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Africa: Will technophobia crash the ICT party?

The promise of ICTs benefiting human development is great. Mobile phones, some say, facilitate and expand markets where they previously weren’t. These mobiles have jumped into the domains of banking (mobile ATMs in some countries), medicine (allowing rural inhabitants to receive needed information from specialists) and public services.

Internet connections allow students in the most rural areas to augment learning through research. Academics can keep up with colleagues across the world. Social media may make it easier for people to organize themselves and facilitate the way immigrants send remittances.

The role ICTs plays in human development is being debated and discussed at a Sept. 23- 24 Harvard University forum, ICTs, Human Development, Growth and Poverty Reduction.

What about the backlash against computers and the fear of technological devices? If the promise of ICTs will lead to poverty reduction, how will technophobia affect this mission? Technophobia certainly remains a global issue. With the influence of ICTs role in development, however, does the fear of technology and misunderstanding of its uses disproportionally affect the developing world? If so, what are people doing about it?

Here are a few examples of fighting and understanding technophobia in Africa. (If you’ve got more, we’d love to hear them. We’ll also be trying to write this issue in other parts of the world, so please pass those ideas along, too.)

Technophobia in Africa, like elsewhere, takes many forms. Resistance to technology by teachers has been cited (.pdf) as a problem of computer expansion in Kenyan classrooms. Both hospital staff and patients in Uganda list “cultural adaptability” as a constraint in implementing ICTs in health centers. Girls around the world view cybercafés – in many places, the only gateway to the internet – as strictly boys’ territory.

James Kariuki, an E-learning specialist from Cape Town, South Africa relates a story of a well educated friend having difficulty with adapting to new technologies. This is from his blog Elearning in Africa:

I engaged with a friend today and he was lamenting about the speed at which the technology is moving. I could see the agony in his face when he told me that he was scheduled to do a presentation in a hall, and the only thing in that lecture hall as a visual aid is a computer and a projector. The old-fashioned overhead projectors have been replaced by these new technologies. The pain of having to redo his presentation, and scanning his images so that they can be used on the computer was profound. I asked him whether he has considered attending any of training sessions:

Most of us have a phobia for technology and most of the jargon used in the training leaves us more confused than we were before training. I know of a number of professors in my department who have the same feelings about the technology and they cannot attend training.

I asked him, is this reasons that some lecturers never use the technology in the lecture theatres? He said:

Yes, and more to that there is a cultural bearing. They should have involved an anthropologist to study the culture of the prospective users of the technology so that they can advice them about what need to change first [in terms of culture] for the technology to be successfully used.

Here I see a problem where the technology is being provided but the constituency that should benefit from it is not. I am not sure of the best approach to dealing with technophobia, especially in situations where the individuals [with the phobia] have all the resources and support and training but they cannot still use the resources available. If you have a clue, feel free to let me know.

In a comment, Neil J says we should all be expanding our definition of technophobia — because each of us have a bit of it.

I suppose, as you said training is the best way to deal with this. I am currently doing a university assignment into technophobia. I think we all have elements of technophobia:
- the anger we display when a computer crashes
- fearing that computers will replace our jobs
- fear that we are being watched!

The digital divide is not just rural versus urban or rich countries versus poor. Gender remains an important factor, says Ore Somolu, writing in The Networking Success Project from Nigeria.

Women face a number of limitations to be able to freely use technology, Ore continues, including lower disposable incomes, limited time for technology use, average lower literacy levels. One solution includes starting technology lessons for girls at an early age.

Young women need to become more involved in science and technology from an early age. This could be formally (primary or secondary school, computer school, after-school program) or informally (learning from family or friends, summer camps with computer classes). The Gender Team at KnowledgeHouseAfrica organises the FOSS Women Bootcamp Workshop, which equips young women with the skills necessary to train other women to use FOSS* (Free and Open Source Software). Fantsuam Foundation offers scholarships to qualified and interested women for ICT training.

Mothers are a big influence on their daughters and if they display feelings of technophobia, some girls may unconsciously adopt similar feelings. It is important that encouragement comes from the home, through introduction from a young age to incrementally more complex forms of technology.

Lauren Clifford-Holmes, a student at Rhodes University in South Africa, at one time felt that ICTs were not living up to their promise because few projects created tangible results. She lists a few examples of best practices when using ICTs to augment development. From her blog, The Soap Box:

What struck me about this story were two key nuances: firstly that dumping technology in a community is useless unless the skills are taught for the consumption of and production using this technology. Secondly, this case study emphasised the importance of focusing on schools and introducing students to technology which can aid their learning experience, and teach them the skills they need to thrive in the knowledge economy/ information society.

She reports on an example that promotes the right kind of appropriate technology, the Intel Teach Program.

Mthebula High School was donated computers by Telkom a few years ago, but none of the teachers were incorporating the technology into their instruction. School language teacher, Mercy Ntlemo, attributed this to most of the teachers lacking “the specific knowledge and training to integrate technology in any substantive way”. This meant the computers were gathering dust, barely used beyond basic information retrieval and simple word processing.

This example speaks to the larger debate within ICTs and development: development needs to happen on a multitude of different levels. It makes no sense to think you are aiding development by donating free technology like computers to those who lack the skills to utilise this technology effectively.

In this particular case, Ntlemo underwent the Intel Teach Program, a professional development program designed to help teachers integrate technology effectively in the classroom with the objective of helping students build 21st century skills. Ntlemo felt she really benefited from the training and following her success, many other teachers did the program, to help “conquer their technophobia”.
This training program exposed the teachers to new approaches for creating assessment tools and aligning lessons with educational learning goals and standards. Additionally, they discover new ways to incorporate the use of the Internet, Web page design, and student projects as vehicles for powerful learning.

As a result of the Intel Teach Program, Ntlemo says that technology is now an integral part of the curriculum at DZJ Mthebula High School, and project based learning is the norm. The training program revolutionised the way the teachers used the computers – a wonderful resource which until then were being completely underused. Ntlemo says the program “has revolutionised the way we teach.”

So what does a story such as this one teach us? It teaches us that we need to have a wholistic approach to development, and that development occurs within a particular context – such as lack of digital literacy. We need to understand the contexts of the communities needing developments in ICTs so that development does not become a worthless endeavour but rather a meaningful process of change.

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