Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Tom, Ricardo and life saving learning through the Internet

This is what the Internet is for !

Last week Ricardo casually referred to a time when he had helped Tom Ochuko find information that was urgently needed. It is a true “good news story” that deserves to be more widely known, both for its own sake, and as an example of ICT being used for informal learning. The Internet was used to teach a practical skill which helped save the lives of children in Nyanza, Kenya, when cholera threatened.

This is what happened. Last year (2008) Tom Ochuko wrote an email from Kenya, explaining that sickness was following the rains, children were getting sick, the river, normally a source of livelihood had become a killer, homes and crops had been washed away. The area had already suffered post election violence. Now it was threatened with cholera.

Tom is an active member of an online community, Mincius Sodas (MS). He is a community activist with particular concern for deaf people. He was also active in the Pyramid of Peace initiative (post election turmoil response) in 2008. When he needed help, he emailed his friends in the Holistic Helping group in Minciu Sodas. He explained the situation, and that there was a need to provide sanitation - but how? He needed advice from people who were good at constructing toilets.

This was his email:
> Dear Sam,Ken ,Dan,Chelimo,Janet,Maria and all.
> Its has been reported thatNyanza is worse now..I Have
> experienced it now.
> The children have long stomach runs..with complain in
> the chest,River Nyando our source of livelihood has
> become akiller.
> We cant get nrea any more while the homes are already
> washed away..with no crops..we cant just live to see
> this come every year.
> To begin with we must comstruct toilets..are there
> peoplwewho are just good in this.
> Designing,and making.
> Our ground is loose..and needs abetter structured
> toilets for every home.
> Mosquitoes are also breeding,SAM EXPERINCED THIS WHILE
> The deafimpact children..require nets,Tabs..and Even
> water containers to keep ..good health and hygine.
> WE can atlength dicuss this kisumu..is already
> affected as at now no running water and all are warned
> taht unless something is done ..Chilera is number two
> to election vilolence.
> What are your vies SAM HOW IS MbITA..sOME ARE ADMITTED
> Lets comunicate and get alsting solution.

Fortunately, Ricardo, one of Tom's online friends, saw the request for information. He searched the internet and came up with a relevant link. It was to a Water_Aid_Video by Adam Hart Davies, on how to build a pit latrine. The key element is simply a piece of plastic drainpipe. The video shows how to cut, heat and bend the drainpipe, and construct the pit latrine. Tom got the information and acted on it. The health of the children improved.

I asked Ricardo to give me more details of exactly what happened, so he sent me an email, which he also copied to the Minciu Sodas wiki at http://www.worknets.org/wiki.cgi?PitLatrine It tells how Tom got the information he needed, built the latrine, and improved the health of the children. It was funded locally. So the only thing that came in from the outside was information.

This is not a high profile story. There was no publicity, no involvement from politicians or large NGOs, no planning and targets and budgets. It was practical local community action.

I am studying how ICT can enable learning and to me this is a wonderful example of genuine informal distance-learning-on-demand. It is far removed from traditional course-based distance learning, which is the main model that many people seem to have. This was something immediate and focused. It was serious, project based learning, which was needed to solve a pressing problem.

This example is a collaborative approach to learning that has only become possible thanks to the Internet. It is an approach where people who know each other through online communities are ready to share needs and resources and help each other to solve problems, using video and the Internet. It is a kind of e-learning that is radically different from what many people normally think of as e-learning (i.e. traditional, formal, course based, accredited learning, with a subject expert leading the learning).

There was no subject expert in the group, no-one who had the knowledge that Tom needed. The information was on the Internet, but the Internet on its own was not sufficient. Tom has little Internet access and had no realistic chance of finding the information that he needed for himself. The added extra was the transnational community of friends. Someone who was bandwidth-poor was supported by someone (in the band-width rich UK) who was more easily able to go online and search for useful information. An intermediary helped to download the information from the Internet in Kenya. It was put onto a CD so that Tom could learn from it offline and share the information.

The thing that strikes me repeatedly about informal Internet mediated learning is the way that it dramatically increases the number of contacts that you can ask for help. There is new hope for those of us who don't belong in a university, don't start off knowing people locally who are well informed about things that interest us, and don't have any kind of “old school tie network”. Anyone who can get on the Internet and ask questions has a chance of finding new contacts. Discussion and answers are available “with a little help from our friends”. There is even hope for bandwidth-poor people like Tom, if they know people who will help them. Thanks to the Internet it is worth asking questions, because there is a good chance that someone can help to find an answer.

Imagine a future where teams of volunteers support learning the way that Ricardo does. (Being a volunteer on such a team would be an interesting and satisfying experience for anyone who enjoys learning new things and meeting new people online). As the story of Tom and Ricardo demonstrates, there are exciting and wonderful opportunities for collaborative learning thanks to the Internet.
Follow-up note: There are photos of the finished work - two well constructed cubicles.Tom sent photos to Ricardo, who has sent them to me. If anyone asks then I will get around to adding them here.

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