Becoming a Practitioner Scholar in Technology for Development (And Involving students!): Commentary on Laura Hosman’s Talk

Professor Laura Hosman, who is Assistant Professor at Arizona State University (with a joint appointment in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society and in The Polytechnic School) gave this talk Becoming a Practitioner Scholar in Technology for Development as part of the Program on Information Science Brown Bag Series.

In her talk, illustrated by the slides below, Hosman argues that, for a large part of the world “the library of the future” will be based on cellphones, intranets, and digital-but-offline content.



Hosman abstracted her talk as follows:

Access to high-quality, relevant information is absolutely foundational for a quality education. Yet, so many schools across the developing world lack fundamental resources, like textbooks, libraries, electricity, and Internet connectivity. The SolarSPELL (Solar Powered Educational Learning Library) is designed specifically to address these infrastructural challenges, by bringing relevant, digital educational content to offline, off-grid locations. SolarSPELL is a portable, ruggedized, solar-powered digital library that broadcasts a webpage with open-access educational content over an offline WiFi hotspot, content that is curated for a particular audience in a specified locality—in this case, for schoolchildren and teachers in remote locations. It is a hands-on, iteratively developed project that has involved undergraduate students in all facets and at every stage of development. This talk will examine the design, development, and deployment of a for-the-field technology that looks simple but has a quite complex background.

In her talk, Hosman describes how the inspiration for her current line of research and practice started when she received a request to aid deployment of the One Laptop Per Child project in Haiti. The original project had allocated twenty-five million dollars to laptop purchasing, but failed to note that electric power was not available in many of the areas they needed to reach — so they asked for Professor Hosman’s help in finding an alternative power source. Over the course of her work, the focus of her interventions has shifted from solar power systems, to portable computer labs, to portable libraries — and she noted that every successful approach involved evolution and iteration.

Hosman observes that for much of the world’s populations electricity is a missing prerequisite to computing and to connectivity. She also notes that access to computing for most of the world comes through cell phones, not laptops. (And she recalls even finding that the inhabitants of remote islands occasionally had better cellphones than she carried.) Her talk notes that there are over seven billion cell phones in the world — which is over three times the number of computers worldwide, and many thousands of times the number of libraries.

Hosman originally titled her talk The Solar Powered Educational Learning Library – Experiential Learning And Iterative Development. The talk’s new title reflects one of three core themes that ran through the talk — the importance of people. Hosman argues that technology is never by itself sufficient (there is no “magic bullet”) — to improve people’s lives, we need to understand and engineer for people’s engagement with technology.

The SolarSPELL project has engaged with people in surprising ways. Not only is it designed around the needs of the target clients, but it has continuously involved Laura’s engineering students in its design and improvement; and has further involved high-school students in construction. Under Hosman’s direction, university and high school students worked together to construct a hundred SolarSPELL’s using mainly parts ordered from amazon. Moreover, Peace Corps volunteers are a critical part of the project. The people in the Corps provide the grass-roots connections that spark people to initially try the SolarSPELL, and provide a persistent human connection that supports continuing engagement.

A second theme of the talk is the importance of open and curated content. Simply making a collection freely available on-line is not enough, when we want most people in the world to be able to access it. For collections to be meaningfully accessible they need to available for bulk download; they need to be usable under an open license; they need to be selected for a community of use that does not have the option of seeking more content online; and they need to contain all of the context needed for that community to understand them.

A final theme that Hosman stresses is that any individual (scholar, practitioner, actor) will never have all the skills needed to address complex problems in the complex real world — solving real world problems requires a multidisciplinary approach. SolarSPELL demonstrates this through combining expertise in electrical engineering, content curation, libraries, software development, education, and in the sociology and politics of the region. Notably, the ASU libraries have been a valuable partner in the SolarSPELL project, and have even participated in fieldwork. Much more information about this work and its impact can be found in Hosman’s scholarly papers.

The MIT libraries have embraced a vision of serving a global community of scholars and learners. Hosman’s work demonstrates the existence of large communities of learners that would benefit from open educational and research materials — but whose technology needs are not met by most current information platforms (even open ones). Our aim is that future platforms not only enable research and educational content to reach such communities, but also that local communities worldwide can contribute their local knowledge, perspective, and commentary to the world’s library.

Surprisingly, the digital preservation research conducted at the libraries is of particular relevance to tackling these challenges. The goal of digital preservation can be thought of as communicating with the future — and in order to accomplish this, we need to be able to capture both content and context, steward it over time (managing provenance, versions, and authenticity), and prepare it to be accessed through communication systems and technologies that do not yet exist. A corollary is that properly curated content should be readily capable of being stored and delivered offline — which is currently a major challenge for access by the broader community.

Reflecting the themes of Hosman’s talk, the research we conduct here, in the Program on Information Science, is fundamentally interdisciplinary: For example our research in information privacy has involved librarians, computer scientists, statisticians, legal scholars, and many others. Our Program also aims to bridge research and practice, support translational and applied research, which often requires sustained engagement with grassroots stakeholders. For example, the success of the DIY redistricting (aka. “participative GIS”) efforts in which we’ve collaborate relied on sustained engagement with grassroots good-government organizations (such as Common Cause and League of Women Voters); students; and the media. For those interested in these and other projects, we have published reports and articles describing them.