Web alliance for Regreening in Africa

Reflections on the ICT4D course 2019 at VU

The ICT4D course at VU aims to bridge the gap between theory and practice in ICT4D, teaching students to co-create and learn how to design information systems for people in low-resource environments, using a user-centered approach. The course is based on real world trans-disciplinary research in West-Africa. It is a 6 ECTS elective course in the master tracks of Information Science, Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence. This course, which was given for the first time in 2013, is designed and lectured by Victor de Boer, Anna Bon and Francis Dittoh.  The course is concluded with an annual international symposium “Perspectives on ICT4D”. This year’s team was: Tackling Global Challenges – Collaboratively.

We collected a number of quotes, reflections and criticism from students about this ICT4D course 2019, which they wrote in their portfolios at the end of this course:

“This course was quite different from others, and the most marking difference I can think of is the independence given to the students. Although we were given a list of use cases that are relevant at the moment, I understood the program as a free exploration of the relevant issues in ICT4D with some guidance. In classes, I noticed how part of the emphasis was given to small details pertaining to social and cultural differences we might encounter in the field. A clear example was a story shared by Francis in which he told us that a group of men in a Mali village wanted to meet without the women and got rejected by the ICT4D team in the interest of equality, only to find out later that they simply didn’t want to be overpowered by the women and be able to participate; the teachers clearly tried to transmit us the notion that we had to discard a lot of pre-conceived ideas we had about user expectations, resources, social standards and even technical as infrastructure: to discard the very engrained idea that infrastructure is available at all times and that innovation consists on finding new experiences and angles that modern users have not seen; that in order to produce a useful project in a developing country we needed to question all the underlying expectations we have of users, both of their skill and of their needs; that innovation, in a lot of cases, is just reinventing the wheel in a more intuitive or adapted way.

“All in all, the course went quite smoothly and I believe it opened me up to some important concerns of the state of human rights and living conditions across developing countries. It helped me relativize my work and role as a computer scientist and take a step back to understand that most technologies and software being developed is in fact for a very specific slice of society. This in itself doesn’t trigger a moral judgment but it does equip me to be more aware on future work I do, as in that it gives me even more confirmation of how important it is for everyone, and for us in particular in IT, to be aware of the social ramifications our work has.”

Another student points at the real world conditions adressed in the ICT4D course:

“With other courses we always assume the best/perfect scenario in which our projects are deployed. However in real life this best/perfect scenario rarely exists and thus the handling of different factors becomes a invaluable part of the work. Furthermore the course conveyed the importance of stakeholders. Whereas stakeholders have been previously introduced to me with multiple other courses, these stakeholders never felt real as all the information came from pre produced pieces of paper. With ICT4D however we got real feedback from the stakeholders about the applications we were developing. With the symposium held at the end of the course we got a chance to look at all the different applications developed by our fellow students. Furthermore the talks held at the symposium showed us how the contents of the course relate to field work. Especially the talks from André Baart and Jaap Gordijn showed to me how the fundamentals learned can be used to do ICT4D. Overall I found that the course highlights the parts of ICT which are normally ignored as they fall outside of the normal scope. Although they include valuable parts which make a great addition to the normal working environment and make you think about the development of applications in general. I really enjoyed getting familiar with vxml and voice services in general as this was something I had no previous experience with. Concluding I would like to say that the course teached me parts of the development process previously ignored and expanded my understanding of developing world.  

Yet another about the social aspects of the course:

“The course has sensitized students in the humanitarian aspect and exposed real problems that people in developing countries face daily. There is a need for building and deploying services in these countries but so far it seems that most of the computer science community has simply neglected those areas, at least the vast majority. It looks like these countries are excluded by default from the scope of any other course I have taken so far, and this is a fact considering that before ICT4D I have never put thought into developing software for developing countries. I think the main takeaway message here is the need in more computer scientists to turn their attention into developing countries and offer their assistance into a more humanitarian aspect which can be more rewarding and self satisfactory  in the end.”

another student:

“We had to look outside the comfort zone of our expertise, which, for most of us, is computer science. We first had to understand the problem, the environmental, social, cultural, geographical and economic aspects, before even beginning with the design. […] We learned to look at the people beyond our system, assess their needs, ensure the system remains afloat through sustainability analysis and provide some business plans.”

About the  connection between theory and practice:

” The ICT4D course has been challenging, rigorous and demanding, and is in line with what is expected of a course at the Master level of a university. But above all, the course is well structured and its goals clearly defined. Among other things, we have learned about the importance of ICT in the context of developing countries and that this has the potential to reduce poverty and hunger (linked to the sustainable development goals of the united nations). I also believe that the expectations of the students fit in well with the curriculum. Many theories learned during lectures, or from reading literature, were directly applicable to the assignments and the essay. We were able to gain experience in working as a team because we worked on projects for most of the period. The project was also a good way to gain experience in building an application in an iterative way.”

another student:

“In conclusion, the course was very interesting and made it useful in a way that students could develop their own skills in a meaningful way. The importance of ICTs for the developing world became clear to me, in a theoretical and practical way due to the lectures and the project.”

About the applicability of the obtained knowledge in other domains:

“ICT4D shows the importance to some other factors, such as sustainability. Thinking about and modelling the costs and value stakeholders bring to the system are important to think about in advance. I believe that these skills can be used in various fields, not only that of ICT4D. Doing research in the context of an application that is going to be developed and modelling how it would work, shows it value. This may bring some things to light that would beforehand change how the project was originally designed. Also involving the stakeholders that are involved with using the system when it is developed, can be useful to increase chances of success. In conclusion, the ICT4D field brings some interesting perspectives to the table that can be used in multiple other fields as well. Showing the importance of gaining insights in the context where the application is going to be used.”

The uniqueness of the ICT4D course in the curriculum is often mentioned e.g:

“Looking at the curriculum of the Master program, ICT4D is a relatively standalone course. Emphasis is shifted away from aspects that computer science usually focuses on, such as programming. On the contrary, we had some insight on the value that computer science can bring to people. This unique perspective was briefly touched during Bachelor courses on human-computer interaction or history of computer science, but now my understanding of those aspects has greatly deepened. ”

“After two months with this course I have gotten a new perspective on developing for the developing world. With other projects I have worked on the limiting factor was always either time, resources and my own capabilities, but when working on ICT4D, many other external factors limit what you can do. I found it to be quite refreshing, as it made for a different approach to a project; not looking at an ideal scenario, but more like the worst case scenario. Developing using low-cost, small form factor hardware, assuming for no internet connection and no literacy among users was definitely a first for me. It was interesting to see how other groups managed to think of creative solutions using the same limitations. Another plus for me was that because of said limitations, it was easier for me to imagine our prototype being adopted in the field, whereas for other courses our solutions were usually very rudimentary or basic, and far from anything that would ever be published. This course felt very close to ‘the field’, also because our prototypes were actually taken to Mali and discussed there, which made me feel like there was more at stake in this project than simply another grade.”

another aspect:

“First of all, I have never heard about this course in the past. So, most of the things that I have learned during the course was new to me. Obviously, I knew that there is a big difference between developed and developing countries. Most of the time, when I think about developing countries, then the first thing that comes up to my mind are general things such as poverty, criminality, uneducated, flood and corruption. Those were the impressions that I got from when I was living in Indonesia, as it belongs to one of the developing countries. What I mean is that I have not thought about the idea of combining developing countries issues with modern technology, as I am fully aware of the rapid development of technology nowadays. When I think about it at this moment, it is actually a very brilliant idea…”

The aspect of looking beyond the borders of your own context:

“The ICT4D course was a unique learning experience that has brought a new perspective to the use of ICT, especially in the context of developing regions, which is an entirely new experience since all the other courses I have followed thus far during my Masters degree in computer science, as well as during my Bachelors degree, have been more or less entirely focused on the use of ICT in the Western world. The project has been a very effective and engaging learning experience that has given a deeper understanding of the research methods and challenges in ICT4D. Receiving actual feedback from Mali made the project extra motivational and engaging.”

“ICT4D is a very useful course which is able to connect to future work inside and outside the international development context. In the field of international development, a lot of  projects and use cases which from W4RA can be further applied. The content described different situation and different model in detail, which is useful and could be an important reference for further development project design. One of the most important thing I learned from this course is to build the business model, from this kind of model the projects can service people from rural area longer time. With the help of international development context, such as global literacy rates, we successfully build our MaliSeeds service. Besides, after accomplishing our MaliSeeds service, I got familiar with the procedure of designing and coding work in future development context. And the useful knowledge and meaningful experiences can be applied to other fields such as designing entrepreneurship plan with the help of business model, designing other kind of backend application via Django and deploying applications to internet. All the experiences from ICT4D course impressive and valuable experiences for me. And I sincerely thank to all teachers of this amazing course!”

“I really enjoyed the guest lectures and demonstrations of deployed applications that people use in Ghana or Mali which showcased the impact that can be made with a few willing people. Of course the day of the Symposium could not miss from my list of favourites. It was great that we had the opportunity as a team to create a poster and demonstrate our work while we were able to observe how other teams approached different problems and the ideas that they came up in order to provide a solution. To conclude, I really enjoyed my journey through the course. There is a lot of potential and advancements to be made in service development for such areas. As we progressed towards our final prototype I understood that I missed a great chance to attend the course ICT4D in the field. It would be a great experience to be able to speak to a representative sample of individuals who need the application and base the whole system design solely on their feedback, which is something that as a developer in this course had poor knowledge of what is actually going on there. ICT4D needs more people in the field to work towards making the life of those unfortunate people easier and the world that they live in a better place.”

The aspect of learning to actually “do” ICT4D as a practitioner”:

“In a twinkling of an eye, the eight-week course is done. Before the beginning of the course, the concept of ICT4D is ambiguous in my knowledge. During the lectures and lab sessions, the
theoretical and practical knowledge are introduced, so far, I am able to think clearly and deeply about the actual situation in rural areas, which is undoubtedly my best harvest. Moreover, in the past eight weeks, I have not only learned and mastered the theory of ICT4D, but also improved my practical skills.”

“..that is why we tried to make our project as humble as possible. We still went the extra mile, in my opinion, by developing a working front end tool for the AOPP team, but we made sure the use case was simple and duly understood, with simple language, by anybody in less than 20 seconds. It is a collection of agricultural data – it allows aopp to plan next season’s crop and identify knowledge gaps – and it allows the farmer to have clear guidance, should he choose to take it.”

Some points of criticism at the expectation management in the course introduction by another student:

A point of improvement would be to focus more on the creative aspect of the course and not on the technical aspects of the course. This would helped a lot I think to improve the creativity of the course. I think that after the first lecture a lot of people were focussing on how to get everything technically work which limits the creative ideas, because you do not want to make a really cool and creative idea, but you cannot implement it. At the end it was clear that dummy functions are no problem at all at the end, because it is just not achievable to have a good idea, make a totally perfect functioning system without dummy functions without the programming skills, make a poster, essay and a portfolio. This was not clear to us at the start of this course. If the focus was more on the creative aspect rather than the technical aspect at the first lecture than that would really have helped with the start of our idea. After this the assignments started. The textual parts of the assignments were not a problem. There was not much information available according to me about how broad and the important focus points of the assignment, but we had the change to ask this during the lab sessions. A tip would be to have a more clearer description of what is asked and not such a strict page limit. Because according to me this is limiting the creativity as stated before. The essay was interesting to do, because you could decide on your own subject. But it was also a lot of work to do next to the assignments and the portfolio. Overall it is a really nice course. It is really interesting to think and make applications that could be used in real life. “

About the workload of the course”

“Although I think this course was a perfect addition to my master, there are some organisational points I would suggest to do different next year. At first, I think the workload for this 6 ECTS course was a bit too much. Two lectures and one working session was fine with me, although at some points I rather would have had one lecture and two working sessions, but I felt like the assignments, presentations, poster, tutorials, essay and portfolio were a bit too much. I had the feeling that I had to rush some assignments, because we were still busy with the implementation of the technical parts. This gave me the feeling we did not think about the cases with our full imagination, because we were restricted to those technical aspects. I would rather have had 3 assignments with a mockup version or without any technical implementation at all or only assignment 2 and 3 in the KasaDaka, without having to implement and understand how the Voxeo and VXML works.. I hope you will consider my thoughts on the course, but overall I found it a good and interesting course!”