sustainable development and training projects that used online technology (video conference, virtual learning platform, e-mail, etc.) to connect people in remote areas with experts from a range of academic institutions.

The success of the first, Progetto Poschiavo (1997-2004), limited to one Alpine valley, led to further projects, among which movingAlps [2] (2004-2008), which covered Val Bregaglia, Vallemaggia and Val d’Anniviers.

These projects were characterized by a multidisciplinary approach combining economic analysis and cultural anthropology, in order to first gather data about the potential resources of the area and the wishes of the inhabitants, and only then help them to structure, finance and enact their own development initiatives.

During movingAlps, these researchers were based at the Università della Svizzera Italiana [3], where they created LIFI [4] and offered courses based on these concrete experiences. But in2008, the university council decided, to put an end to LIFI. There may have been administrative reasons for this decision – the status of LIFI was exceptional – yet it seems rather paradoxical in the year in which Michael Wesch became one of the CASE/Carnegie U.S. Professors of the Year for Doctoral and Research Universities (see [5]) for his own use of cultural anthropology in research and teaching about our present information society.

Taking Stock

Fortunately, the knowledge gathered in these projects remains available in two forms: the texts gathered in the movingAlps Vademecum (downloadable in Italian, German and French from [6]; see also the movingAlps Vademecum discussion in English on Innovate-Ideagora [7]) and in Graziano Terrani’s documentary “Un Successo Condannato” for Radiotelevisione della Svizzera di lingua italiana, which illustrates vividly the activities and results of movingAlps, for instance:

  • Punto Bregaglia, a business conference and training centre in Val Bregaglia [8],
  • PercorsoArianna [9], which fostered the creation of women’s micro-enterprises,
  • minimovingAlps [10], where pre-school children freely photographed their environment, which led to further initiatives, like the creation of a “Gnomes’ Village” playground in Avegno, where the children were directly involved in the design, and Cià c’am va [11], a series of itineraries in Val Bregaglia based on the photographs taken by the local kids, which offers activities for families with young children.

ciacamva_dianaFrom the site of Cià c’am va [11].

Participants’ Viewpoints

From Graziano Terrani’s documentary (GTD):

Maurizio Michael (Centro Punto Bregaglia): On the one hand, Punto Bregaglia strives to pursue what has been done so far within movingAlps, hence to provide a continuity and to reinforce those activities and initiatives. And on the other hand, it offers a space to local enterprises wishing to grow and cooperate towards the development of our area. . . .

Romana Rotanzi (PercorsoArianna): When movingAlps started here, it seemed aimed at teaching us how to fish rather than at giving us just one fish, I mean that its purpose was to give people the bases enabling them to do a thousand things. I didn’t want to be left out. So I was very pleased when I heard that we could learn how to use computers without having to go to Locarno – which, for me, means one hour’s journey. This training offer arrived when my children had reached school age. And with some cleverness and a few work-arounds, you can do it all, if you want to. I don’t feel in the marginalized anymore, it is as if I lived in Milan – why not? I too can find anything via the internet, now that I know how to use it . . . .

Gaby Minoggio (PercorsoArianna): At first, it seemed to be just a computer course. But afterwards, we discovered that it was a far more comprehensive kind of training, aimed at making women realize and exploit their know-how and potential. And I thought that a training offer here in the valley was an opportunity not to be missed. It was a full evolutionary process for us six women, which now we manage ourselves: training, at first, and then this evolution through our activities . . . . So, obviously, we are satisfied with our involvement.


Logo of the percorsoArianna project.


Giuliana Messi, of the movingAlps team in Lugano, says in GTD:

When you manage a project, it is right to leave it after a while, and let people continue on their own. I think that the 3-4 projects started in Vallemaggia last well. And then there are less visible, yet important, things: for instance, women who participated in percorsoArianna who tell me that they have become reference persons for others, and so on – this is positive empowerment.

And in fact, several initiatives started within movingAlps are still going on after the end of the project. Apart from the Punto Bregaglia business and communication center, in Val d’Anniviers: a census of local architectural and artistic works and a gathering of traditional legends and tales, for instance. Participants have found alternatives to the infrastructure offered by movingAlps. Again, from GTD:

Adriana Tenda Claude (PercorsoArianna): We have opened a blog as a way to replace the room we were able to use for our monthly meetings . . . before, and also, partly, the virtual learning platform we had for the two years of PercorsoArianna. Also to stimulate the development of our projects.


Screenshot of the movingAlps virtual learning platform

Nevertheless, other initiative ideas were not yet sufficiently developed to be able to continue on their own.

Moreover, the work of the LIFI team has been characterized by the use of the data gathered in former projects to start new ones: apart from movingAlps, the initial Poschiavo project had also led to Projet Guinée, in collaboration with the Institut Supérieur des Sciences de l’Education (ISSEG) in Conakry, which aimed at the development of literacy through the creation of cooperative microentreprises (see Amadou Tidjane Diallo, “Aphabétisation, développement communautaire et utilisation des TIC dans la formation,” 2003 [12].

ma_initiative_develDevelopment process of movingAlps initiatives (from movingAlps Vademecum).

True, the summary of the movingAlps data in the above-mentioned Vademecum (see above and [6]) and in other LIFI publications (see [13]) are available for the development of further projects. But it will not be the same as the possibility to refer to a team working with the necessary infrastructure in one place. Hence the understandable disappointment expressed by its director, Dieter Schürch, at the end of Graziano Terrani’s documentary:

Involving such a conspicuous number of people, creating a team of collaborators from several fields, organizing a series of activities that have enabled these regions to launch sustainable initiatives – and being unable to continue – this is very sad. The fact that we cannot carry on beyond this deadline does not only harm these projects and regions, but also the image of the University where we were working until now, I think.

The Campus: The Old Imperialism?

eskow_tnBy Steve Eskow
Staff Writer

Lynn Zimmerman asks all the right questions in her article “Access: The New Imperialism?” I hope we can find some way to bring others into the discussion since those questions cut to the very heart of the matter of the new technologies—and the old technologies—and the future of education for a world in search of  rebuilding.

Here is  Lynn’s central thesis:

As I read some of the comments  [in Eskow’s article], I started to wonder if this insistence on “getting out of the building” and going strictly to an online format is a form of “technological imperialism.” (See “Aping the West: Information technology and cultural imperialism” by Paul Cesarini.) Although many people have ready access to all kinds of technology, not everyone in the world does. By saying that the brick and mortar classroom is out-of-date and should be disbanded, aren’t we in danger of disenfranchising a large number of people who have no capability of engaging in education through technology? That is not to mention the people who have no interest in and no ability for using technology.

Our difference begins with Lynn’s assumption that we technological imperialists are urging “getting out of the building.” She assumes that the buildings—that old, great, medieval instructional technology, the campus—are already built, available to those who need instruction, and that we are trying to empty them and replace the rich instruction that goes on in lecture halls and classrooms and libraries and media centers with computers.

eskow_jan09aFirst proposition: the campus, like the computer, is a technology, an instructional technology.

Second proposition: there are many students for whom the lecture hall and notetaking is a poor instructional technology, and who do not learn much in the conventional classroom

Third  proposition: the campus is a very expensive instructional technology. Keeping the building clean and the lawns trimmed and the parking lots patrolled costs—and of course it costs millions to build the campus in the first place. The 26 public and private universities in Ghana, where my work is now, are breaking down: students in hallways because the lecture hall cannot accommodate them, eight students stuffed into a dorm room built for two—and despite all this, only 5% of those 18-22 can be accommodated.

Note, too, that  the vast majority of Ghanaians are in rural areas, often remote from the nearest university or polytechnic, which typically are in cities or large communities. To use the instructional technology called the campus the student must leave home and family and live in one of those dorms and sit in one of those lecture halls, if there is a seat for him, or standing room.

That old instructional technology of campus is a form of internal brain drain, taking from the rural areas their best minds and crowding them into the cities.

Current books and journals  in that campus library? At current prices? Adequate collections in each of those 26 libraries?

The Nigerian Lynn cited talks about the failures: the computer centers equipped with  computers donated to schools unprepared to use them. He does not talk of the thousands of Africans who have no access to good secondary instruction and are debarred completely from higher education unless they are of the elite and can afford to leave home to study—often at a foreign university, perhaps never to return to Africa. Again, the campus as brain drain.

Lynn cites an article re “technological imperialism”: Western technologies promoted thoughtlessly destroy indigenous cultures.

Presumably the author does not consider the British educational system, with its streaming and creaming and building-based universities with campuses and dormitories and maintenance crews and Western-style curricula a form of technological imperialism—but if that language is appropriate for computers it is appropriate for  campuses. The university as we know it, then, is a colonial transplant and not an indigenous institution.

wealth_of_networksThere is of course something to worry about, something to look at carefully, in the current vogue of “global education,” the possibility that we are exporting Western ideas and ideologies along with t-shirts and McDonalds. It is important to note, however, that many of those leading the attack on the “digital divide,” urging the creation of new educational forms built on the new technologies—technologies perhaps less expensive in the long run than the old brick-and-mortar technologies—are themselves Third World intellectuals. Indeed, many of them resent the talk of “indigenous cultures” and propose that it means that we want computers for the West and drums and chanting for he South. Those that I work with think they can have both: computers and chanting.

In his Wealth of Networks, Yochai Benkler contrasts what he calls the “industrial age information economy” with the new “networked information economy.” In the old information economy, communicating ideas, knowledge, and culture required expensive capital equipment—printing presses, television studios and the like—and around this equipment the structure of knowledge and its dispersion was built. Although Benkler does not include the university in his discussion of the old information economies, the case seems apparent: to have a “real” higher education system, you must first spend millions or billions for brick and mortar universities, and millions for their upkeep and maintenance.

Now anyone with access to a reasonably inexpensive computer can create and publish video and radio and text, and be part of the new knowledge economy. And be a student in an online university.

And we can put the instructor’s face and voice and instruction online, and send them to a computer in a church basement in a rural community where one or three or five students can use that computer to see the lecture, and engage with the instructor, and discuss the issues with colleagues they don’t see—as I am engaging with Lynn Zimmerman, whom I can’t see, but has contributed to my learning.

It may be, then, that the campus is the old imperialism, and the computer the promise of a new possibility for democratizing education.

Access: The New Imperialism?

lynnz80By Lynn Zimmerman
Editor, Teacher Education

In his article, The 375-billion dollar question. And the new agora , Steve Eskow wrote:

There is a new Agora in the process of creation, a new Commons. And it will flourish free of the constraints of buildings, and, if we let learning move to where it is needed, we will enrich the lives of all those who can’t find their way to our buildings, or can’t afford the price of admission.

This statement reminded me of some of the comments I had read on Innovate-Ideagora in response to James Morrison’s July 2008 discussion, which he called  “Addressing the problem of faculty resistance to using IT tools in active learning instructional strategies.” As I read some of the comments, I started to wonder if this insistence on “getting out of the building” and going strictly to an online format is a form of “technological imperialism.” (See “Aping the West: Information technology and cultural imperialism” by Paul Cesarini.) Although many people have ready access to all kinds of technology, not everyone in the world does. By saying that the brick and mortar classroom is out-of-date and should be disbanded, aren’t we in danger of disenfranchising a large number of people who have no capability of engaging in education through technology? That is not to mention the people who have no interest in and no ability for using technology. I will focus on the practical issues now, but we cannot ignore that while the technical issues can eventually be resolved, must people with no interest in or facility (ease of use – not building) for this type of learning be forced to adapt to it and adopt it?

How does technology access play out? I will offer two examples, one in the US and one in Africa. As I have stated before, I teach in a teacher preparation department. Recently some of my pre-methods students visited a high school lynn2_1located in an urban area in Northwest Indiana. This school has a very high percentage of students on free and reduced lunch. The facility is old and out of date. The technology available to the teachers and students is minimal. One of my students commented, “Do you know, many of the students I talked to don’t even have computers at home?” Because I am familiar with the area and the school, I told her that I was not surprised. She then said that she supposed they went to the library to do their computer work. Imagine her surprise when I told her that the public library in their neighborhood is only open limited hours. I have since checked and the hours are: Monday – Thursday from noon – 8 pm and on Friday and Saturday from 10 am – 5 pm. The small library has a limited number of computers available for patrons’ general use. This is hardly the type of access that would lend itself to a high school without walls.

Four years ago I met a man from Nigeria at a conference. His presentation was about information access, and he raised the same issue of imperialism. He said that you can send all the computers to Africa you want, but if there are no electricity and no phone lines to connect to, they become expensive paper weights. His contention was that money for computers would be better spent to help improve the infrastructure in these countries. Another question I raise is, why are outsiders making these types of decisions anyway? Would it not be better to find out what the people really want and need, rather than telling them what they want and need?

I think that now with weakening economies worldwide the question of who benefits from access to technology becomes even more critical. Countries with weak infrastructures are already being adversely affected by the growing global recession. (See World economic situation and prospects 2008: Update as of mid-2008.) As we academics explore, theorize, and debate the issues, we must not lose sight of the reality that many people face in the US and around the world, which precludes full access to technology. We must keep in sight that “the price of admission” may not be counted in tuition dollars but in “technology dollars.”


Cesarini, P. (n.d.). Aping the West: Information technology and cultural imperialism. Retrieved December 2, 2008 from http://www.arts.ualberta.ca/cms/cesarini.pdf

Eskow, S. (2008). The 375-billion dollar question. And the new agora. Retrieved December 20, 2008.

Morrison, J. (2008). Addressing the problem of faculty resistance to using IT tools in active learning instructional strategies. Retrieved November 21, 2008.

United Nations. (2008). World economic situation and prospects 2008: Update as of mid-2008. Retrieved December 5, 2008 from  http://www.un.org/esa/policy/wess/wesp2008files/wesp08update.pdf