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Interview: Theo van Rensburg Lindzter, M-Ubuntu Project

Theo van Rensburg Lindzter is involved with Learning Academy Worldwide, a Swedish-based learning organization, and he is the original funder for phase one of the M-Ubuntu Project.  The M-Ubuntu project has built on distance learning teacher workshops by using mobile phones to bridge the digital divide in two very poor South African schools in two ways: first, by helping students with digital and cultural literacy, and second, by helping the teachers to network and collaborate.  Theo provides upfront training in M-Learning (mobile learning), literature-based pedagogy in the Paideia tradition, and he leads content production and dissemination for the project.  You can learn more about the project at http://www.m-ubuntu.org/.

As a HASTAC Scholar, I had the opportunity to talk with Theo about the M-Ubuntu Project, whose title means I am because we are, as part of our forum discussion on the democratization of knowledge.  Please feel free to read and respond to our conversation below:

Bridget: Can you describe what you mean by the "usefulness of acquired knowledge," a phrase you use in the HASTAC forum on the democratization of knowledge?

Theo: I have used the expression "usefulness of acquired knowledge"  quite deliberately. Our teachers in South Africa are often (and have been for so many years) expected to attend teacher development workshops that fail to connect what is to be known with what is to be done. Having worked in both Sweden and South Africa, I think this is a global disease.

At the same time, this incongruence is not always the fault of the South African education department. In all fairness, I think they have tried to make teacher development as practical as can be. Part of the need also lies with the teacher who must, firstly, identify where exactly the connection lies, determine whether she needs it (either at the time or further down the line) and, thirdly, decide to attend or not. Although these three simple choices are best made by the teacher, practices in South Africa's teacher development efforts, show that teachers may be forced to attend without regard to necessity or they are enticed by the credits that such attendance may accrue to their qualification and subsequent pay category.

Our project, I think, stumbled, as it were on this need - helping teachers see the difference they really can make to the quality of the learning process. The tools we are putting into their hands are aiding in the meeting of this need in a meaningful way - particularly so since we focus on mobile phones as tools to create resources that enhance the learning process.

Practically, it gives teachers  a chance to return to their curricula and find new creative ways to meet the goals and criteria therein. Reading the curricula and its imperatives, therefore, take on a new meaning as teachers seek to make connections to workable practice in the class.

As it were, we are supporting teachers in their skill to identify, determine and decide based on their own understanding of what is needed and it appears as if that understanding is most vividly seen when they actually create resources - this I think is the most desired outcome of true scholarship.

Bridget: What motivated you to become involved in the M-Ubuntu Project?

Theo: The idea of the project, is the consequence of a dialogue with a friend from Duke University, Lucy Haagen. It also seemed a natural outflow of the literature and literacy initiative we've had in South Africa - a plan to promote the use of South Africa literature in class. I was born in Cape Town, South Africa and I've been blessed with some additional experience and resources and wanted to find a way to plough back into the lives of men and women who are doing a tough task in a tough world.

Bridget: What other projects have inspired you most?

Theo: I have been challenged greatly by the work of Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea - that inspiring work in Afghanistan. What I saw in teachers in South Africa, even though these efforts are not commonly thought of as "projects" have been very inspiring - that they are, with a smile, doing so much with so little is what got me off my backside more than anything else.

Bridget: What have you learned from doing this project?

Theo: New Technologies do not have to be sophisticated and expensive technologies. Teachers are far more alert to their needs and see far more clearly through the maze of the complexities of learning and teaching than policy makers and researchers give them credit for.

Bridget: How has the project evolved or changed since 2007?

Theo: The numbers have changed. We actually started with 1 teacher in 2007 and now we are directly involved in the development of 20 teachers. What is most noticeable is the new role of principals in the schools. They have become so much more involved in the work of the classroom and they are the ones who are setting the pace for being engaged in learning new technologies. I would be very interested in research that would track exactly how this has changed. Principals have been asked to be occupied more with balancing the books than with setting the pedagogical pace. We are in the midst of scenario that sees this changing.

Bridget: Where do you see the project five years from now?

Theo: By 2015, we are hoping to, at least, have a regional impact where the M-Ubuntu model and idea is catapulted as a demonstration of the possibilities for teachers. By then we'd have 30% of Primary Schools in the region accessing coaching for improved learning. The region (known as Gauteng Province) has as many people as the whole of Sweden put together - 9 million people.

Bridget: What do you wish technology could do that it cant do yet?

Theo: The state of broadband communication is still too volatile and we are watching its outages, speed and stability to determine viable alternatives. This is particularly important since we are needing broadband to connect teachers to coaches in the US and Sweden.

Bridget: How are you incorporating feedback from your project participants back into the project?

Theo: The views and insights teachers provide after workshops are documented and given back to them in order to stimulate planning for solutions that come from them. Building strong teacher teams at the two schools is a core value and the feedback often display consensus on what they see - this is something they need to find encouragement in and, as one educator put it, "come creators and not merely consumers" of strategies forward. Sometimes I change the scheduling of our workshop and sometimes even alter the structure of the sessions. What I see as a need is not the final word on the best practices.

Bridget: What advice would you give graduate students or junior faculty members who want to become involved with projects like yours?

Theo: The art of listening to educators is a dimension often desperately needed. During our August workshop, a Dr Laura Billings from the National Paideia Center (UNC) connected with the teachers in a probing session directly from North Carolina. What Laura was particularly sharp at was constructing probes that not only got teachers to ponder seriously about their needs but also enabled her to truly get to understand where the gaps were. This kind of dialogue with teachers, thousands of miles away, makes such an impact and demonstrates more than anything just how powerful (and inexpensive, mind you) coaching can be.

Bridget: How do you see the ideals of the M-Ubuntu project as transferable to the way we think about teaching, learning, and knowledge within the U.S. higher education system?

Theo: The idea of the power of a community of learners who sharpen each other to heights of excellence is certainly transferrable to the US system - nothing about it is new and it may even be considered as deep insight into the obvious. It is the simplicity that may be harder to digest and to transfer, I think.

The idea of the value of integrated learning (as opposed to fragmented learning) is another junction where transferability is clearly seen. The different functions on a mobile phone have in such a simple way refocussed attention on, not only different learning styles, but also different learning areas (subjects). For example,
during the recent visit of a delegation of our teachers of an elementary school in Raleigh, NC, they were amazed about how much seemed exactly "the way we are doing it back home." That particular comment was made in reference to the power of project work that integrates the many learning areas (subjects).

Bridget: Do you have ideas about how to best get "matched up" with people or projects that would be a good fit?

Theo: We have been very fortunate and maybe in that there is a clue for all of us when trying to locate the most prudent of coalitions for meaningful civic engagement.

Again, it is not original but a simple return to, in this case, the unmatched value of trust relationships. I think it was quite observant of Joel Kotkin when, in 1992, he identified "a global network based on mutual trust" as a vital characteristic for success in the 21st Century.

We knew the first teacher at one of the Primary Schools in South Africa. There existed a prior connection, if you wish, and there was existing trust. Another paradigm guru, Stephen Covey, would have referred to our strategy as "starting with your circle of influence". I think that's what we did. We must concede that we did not have a set
of guidelines prior to commencing our work at any of these two schools but for the simple prerequisite - was there an identifiable need and were we in a position to meet it?

We felt that "researching" the "feasibility" of helping, was tantamount to standing over a bleeding and dying victim of a robbery with a questionnaire on his view of solidarity!

I think some coalitions may, for "various reasons, work smoother than others (however one defines "smoother). Yet, since people are the core matter of projects, a visible need and the capacity to do something about it, is, or should be, I think, enough to initiate a collaboration.

That said, Bridget, there is one factor that makes M-Ubuntu's work meaningfully relevant in this regard - an understanding of exactly what these teachers are facing each day in their classes.

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