ICTs and the spread of indigenous knowledge

At first glance, the relationship between indigenous knowledge and the Internet seems fraught. Indigenous knowledge provides a distinct set of beliefs, practices and representations avidly tied to place; the internet lauds itself for erasing boundaries and borders.

On one hand, the traditions encapsulated in indigenous knowledge are culturally unique, using local understanding to solve local problems. This makes it an important component in the fields of ecology, education, agriculture and health security. On the other hand, the internet is lauded for spreading information to help people, but it is also a bazaar, tilted towards large corporations and the economies of scale: Amazon.com, Google, Microsoft, PayPal. Indigenous knowledge has certain spiritual and ceremonial components; the internet is largely agnostic, and makes a good deal of money peddling pornography.

For all their perceived differences, the indigenous knowledge and global knowledge systems have become much closer in the past decade. Indigenous knowledge practitioners have begun leveraging different media to exchange ideas and publicize traditional learning to the larger world.

A researcher in Ethiopia argues Internet and Communication Technologies, called ICTs, can be used as cheap methods to capture, store and disseminate various forms of indigenous knowledge for future generations.

ICTs also increase access to indigenous knowledge systems, especially to schools, where this learning can be incorporated into classrooms.

Moving into education systems

As stated above, ICTs provide a perfect example for integrating indigenous knowledge into both formal and informal education systems. Technology could facilitate disseminating ideas about local cultures to students and provide schools the possibility to teach some curriculum in a local language.

Before we get into specific examples, let’s follow this debate with two bloggers on the importance of making students aware of different knowledge systems. For one, does increasing access to traditional knowledge give it more credibility in the eyes’ of students?

Perhaps. George Sefa Dei, at The Freire Project blog, argues that in both development and education issues, scholars and practitioners need to find a balance between tradition and modernity.

Students have often queried why and how is it that certain knowledges count more so than other ways of knowing. There is a realization on the part of learners that knowledge is operationalized differently given local histories, environments and contexts. Unfortunately, the processes of validating knowledges fail to take into account this multiplicity of knowings that can together comprehensive speak to the diversity of the histories of ideas and events that have shaped and continue to shape human growth and development. In questioning the hierarchy of knowledges learners also allude to the problematic position of neutral, apolitical knowledge. It is important then in our teaching of Africa we lay bare and grasp the processes through which for example, Western science knowledge positions itself as neutral, universal and non-hegemonic ways of knowing, and furthermore seeks to invalidate and devalue other ways of knowing.

This sounds good in theory. How well does it work in practice?

Passionate Pedagogue, in a comment to the above post, illustrates a major hurdle.

I spend hours combing the Internet looking for sites about the peoples I teach in my history classes written by the peoples I teach. Oftentimes the sites I locate are too complicated or tacit for students to understand. Other times, the sites (rightfully so) are so culturally-specific that a teenager with no cultural capital about the area or peoples involved cannot possibly understand them. This leaves little actual “indigenous” information that is accessible to students.

I trust that during my career as a teacher critical pedagogues will work to create student-centered access to indigenous knowledge. My hope is that the information that we gleam from the invaluable contributions of indigenous peoples does not become relegated to university sociology textbooks or primers in critical pedagogy. While it is of course wonderful for graduate students and academics to take the lessons that Native Peoples the world over have to offer to heart, perhaps we should be weary of becoming Napoleon’s in our own right; publishing surveys of Native history by Natives that only serve the higher echelons of academia.

Where there are no sources

When finding source material becomes too difficult, some teachers have decided to make their own. Here are two examples of projects where technology can be a boon for students learning about different cultures. The first comes from Australia, from Scot Aldred, who writes the blog e-learning.

Specifically, I'm interested in developing a WIKI section devoted to indigenous Australians; their diverse culture, history, language and their land. While there is some publicly available information in hard copy publications, it is not substantial and does not detail all of Australian indigenous nations and their people. Online the situation is much worse with very little accurate information available.
Just imagine if all of Australia's school students had an opportunity to contribute to a public WIKI with information about the indigenous people native to their geographical area. Much of Australia's indigenous history is passed down by an oral tradition of story telling. The old people, the elders and some historians have information that could be shared with all Australians and the world.

… What about having a shared Webspace available to all of Australia's schools (public and private) where schools would submit a list of eligible persons who could create content and collaborate. Additional roles/permissions for moderators who would again be nominated by the schools.

A comment from Ginga, who is from the American state of Alaska.

Your ideas on collecting indigenous knowledge, and sharing it with the world in a collaborative environment (wikis and more) run parallel to several projects happening in the Bering Strait School District in northern Alaska.

Our staff and students are creating wiki-dictionaries in Inupiaq, and Siberian Yupik to document the native languages in our area. Students post a sound file, local image, and other information they have collected. We're also trying to develop other projects that have flexible formats for student sharing and collaboration on our wiki.

The tower of Chinglish?

At least one expert argues that with all the promise of ICTs, many traditional organizations feel they get lost in the “overload” of the Internet. Their websites lag in search engine relevance and (sometimes) lack a polished feel.

One problem is language. It is hard for a website written in say, Greenlandic (spoken in Greenland) or Cha'palaa, a language from Ecuador, or Bisaya, from the Philippines, to compete for page views with websites written in Spanish, Hindi, Chinese, Japanese or Arabic. Translating pages is often difficult and time consuming.

However, ICTs have the potential to expand a language’s reach. Perhaps it is through online classes or through tutorials or small applications for phones and computers. This is especially important because of the sometimes-frail environment indigenous languages now live.

Here is a good discussion of the issues surrounding language and technology from Heather, who lives in the US and blogs at flex your info. She brings up the fact that technology may provide a good means to communicate for members of her tribe living in distant places. However, “[t]echnology can be put to even better uses: cultural revitalization and preservation.” This does come with its own share of issues.

Native languages have long been endangered by a combination of urbanization and modernization, as well as past governmental policies of removal, relocation, and termination of native populations.

Today’s technology is such that you can easily record information and make long-distance contact with others, so it seems as if it should be easy to record, preserve, and make available native language information. However, there are a number of other concerns which must be balanced with the urge to preserve language through recordings, primarily issues around ownership and access. Language is closely tied to culture; even if tribal members don’t use their language day-to-day, they probably use in their ceremonies. Language and ceremonies may only be shared with certain people: sometimes with all members of the tribe, other times with only a select few. There may be people who are protectors of knowledge, language or otherwise. It’s important to make sure that programs created to record and preserve languages are sensitive to these issues.

Another issue to be considered is misappropriation or exploitation of this information. Indeed, some tribal elders have chosen to not share their knowledge with non-tribal members; by recording it, the chance that an outsider will access the information increases. Not recording such information allows tribal members to retain control over their cultural information. Another way to maintain control is to closely involve tribal members and elders in the design and creation of preservation programs. As more Natives become involved in the work to preserve their languages, they inform the protocols and practices used to collect and make available information. Whether a tribe decides to record and preserve language or to continue to share it only with tribal members orally, their positions must be respected.

Language learning on the telephone

With this in mind, she announces a new application for a mobile phone system that will teach the language of the Cherokee Nation, originally from the southeastern part of the United States but in the 1830s forcibly removed by the US government to the center of the country.

…The application includes flashcards, recordings, and games for language learning, and there is also a version for the Nintendo DS. The idea of using popular technology to help preserve and revitalize languages is exciting, because it makes language information available to all tribal members, not just those who live near tribal lands, and in a way that can be easily integrated into their lives.

…The use of technology, such as the Cherokee language iPhone application, can help dispersed tribal members to learn their tribe’s language. Software can be used to create multimedia teaching materials for lessons, while web conferencing technology can be used for teaching and for oral practice with other speakers. However, such programs must be sensitive to the issues of control and access by closely involving tribal members and elders, and respecting their wishes.


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