I went to an interesting session at the COSL 2007 Open Ed conference today by Christopher Hoadley from Penn State.

One of his ways of looking at technology use was how its’ instructional use fits into the local learning and community contexts. (He talked about a case in a rural village in the Himalayas, but the argument holds equally for any learning environment. In fact, the point is highly illustrative of why ICT has not worked well in US classrooms.) He contrasted a learning environment with 4 Pentium desktops and another with video cameras. The former had challenges of inadequate electrical power, lack of pedagogical fit, and a clash with community values. (Around the world, rural communities often see technology as influencing youth to leave their community for a less favorable urban lives.) The video project, on the other hand, fit in much better both from an infrastructure standpoint (low power requirements, mobility) and a cultural values context (content being student- and community-driven).

The conclusion: desktop technology functioned as an “invasive species” and video (and I would add, mobile) technology as a “native species” in the space of technology tools.

This led to a brief, but interesting, discussion of OLPC both in terms of hardware/technology as well as content. There was a question raised about the degree to which local communities have been involved (or not) in the design approach. Only time will tell (maybe) how local communities use this technology, but I would bet that it won’t be in the context that the OLPC folks envision.

Technology as a native or non-native species

3 thoughts on “Technology as a native or non-native species

  • September 26, 2007 at 3:48 pm

    The problem with analogies is knowing which entities serve as analogues for what, and how far to take the analogy.

    For me, this analogy does not go very far unless we rethink the analogues, and get clever about defining the systems:

    Invasive species typically take over an ecosystem usually with devastating effects.
    The receiving ecosystem has no way of controlling their proliferation – e.g. via climatic conditions, nutrient availability, biocontrol agents (e.g. predators or seed-eaters), natural fire cycles, etc.

    Alien species which fail to invade, typically die out fairly rapidly. Reasons for this might include for example, presence of a competitive indigenous species better adapted to the local environment, and/or there is an indigenous generalist predator which preys on the alien species which has no defense, and/or the conditions of the receiving ecosystem are unsuitable (e.g. water availability, soil chemistry, wind, natural fire regime, etc.), etc.

    There are always exceptions, and invasive potential is not easy to predict.

    In this case, the desktops did not invade successfully – the receiving environment was not conducive. Neither the desktops nor the video cameras can be considered native species – both were introduced.
    It remains to be seen if the video cameras will become invasive, as I suspect cell phones might be.

    Some introduced “species” will invade. The question is whether these invasions (e.g. OLPC or cell phones) will lead to a better quality of life for the other species in the ecosystem in a sustainable manner. If the technology does invade, what trade-offs are we making? The culture will be affected if it does not reject the technology as in the case of the PCs. In addition, the economics may change, and this in turn may affect the environment.

    The people working on this in the context we are discussing seem to be aware of these risks and trade-offs.

  • September 27, 2007 at 12:24 pm

    I’m the one who made the analogy, and I don’t think I would say that the video cameras we introduced were more like a native species, but I agree with Kim–we need to think through this analogy.

    One question here is how big an ecological niche we’re talking about. If the ecological niche is ‘educational technology’ then you might imagine the pentiums as first colonizers. They do, to some extent, produce a monoculture because they preclude or displace other possibilities. For instance, none of these schools is likely to buy much on top of what they’ve already got, now that they have to invest heavily in the pentiums just to keep them functioning. They may die off (failed introduction of the non-native species) but they may change the niche as well.

    If the issue is the larger niche of ‘technology in the village’ pretty much everything not invented locally (locally evolved) is a non-native species. So cell phones are a technology well-adapted to the ecology of the village, and not just a narrow niche of educational technology. Invasive or not, hard to say.

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