The teacher gets schooled in social media for development
One of the best things about being in a training or facilitation role is the learning experience. In addition to learning new things about the subject at hand, I always learn unexpected things, for example about how people interact with technology.
For the last four weeks I’ve been facilitating for Euforic Services Ltd the UNITAR/FAO Innovative Collaboration for Development course, an online training programme which introduces social media concepts and tools to development professionals. The course is very hands-on, and challenges participants to use tools in a way that’s appropriate to their context. I find that selecting the right tool for any context to be the trickiest part of using social media, and can really make or break a communications strategy. Many organisations are responding to this with resources to help guide people through the minefield of tools and approaches; one example is the very helpful Knowledge Sharing Toolkit (a wiki produced by various Agricultural and Development agencies).
The challenge of helping people choose the right tool is compounded by the fact that participants come from a range of contexts and backgrounds. Most of the participants in my section come from Africa: from Jos, Nigeria and Maseru, Lesotho to El Fasher, Sudan and Creve Cœur, Mauritius (just for example). Cultural differences have not posed a challenge, but rather been the source of interesting insights. The main barrier to overcome in our group’s context is the availability of high speed internet varies, and access to a computers with a reliable connection.
A recent study (click for powerpoint file) recently found that Ghana is the only country in Africa with strong enough broadband internet to meet the needs of today’s applications, i.e. social networking, video streaming, chatting.
Quite a number of students have rightly pointed out that the course (based on the IMARK social media for development programme) assumes that people are online 24/7, which is simply not the case. Many don’t have internet at home and have to stay late in the office or go to a cyber-cafe to get connected. And when they’re connected, it’s not always reliable. This has led us to come come up with various tips and tricks for doing things offline. Did you know it’s possible download YouTube videos? I didn’t! In other cases, tools that might be “right” just don’t work; some google apps tend to suffer under slow connections, leading participants to seek out alternatives.
How effectively can social media be applied for development if it’s only being applied by development professionals in European offices? The course certainly tries to challenge this by sharing practical knowledge and supporting participants in using the tools. But the course could be better adapted to developing country learners.
What’s unfortunately missing is a section on social media via mobile telephony. As mobiles become ubiquitous in most developing countries, mobile phones are most people’s one reliable link to the outside world and the main way people get online. This realm is quite new, with groups like mobileactive pushing for more development-oriented uses for mobiles. IAALD filmed some good examples of mobile devices working for rural communities.
As the course continues (5 weeks to go), I’m keen to learn about the participants’ experiences – and occasional frustrations – with new tools. I’m also keen to challenge my own assumptions about effective communication via social media, and appropriate tools for development.