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Why are Telecenters not sustainable? Why is it important to learn from failures?

By Fatima Tuz Zahra

Telecenters are places where people can access computers, the Internet or other digital technologies. They are one of the major tools espoused by development workers and NGOs to provide information and education to rural and poorer areas. However for a variety of reasons Telecenters have not been sustainable without external funding. Most are short-lived enterprises that fail to forge long-term ties or participatory relationships with their local communities. This post will present the arguments made by “Telecenters are not “Sustainable”: Get Over it!” by Mike Gurstein and place it in the wider debates   about ICT failures in educational development to analyze the reasons and assumptions behind those failures and why they should be used as lessons.

Talking about failures. Source: http://goo.gl/jZphl

“Telecenters are not “Sustainable”: Get Over it!”

Mike Gurenstein, Executive Director of the Centre for Community Informatics Research, Development and Training, and Editor in Chief of the Journal of Community Informatics wrote this post from notes for a talk given in an ITU sponsored workshop on Telecentre sustainability in mid-2011. In this post Gurenstein makes the simple argument that the nagging from funders mostly government and major NGOS-  about how Telecenters have to be made sustainable is ill-directed. Gurenstein says that centers funded by market mechanisms do not really add value and facilitate the education process in the community.  Rather than serving a social benefit, they are more like Cybercafes that provide computer/ Internet access to primarily young men to fulfill various fantasies via more or less violent games and other such pursuits.”

For Gurenstein, Telecenters are setup to serve and add value to disadvantaged communities by providing easy Internet access to those who lack capital to compete in the open market. Therefore it is “deeply hypocritical” of the funders to ask them to be sustainable and, more so, if run along market logic (i.e. self-sustaining profit), the centers will never serve their intended purpose. However Gurenstein also admits that individual Telecenters are also at fault. They usually have poor knowledge of the practices and long-term needs of the local community. He concludes that the Telecenters’ must be embedded (“owned”) by local communities” to aid education.

The Debate over the Effectiveness of ICTs for Development and Education (ICT4D&E) Projects

The Gurenstein article is a good example of the debate going on between development practitioners over the effectiveness of ICT to solve problems of development. More and more development practitioners are pointing out that ICT4D&E projects need to be grown out of local needs and keep the longterm practical usefulness of projects in mind. Otherwise they risk being unsustainable and sometimes wastefully expensive. Kentaro Toyama echoes Gurenstien in his arguments: Modern technology can enhance learning in the classroom, but must be utilized only once the more exigent needs of improving teaching capacities and stronger administrations have been fulfilled.

The failures of Telecenters in so many rural areas and their fundamental lack of sustainability is simply one result of what Toyama has explained as the myth of scale.  This refers to the popular argument that simply bringing the Internet to poor areas will transform them or throwing enough money at a problem will solve it. Such proponents often ignore the basic fact that technology is a multiplier of human intent and capacity, it is not a substitute. ICTs for education therefore must primarily focus on the needs of the local community. Otherwise it may do more harm than benefit the ones in need. Lack of proper guidance on how to use telecenters to learn about health, business, ICT usage and so on thus resulted in their misuse.

It is important to realize that the failures of ICT4D&E projects can often be instructive and a springboard to spur innovation.” Recent initiatives, such as FAILfaire organized and run by MobileActive highlight failures of ICTs and assumptions behind bad projects to get insights into the reasons of failures and develop new successful ones. Additionally, websites such as ICTs in Education: someReality Videos’” and videos such as “Top 7 Reasons Why Most ICT4D Projects Fail, have become more common and foreground the fact that ICT is not the surefire solution to the complex problems of education or development.

Even mainstream platforms such as the New York Times have highlighted that mistakes are rarely discussed in organizations such as the World Bank. The World Bank has a 70% failure rate with their ICT4D projects on increasing universal access to education (for more on World Bank’s failure turn to Naoko’s article). This kind of prohibition on the part of large organizations often closes off avenues of learning from failure and limits innovation. One can ask if students can learn by making mistakes and from teachers’ feedback, why can’t the NGOs and international organizations spend some time learning from their failures?

Failures of telecenters have already taught us the importance of understanding the local context and custom better to sustain any educational development project. In today’s digitally connected globalized world a culture of sharing and talking about failures can help to avoid repeating past mistakes. To this end initiatives such as FAILfaire, and conversations initiated by experts such as Mike Gurenstein and Kentaro Toyama are certainly a step in the right direction.

Sources:

Telecenters are not “Sustainable”: Get over it! In Gurstein’s Community Informatics on May 18, 2011: http://goo.gl/1lugv

Re-thinking Telecenters: A Community Informatics Approach in Gurstein’s Community Informatics on May 15, 2011: http://goo.gl/P562z

The Journal of Community Informatics: http://goo.gl/SEKJ8

Can Technology End Poverty? In Boston Review, November/December 2010: http://goo.gl/iF0eF

Response in Boston Review November/December 2010: http://goo.gl/bGSr5

There Are No Technology Shortcuts to Good Education. In Education Technology Debate on January 11, 2011: http://goo.gl/JjdzU

Nonprofits Review Technology Failures in the New York Times on August 16, 2010: http://goo.gl/4EFc

Top 7 Reasons Why Most ICT4D Projects fail: http://goo.gl/O6ywb

Mobile Apps for Development: Focus on Content By Users, Not Just For Users in MobileActive on March 28, 2012, http://goo.gl/nlG2V

Rip Van Winkle’s Surprise: Critical Perspectives on Mobiles in Development and Social Change on Sept. 28, 2009: http://goo.gl/rwKDu

How to Fail in Mobiles for Development: MobileActive’s Definitive Guide to Failure in MobileActive on April 14, 2010: http://goo.gl/lsZqF

FAILfaire: http://goo.gl/HZREM

ICTs in Education; Some Reality Videos in Wait…What? on March 21, 2012: http://goo.gl/LXC7P

How (not) to develop ICT literacy in students? In World Bank Blog on ICT use in Education on April 6, 2012: http://goo.gl/uRvqz

A Great Success: World Bank has a 70% failure rate with ICT4D projects to increase universal access in ICTWORKS: http://goo.gl/4oK3v

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