Monday, 17 August 2009

The ethics of research in low resource areas

Focusing on a winning article by medical colleague Rafael Van den Bergh (PhD student at the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp and VUB), I will focus on the ethical part of innovation for eLearning projects.
While I was following a course on international issues in distance education at Athabasca University, the discussion on 'innovative projects' was already touched by a couple of students and Barbara Spronk who facilitated and moderated the course. It was an informal discussion that grew into one of the most interesting one's I had during the course. The fact is that I wonder about the ethics behind the term 'innovation' that - when applied in a funding proposal for eLearning - will increase your chances of success for the proposal.

But innovation is not always what is needed in eLearning and certainly not in low resource areas. Just think about the very successful radio courses that have set-up across remote areas and over decades of time, but radio is no longer considered as an innovative learning choice, so funding is decreasing and stopped in certain areas. Nevertheless sometimes these areas are better off if they would just be part of an eLearning project that has been proven successfully and can keep on growing to reach all of the learners it can potentially reach. In a lot of cases successful eLearning projects (both web-based and especially mobile ones) end and fade into nothing as soon as funding dries up. Although durability is featured as a word in a lot of these projects, it is not really a long-term strategy, as it does not imply new technologies will be used, or new innovations will be tested. So who does benefit from using new technologies and innovations, if not the learners for whom they are constructed or produced?

Well, this question is raised by the article I mentioned and which was selected as a winner of a Lancet / Global Forum for Health Research competition to find the best ideas on innovation for health (their were 8 winners, see the picture). In the article of Rafael Van den Bergh, PhD student at the ITM (promoter: Guido Vanham) and the VUB, entitled 'Who is at the receiving end of our innovation?', he mentions that the researchers and funding agencies might have more benefit from these projects than the people they are meant to serve (paraphrasing heavily). He does not do this one sided, but with a lot of nuance and I must say I agree that as a researcher one can sometimes wonder if the ideals that pushed you into research or a professional choice, are not perverted by a system that is meant to help, but not always helps in the best way possible.

Let me look at web-based and mobile learning projects. In a lot of cases funding will be given to high-profile projects with the latest technologies featuring computers and smartphones. But this is in many cases an unrealistic long-term venture. In the past some great simple mobile learning projects were launched, but will they be able to keep on growing once the project's funding deadline draws near? What about buying or keeping the equipment working? the cost of calling or connecting to learning materials? the production of learning materials? If a project is not relying enough on local knowledge and financial possibilities, it risks on ending abruptly, without adding to the long-term development of a region. In that case only the researchers and companies funding the project got some PR out of it, but not the ones the project was aimed at.
With technology becoming increasingly important in this global world, it is easy to jump onto the technology train as the overall solution for everything, including poverty. But no matter how you twist and turn it, technology is never the sole solution for survival. At best it will relieve some part of life.

So technology is not always the best or only way to go and let's face it technology is never a solution, only an instrument that might bring a solution a bit closer. A solemn belief in learning technology to solve global poverty might not be enough to really tackle the problem. Certainly not if you look at what does make a difference for a country or region: peace, investing in regional security and trust...

So if you want to read a very well written, argumented article, look at the one from Rafael Van den Bergh (only 3 pages) and let me know your remarks.