Some ethical concerns in ed-tech consultancy across borders
For many years, this department (1) has been involved in consultancy and training projects aimed at implementing technology-based solutions in a number of emerging countries that are attempting to address some of their most pressing quantitative and qualitative higher education needs.
When we refer to emerging countries, we mean those nations that possess a multi-tiered social structure ,where industrial or post-industrial sectors operated by highly trained staff, coexist with large underdeveloped areas in which basic educational health and other social services are not being adequately provided. We are not talking about absolute general poverty but we have in mind nations where per capita incomes range roughly from $ 2,000-8,000 per person per year . Allowing for important social and regional differences,Brazil, Argentina,Colombia,Mexico and South Africa would fit into that category.
The requests we receive,generally come from Ministry of Education policy planners or from university administrators who firmly believe that carefully designed programs based on a rational use of technology,will make it possible to diversify their country’s educational offer and help bridge some of the most obvious development gaps.We could add here that this view is widely shared by the think tanks at the main sources of funding such as the World Bank, the European Union etc..
In our capacity as consultants,although we have no direct economic links with the hardware and software suppliers,we still have to confront a number of ethical issues some of which can be stated clearly to our partners while the others remain as unvoiced ( though very real) concerns that can only be raised once a mutually trustful climate has been created.
The first contention would fit into the traditional criticism that we stand as representatives of the ever greedier rich North trying to foist its technology onto the impoverished South, thereby increasing the financial burden and mimetic intellectual submissiveness of the nations involved.This is a point which may have derived part of its relevance as an angry response to some of the arrogant,technocratic,”behavioristic” solutions that were put forward by some of our predecessors in the 60es and 70es but the truth is that there is little evidence of that happening now ,at least in the educational field .
In the past ten years in fact,the consultancy buzzwords have been sustainable technologies,contextualization, small ad-hoc solutions,empowerment etc..This does not mean however that we will no longer hear the vocal, strident criticism against the looming “technocratization of society through ed.tech “that is being voiced on campuses ,in conferences and in some of the media .....those statements whose philosophical and ideological sources can be traced to a wide variety of books and articles, those of Jacques Ellul,Alain Finkelkraut,Neil Postman,Ivan Illich among others,with echoes of the anti WTOmovement surfacing here and there...
The ethical dilemmas we are confronted with today as educational consultants overseas,are of a more subtle nature and could be roughly summarized in three pairs of alternatives:
1- Connectivity vs.Exclusion:
The prevailing opinion among planners and administrators is that the “wiring” of PC-equipped classrooms subsequently connected to the Internet via a satellite network and /or an optical fiber backbone ,will spontaneously produce the quantum leap that will enable underprivileged students to have full access to a formal education and to the culturally stimulating resources that cannot be found in their favelas or townships
This is echoed by politicians who, through a combination of well-timed flair and genuine conviction,will regularly come up with such slogans as “We will solve the problems you are facing by providing every school with a satellite dish ,computers and the Internet within two or three years!” One of the most recent examples of this is to be found in the incumbent party’s platform in Mexico’s Spring 2,000 presidential race.
The ethical dilemmas that external consultants have to face when those forceful assertions are being made by the inviting authorities, will trigger a soul-searching process and such questions as :” Should I tell them their technocratic approach is bound to fail ?
“Should I recommend a gradual approach and install the equipment only when they’ve informed the general public and trained the teachers involved?”
“Should I suggest they launch a number of regionally limited ,culturally contextualized experiments that would make it possible to test the technology ,get some useful feedback and
involve the community living around the school/college?
Politeness and a sense of timing when confronted with the feeling of urgency expressed by politicians on the campaign trail,make it difficult to ask those questions openly, even in cultures where dissent is accepted and considered constructive.This requires a tactful approach and a well-documented presentation of educational case studies from First World countries where an overwhelming top-down , exclusively technological approach, has proved counterproductive.
The truth is that it would be inherently dishonest to make the claim that connecting classes, a school system etc.to the WWWeb or to any network ,actually means integrating ,ie.bridging the social and educational gaps that affect a nation’s development.
It would be more relevant to describe the benefits that will accrue for specific target groups from a carefully managed introduction of on-line educational sequences and raise the caveat that the students whose schools are not connected or who do not belong to those target groups,may actually face a measure of social exclusion since scarce financial resources and much of the teachers’ energy will be exclusively devoted to ensuring that the on-line showcase programme actually works or is seen to be working.
We should remember, that in terms of working conditions ,we cannot base a consultant’s policy on the assumptions that would be taken for granted in North America,Western Europe
or Japan where subsidies ,if properly asked for,will eventually reach all the schools that have submitted a credible application.Where funding depends on foreign aid-based government money,getting the sums requested will mean that other applications are going to remain unanswered until the next pluriannual development plan comes into being.In such a case,the ethical approach would be to recommend and help install several reasonably sized and carefully planned pilot experiments similar to the Zimbabwe project described by Jan Visser in a recent issue of ETR & D(2) instead of one spectacular “mega project”.In that case, the equipment was minimal (one Internet-connected PC in each teacher-training college) but it was technically and financially sustainable ,there were two trained, motivated teacher-facilitators in each college and the community at large was informed and supportive.
2-Access vs. Excess:
In the social and cultural contexts where our ed.tech consultancy takes place,most of our partners connect technology with the notions of upgrading,progress, catching up with the first world etc..
It is then important for them to convince the community in which they live, that the new,on-line/off-line media are not reserved for an already privileged elite but instead that they are progressively being made accessible to those who were previously excluded.
In practical terms, this means that the educational projects we are building, have to be described and shown to be working, on the communication channels most commonly used by the community at large. In the countries of Latin America we have in mind,this means local and/or national television.The wide success and strong impact of Brazil’s national teacher-training program Um Salto para O Futuro was that for several years,it was shown live across the country, in the late afternoon ,on one of the main open TV channels.Although it is now broadcast on a specialized satellite-based educational network(Telescola)the reputation and the credibility remain.
At a time when the media are disseminating information about computers and the Web,stressing almost exclusively such technical features as the huge amounts of data that can be transmitted,the speed of the various interactions etc,.the ethical concern among educators should be to present an alternative view that would counterbalance the impression left on the public:while the media display an excess of often counterproductive, uncontrolled information about technology and the educational miracles it promises to bring about overnight,a responsible concern should lead us to present a more realistic view,of what can actually be achieved ,while showing how most people can actually access those technologies:through existing radio and TV channels,through local cable networks (in Argentina for instance),through the school computers after hours etc..
Putting real access before excess,also means that a careful painstaking job has to be carried out, warning partners about the disappointments they could face.
In a recent article entitled Internet and the domination of people’s minds,the French thinker Lucien Sfez(3) agrees that the Internet is a vital , worldwide tool for information search and retrieval but he adds:
"The inequality of knowledge cannot be overturned and transformed by the sheer virtues of Internet into a general equality. An Indonesian or Nigerian scientist without libraries,specialized assistants and technical facilities, will not,although he has an access to the Internet,reach the same level as a research worker at MIT.The reason is that information is not knowledge.In order to find the relevant piece of information,it is essential to possess the prior knowledge that will make it possible to ask the right informative questions.The absence of a hierarchy is a delusion:you may very well call a famous expert at the Pasteur Institute by his first name on the Internet and yet remain in the third class category of research”.(4)
For the well meaning expert from abroad who helps bring technological solutions to teaching and training problems, the dialogue with local partners should follow a twofold upstream process:
-first show the actual, concrete modes of access to relevant information through the “excess”of unchecked material provided by the media and the Web.
-insist on the need to integrate the information thus obtained through technology within a coherent knowledge building process which involves complex human interactions and exchanges inside the local cultural context.
The advent of the Internet raises other ethical concerns in the dialogue with colleagues from emerging countries.For them ( and for many of us as well), technology means progress and successive discoveries and developments (print, radio,film,educational TV,multimedia etc...) are considered as permanent assets which are here to stay in the evolution towards better learning processes.
There is also a de facto linking of the medium with the message so that many people spontaneously believe that everything that comes through the new medium is as valid and permanent as the traditional printed word.Quite normally they use the same approach with the Internet when it becomes available and soon lose a great deal of time and energy.
In our meetings as consultants,we should make it clear to our partners that,although the Internet is based on solid,permanent technology(ie.computers connected to a world-wide telecommunications network),much of the information provided is in fact of a transient nature and is not meant to last more than a few days or weeks.
The first impulse for many educators when they gain access to the Internet,is to consider most of the informative material and dialogues that appear on the computer screen with the same respect as the pages of a book.There are two reasons for this:
- first it comes in written format and the tendency is to overvalue the written word.
- second: it comes through a sophisticated technological medium, presumably produced and validated by the “masters of technology” ie.by one of the advanced nations of the rich North.
This is where the linguistic distinctions made by Walter Ong in his epoch-making Orality and Literacy (5) can help clarify things.According to him,large proportions of the spoken material we hear on television are not spontaneous orality, but what he calls secondary orality, in fact a script displayed on a teleprompter and read aloud by the presenters.In the case of the Internet exchanges,we have almost the opposite according to Lucien Sfez who provides the following analysis:
Although writing does play a part in the sending and receiving of on-screen electronic messages,the conditions that make it possible to send them,should in fact be categorized as orality.As a matter of fact the practice is an oral one inasmuch as the message (whether it is a request for information or the transmission of information in an interactive form ),has more in common with a conversation between two partners who have their own code of exchange than with a text designed to be read by all people with institutionally designed rules ( of grammar,syntax and semantics) that are as anonymous and imperative as language rules. At the same time this (Internet) practice is also a written one because the “private conversation” is recorded in the memory of the medium itself ,the computer,where it remains as a resource that can be retrieved by anybody(6).
We have in the past 35 years seen many enthusiastic expectations about the forthcoming miracles come to grief whenever the successive waves of technological media failed to deliver any dramatic improvements to the never-ending educational crises which affect First,Second and Third World.If experience is to be of any use,we could base an ethical approach to ed.tech consultancy on a few guidelines:
-make sure through discussions that may take a long time,that your partners perceive clearly the full dimension of the educational problem at hand with its social,cultural and economic dimensions.
-in the presentation of the technologies,insist on the various requirements they entail if quantitative and qualitative change is to be achieved.In addition to the building of human resources through training sessions etc..this calls for an in-depth streamlining of operational procedures and a lengthy process of information towards the community at large.
-show your partners how to expect different things from the off-line mass media such as TV which helps create collective contextualized bonds in societies affected by brutal changes and the Internet with its fast-paced transient nature which tends to foster individualistic aspirations(7)
-help your colleagues realize that although information is vital,being informed through the Web,does not really mean that one has acquired real knowledge with its operational,transferable qualities.This is where the educator’s mediation remains indispensable,thereby allaying the fears some teachers have of losing their jobs or at least their social image...
Finally we could suggest they meditate upon Lucien Sfez’s analysis of the Internet as....."a way station between the general and the universal:generality is not universality but the addition of x.numbers of individuals,whether those individuals are objects,abstractions or human beings.Generality does not claim to be the whole but rather the greater number"(8)
Once this clarification process has been launched,educational technology’s real benefits will slowly but truly come into their own.
(c)François Marchessou,Sept 2,000
François Marchessou ,is the head of OAVUP et the University of Poitiers and also works in the teacher-training unit (IUFM) at Poitiers and is involved in several European and extra-European consultancy projects.
He can be reached at <email@example.com>
(1)oavup,95 avenue du recteur Pineau,86022-Poitiers-France.http://oav.univ-poitiers.fr
(2) Educational Technology,Research and Development,Vol 47,Number 3,1999.
(3)Lucien Sfez is a professor at Paris I,Panthéon-Sorbonne University.He is the author,among other books of Critique de la Communication,Paris,Seuil publ,1992.
(4) Sfez, Lucien,Internet et la Domination desEsprits,p50-54 in Manière de Voir,a special issue of Le Monde Diplomatique,Nr 52,July-Aug 2,000.
(5)ONG,Walter,Orality and Literacy,the Technologizing of the Word,Routledge ,London & New York,1982,continually reprinted.
(7)Wolton,Dominique,Internet et Après,une théorie critique des nouveaux medias Flammarion, Paris 1999 also available in Spanish Internet y Despuès,Gedisa,Madrid,2,000.
Jenny Johnson Interviews
Association for Educational Communincations and Technology
Johnson: How did you become interested in
the field of educational technology?
interest in Ed.Tech): I have to go back many years to the
days when I was finishing college at Poitiers University
in France. I had a small part-time job in the English
dept. library and I was asked to look after the record
collection and some of the early open-reel tape
recorders. I ended up copying Macbeth or Winston
Churchill's Wartime speeches onto the tapes and doing a
lot of tinkering with the new equipment that was so
exciting for students who had spent their childhood in
impoverished, technology-starved Europe. I then spent two
years in US Universities (at Brandeis and the University
of Iowa) on the Fulbright, going back to France doing my
military service in the language dept. of an army college
and eventually being appointed language laboratory
director. From the language laboratory, we moved into
video (in 69-70), then felt we had to become acquainted
with communication studies and this led us naturally to
the broader field of educational technology.
Johnson: What is your philosophy of
my views on education and teaching, I believe this is a
diversified multidirectional process which cannot be
restricted to the student-teacher-institution
relationship. Many inputs from traditional learning come
into play and they have to be activated according to the
highly diversified needs of the present day students who
cannot be socially "pigeon-holed" as they were
in my own collegiate days.
The new (and not-so-new) technologies lend
themselves to the creation of ad-hoc, flexible alliances
that enable those students to master their won learning
processes while the teacher's role is progressively
becoming more creative.
This has been my own experience here at
Poitiers with the progressive introduction of
"open", self-access multimedia sessions within
the traditional lecture-based "contact"
pattern. I believe this is the trend in our so-called
developed countries and it would not be possible without
a balanced, carefully thought-out alliance of multimedia,
off-satellite TV, ISDN, etc. . .
This does not mean that the introduction of
the technologies within existing frameworks is an easy
process. I have personally seen how hard it is to
establish a working Internet exchange between a given
high school in the US and a high school in Poitiers
although there is plenty of equipment as well as high
speed connecting networks in both countries with
politicians claiming the schools in their constituencies
are now in tune with the world . . .
There are still a lot of administrative and
psychological blocks that have to be overcome. This calls
for a great deal of patience and well honed negotiating
Johnson: How did you become involved in
the field internationally?
as my own involvement in international cooperation is
concerned, we can trace it back to 1973-74 and the
organization of conferences and seminars on audio-visual
communication within francophone universities under the
auspices of AUPELF (the Association of French-speaking
I thus had the opportunity of working with
Jean Cloutier, the then energetic and visionary director
of the A-V center at the University of Montreal. This led
to exchange projects and to publications that attracted
some attention and I was asked to provide some
consultancy work in Algeria, Egypt, Argentina, etc . . .
Then (1988) came the European projects when I
was elected to the board of the educational channel that
was being created at the initiative of the European Space
Agency in order to use some of the transponder facilities
on the experimental Olympus satellite.
I realized then that I had a theoretical and a
tourist's knowledge of Europe outside France and that it
did take a great deal of time and persuasion to get
colleagues who were geographically close but culturally
different to get things done.
I must say that the situation has changed a
lot over the past ten years and we have been helped by
the European union's repeated calls for proposals with
strong educational technology components. I will just
name a few acronyms here such as COMETT, DELTA, LINGUA,
LEONARDO, TEMPUS, SOCRATES because they stand as
landmarks in the history of Ed-tech networking.
Johnson: Describe a few of the
projects/settings that you have fostered and are
fostering around the world?
present, this dept. (OAVUP) is mainly involved in three
-In Europe we are fully involved as a
full-fledged member of a Telematics program called SELECT
which is sponsored by Directorate General XIII of the
European Union: this is a major R and D project which
involves the development of a Learner Manager software
that will enable company executives to download on their
office workstations especially designed multimedia
modules for advanced self-instruction in English, French
or Portuguese. The project is led by Italy's largest
multimedia company GIUNTI and partners include the
University of Wolverhampton, the Open University of
Portugal and a major industrial group. Outside Europe, we
are doing some consultancy work in Mexico and Patagonia
(on a EU-sponsored project for distance education). We
are also working in close connection with a new
university at la Matanza on the outskirts of Buenos Aires
with a view to setting up a multimedia center and
teaching dept. with a graduate program in educational
technology that will be fully accredited in Argentina as
well as in France
-In Brazil we are working with a number of
universities (Brasilia, etc.) within their Ed. Tech and
distance education curricula.
>-In Africa, we are mostly involved in
Mozambique since there is a long-standing connection
between the two main universities and Poitiers: this
ranges from field consultancy in French and educational
technology to preliminary support for a major AIDS
-In the United States, our present home base
is the AWTY International School in Houston where we
organize training sessions with an Ed. Tech orientation
for language teachers.
Johnson: Tell us about your involvement in
Ed. Tech professional associations such as AECT and
a fairly superficial survey of our main overseas
activities which represent over 50% of OAVUPO's turnover
and help finance our graduate degree course in
educational technology. On a personal basis, I am trying
to maintain an acceptable degree of involvement in such
professional Ed. Tech associations as AECT in the US, and
ATENA in France or more recently ABT in Brazil.
I wish there were more Europeans active in
AECT for scientific as well as for operational reasons.
There is now a great deal of inter-European project
networking in Ed-Tech but I am afraid the level of joint
research with the US has nothing to do with what I can
observe on a daily basis within my own university between
medical departments, chemistry or physics labs with their
counterparts in America.
The Intl. Division of AECT and such
publications as ET. R and D can and do help abridge the
gap. I wish there were more initiatives but this would
raise the issue of funding or joint operations. We should
perhaps explore such positive avenues as World Bank
distance ed. projects, put some pressure on our
respective politicians, examine if the National
Foundations in the US and the various European agencies
could launch some parallel proposals etc...