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Public Domain, Global Brain

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Imagine the bandwidth-rich and the bandwidth-poor learning from each other. People online and on-the-ground interact through a set of roles. We may imagine neurons in the brain (an abstract setting) interacting with neurons in a hand or foot (a concrete setting).

This is what the "global brain" is for!

Charles (not his real name) 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. In 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:

http://groups.yahoo.com/group/holistichelping/message/3028 "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 HE VISITED ME. 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 AT THE HOSPITAL FROM MBITA. Lets comunicate and get alsting solution. TOM OCHUKA"

Fortunately, Charles, 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 Charles 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 Charles 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 Charles demonstrates, there are exciting and wonderful opportunities for collaborative learning thanks to the Internet.

This may appear to be the story of two people, but actually there are several roles involved:

  • Experiencers of the real need: the people who were getting sick.
  • Local leader: Tom Ochuka, who wanted to address the need.
  • Connector: Tom Ochuka, who himself brought this issue online, and an intermediary who downloaded the video for him.
  • Facilitator: Janet Feldman, who leads the online venue where Tom asked for help.
  • Researcher: Charles, who took it upon himself to find an answer.
  • Publisher: Water Aid which works for safe water for the world's poor.
  • Champion: Adam Hart Davies who created the video that Water Aid published.
  • Presenter: Tom Ochuka, who spread the knowledge locally.
  • Documentor: Charles, who wrote up his answer on the Worknets wiki.
  • Investigator: Pamela McLean, who noticed the importance of this example.

A crucial role was played by the facilitator which is often least visible. Facilitator enables people of different cultures to work comfortably together and foster long term relationships that don't automatically come to people of different cultures. Janet Feldman's working group Holistic Helping is part of Minciu Sodas, a wider online laboratory and network of "independent thinkers", which depends on many patterns to create an environment which brings together and holds together very different people:

  • Activity is organized around mature "independent thinkers", like Janet Feldman, and their deepest value in life. Hers is "holistic helping", helping in all directions at once, as when responding to the HIV/AIDS challenge in Africa. These are working groups (Yahoo! groups) because email allows a wide range of people to participate, including those with marginal Internet access.
  • Overlap of people and cross-pollination of content is encouraged among groups.
  • Participants are encouraged to write about what they don't know, and would like to know, rather than what they already know; and to write about what they would like to achieve.
  • A special effort is made to reach out and sign up new participants and to respond to those who ask for help, but especially from those who overcome challenges of poverty, language, technology to participate.
  • The description of the venues and the footers of the letters make clear that all content sent to the group is in the "Public Domain except as noted otherwise", which encourages reuse, encourages people to write seriously and to be proactive, using their own best judgement to help others; and also filters out selfish, destructive people, who by their nature don't want to lose control of anything or be held accountable for their actions.

Perhaps the most important thing to understand is that this story is exceptional and not even the purpose of Minciu Sodas. This very practical example of e-learning is incidental to the continual efforts to bring together the widest variety of people to help each other grow as independent thinkers.