University ICT4D University as producer and disseminator | digitalLEARNING Magazine
May 2006

University ICT4D University as producer and disseminator

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In this article we introduce a new concept – university ICT4D – that refers to the university as a producer of ICT4D knowledge and engaged actor in ICT4D practice – understood as the teaching, research  and outreach activities of universities that link ICTs to the development  needs of their communities and advance the transition to the knowledge society.  Experience has shown that successfully leveraging Internet technologies for economic, social and  political change demands new models  and new technologies, and depends upon multi-disciplinary and multisectoral  approaches. In most developing world contexts, complex  problems are paired with limited institutional capacity and scarce funds, making essential the efficient  and creative use of available resources. One powerful and oftenoverlooked  piece of this puzzle is academia, which has substantial  relevant capabilities to offer as investigator, consultant, educator, convener, evaluator and more. Indeed  to perform these functions is to achieve the very mission of the  university. When speaking of ICTs, we know universities as producers of ICT skills and knowledge in areas ranging from  computer literacy to high-end  programming. We posit, however, that while there are real barriers to university engagement in ICT4D and the broader  revolution in  cademia it requires or fosters, there is already more  happening than many of us realise. As the following examples briefly illustrate, there are a number of less well-known but critically important ways that developing world  universities are already making strides towards teaching, conducting  research and integrating outreach programs in this field of ICT4D.  The La Salle Institute of Governance   (LSIG) at De La Salle University in the Philippines is a research and training institution that aims to produce new  knowledge, strategies and tools that promote transparent, accountable,  participatory, and effective governance. Recognising the growing interest in ICT, in 2002 political  science professor Francisco Magno and his colleagues began to study  ICT’s contribution to good governance. From this modest start,  today they boast an active egovernance program that has a wide  range of activities cutting across teaching, research, and community engagement. LSIG conducts  workshops for local and national  policy makers; produces a quarterly magazine for the League of  Municipalities; hosts conferencessuch as Civil Society and Rights- Based  Governance; produces research studies on such topics as  “Good Governance and Anti- Corruption: A Term-End Performance  Assessment”; introduces new courses into the university general  curriculum and specialised courses for graduate students; and maintains  partnerships with governmental and nongovernmental organisations.  From a donor perspective, there are  numerous organisations available to  implement ICT4D programs across  any fields – rural development,  health services, e-government, women empowerment, policy reform, NGO capacity building – but surprisingly little academic quality research that analyses the results and implications  for future efforts and policies. There are many case studies that are closer  to collections of anecdotes written to showcase success, rather than the  more painfully learned (and earned)  lessons. What has been missing is high-quality, comparable, analytically rigorous, and dispassionate research  and evaluation that will allow everyone to learn from past  experiences and improve future program designs and  implementations. As a Philippine colleague told us, “if you ever find  someone doing research on programimpact here, it’s someone  rom  another country.” This situation exacerbates deeper-seated problems, impeding our understanding of the  interactions between ICT and poverty alleviation, business generation,  improved governance, gender equality and the other issues we care about – it’s essential for developing  world researchers to help develop the  supporting ideas and methods. In the area of teaching, we encountered widespread agreement  that every country needs professionals in government, industry  and civil society who understand the dynamics and challenges of ICTenabled  socio-economic development. Unfortunately, relatively few  developing world universities are adequately preparing students with the knowledge and skills for crafting  better telecommunication policies, developing sustainable telecenters that meet the needs of underserved communities, or promoting effective  use of ICT by small and medium enterprises. This is made even more   ifficult due to barriers to elective coursework, cross-listed courses, and  ther national and institutional  policies that limit capacity and incentives for new pedagogical and  programmatic approaches. Finally, in the outreach arena, few  developing universities engage their students and faculty meaningfully  with their communities. Developing educational and beneficial internships, community service,  course projects and other programs that offer university expertise to local  communities is a complicated affair.  Yet these forms of engagement promise both substantial real-world  learning opportunities for the university and real results for the communities in which they reside. Until universities effectively engage  their communities, both groups will  forego valuable fruits that would help advance the university mission and promote social well-being challenges? Many   bservers   ncluding people within academia) have deep reservations, ranging from doubts as to whether universities  should take on these issues in the first place, to dismissing universities as being incapable of fulfilling these  expectations. Critics claim, rightly in  many cases, that universities are ossified institutions, largely incapable of the internal reform and innovation needed to make them more relevant to the changing needs of society. Or,  they point to external constraints such as higher education policies  that, for example, have a five-year process for introducing a new course,  hardly the appropriate environment  for curricular innovation. Or, they comment on systemic challenges such as disciplinary rigidities that make it  difficult to conduct interdisciplinary work. There is general agreement  among ICT4D scholars that one needs to bring a diversity of disciplinary  tools to this field, yet universities and the journals where scholars need to  publish in order to receive promotions reinforce the very disciplinary  boundaries we need to overcome. Indeed, getting technologists to work effectively with social scientists and  the professional disciplines is a central question of ICT4D research.

In most developing world contexts, complex problems are paired with limited institutional capacity and scarce funds, making essential the efficient and creative  use of available resources. One
powerful and oftenoverlooked piece of this  puzzle is academia, which has substantial relevant capabilities to  offer as investigator,consultant, educator, convener, evaluator and  more. Indeed to
perform these functions is to achieve the very  mission of the  university
This dual observation – the emergence of university ICT4D programs and the increasing awareness of the need for scholarly  attention to critical issues of societal ICT integration, juxtaposed with the  overall scarcity of such programs and firmly held critiques of universities –  has led a research team from a coalition of developing and developed world universities to  embark on a year-long study to  uncover the current practice and potential for university ICT4D. This study, sponsored by the  International Development Research Centre (IDRC) of  Canada and the APEC Education Foundation, builds on earlier conferences   on this topic held at Makerere University in  Uganda, Cornell University in the US, and De La Salle  University in the Philippines. The research will help us  answer the following question, artfully summarised by our colleague William Melody. “How is it  possible to build on the many individual programs in  various corners of universities, to get university-wide commitment to embedding ICT4D issues  in the ethos of the university  and through all of its relevant programs? Most  ICT4D programs exist because of the driving commitment of a few people  without any significant support or commitment from the university, and very  often with lots of opposition. The case studies are heroic, but they aren’t going to  have a major impact until the universities change. This is a problem  in most developed world as well as developing world universities.”

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