February 2004

Mapping the neighbourhood:An alternate learning experience

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The major goal of education is the acquisition of basic academic and social skills, which would permit progression to further education, training or employment. Today education is limited to fixed syllabus, rigid timetables and permanent classroom exercises. The instructor instructs and the student passively listens. Where as most children have a fresh and magic ways of seeing the world, the present formal education system provides no scope for the students to express their creative self or vent their imaginative spirit. Students are simply passive recipients of handed down knowledge with absolutely no participation in knowledge creation. Again educational outcomes, measured solely by the performance of students in tests, have quite often remained the same. While many schools specify high performance goals for all students, unfortunately, measured performance often falls short of expectations.

A characteristic of the present education system is that it has very little public involvement or support. The present system provides no scope for the community to support and be involved in the education process or address issues of common interest. There is very little interaction or dialogue between the schools and the community at large. As a result, school goals rarely interpret into the educational goals of the community. Academic skills learned in schools are not able to meet the community needs.

Education should help citizens feel more connected to their community, particularly to their school. Knowledge gained through education should foster in each individual a stronger sense of responsibility and increase awareness in each individual of the world around her/him. Education should not only improve attitudes toward learning and improve basic academic skills but also encourage the development of better, more productive social skills; so as to improve communication with peers and adults.

Hence, a productive ongoing relationship is required between the community and the schools, which will not only strengthen the communities but also benefit policymakers, educators, and the general public who seek to improve the education system.

Educational technology
Educational technology is widely recognized as an essential part of education in the 21st century. Technology plays a key role in helping student achieve higher quality education in order to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing world. Today technology is being used as a tool to level the educational playing field.

Blaise Pascal, philosopher and mathematician said, “Words differently arranged have different meanings, and meanings differently arranged have a different effect.” This expression today stands true for technology. Technologies differently used have diverse effects. With so many technologies to choose from, it is the usage, which makes a difference. The way a technology is put to use gives it a new dimension, and unique perspective. And therefore, technology is not only technology but has more importantly become a 'tool'-specifically those concerning with information and communication i.e. 'ICT'.

In India, computers have entered the classrooms. The impact of computers is getting more and more noticed especially in smaller and remote parts of India. However the use of computer in most of the schools is still limited to the fixed syllabus and rigid timelines. Again, there is an overwhelming digital gap in the education segment. The urban schools have adopted newer paraphernalia like the Internet but, the rural schools have just been introduced to computers. 


Students learning to use PDA and GPS


 

Except the lone community kiosk in rural India, there are very few instances of knowledge dissemination through IT. Knowledge creation by the community through IT is still a dream. However all is not lost. There is a great potential and the 'ICT have-nots' can transform into 'ICT-haves', where the community with school children as the torchbearers can change from passive helpless recipients to active information and knowledge creators. Use of ICT for education can not only increase the students fluency with technology but also give them new roles to in information process, hence providing leadership for the community.

Community mapping
Mapping helps in relating to the territories and terrain, the spaces and places of our lives. Maps have immense spatial power as they reflect the culture and links personal knowledge to community learning and planning. Community mapping has been used as a tool for community learning and planning for sustainability. The approach is community centric and the emphasis is on community driven knowledge production as the essence of sustainable development. In fact, community mapping has today become a central part of the emerging paradigm of participatory learning, community empowerment and sustainable planning.



Villagers participating in mapping



Community mapping initially helps to identify the different spaces used and occupied by the community, and then provides a visual representation of those spaces (a most effective way of communicating/interpreting those spaces to/for the others) and in the process links information to place. Thus, understanding what is happening in the communities (through the community maps) can help in decision making and consensus building which can translate into policy design for community development.

Mapping the Neighbourhood: A case study in Almora
One such community mapping initiative involving school children is a project called 'Mapping the Neighbourhood', sponsored by the Department of Science and Technology, Government of India. The Hawalbag development block has been selected within the Almora district of Uttaranchal state for the implementation of the project. The project has attempted to facilitate community learning through neighbourhood maps that are grounded in ecological and social narrative with school children as the spearhead of knowledge creation.

The project has aimed at bringing high-end technology to the rudimentary level of the village community. School children from rural and urban areas have been initiated to use indigenously developed geographic information systems (GIS) software running on a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) coupled with Global Positioning System (GPS).

The project has excited the students in scientific and technological innovations. They have become channels for the dissemination of scientific and technological knowledge. The focus is not just technology but also its innovative use for mapping the neighbourhood and its resources. This would build their professional capacity. The maps prepared through community-friendly-technology by the school children can then be fed into the ongoing planning and development process.

The students learn by doing and since the process is a not a part of the general classroom exercise, they learn to contribute in an innovative manner. Thus knowledge gained through 'doing' and practical experience is not only more exciting and memorable but also more valuable with long-term impact. Through this practical experience of creating maps of their neighbourhood, students would not only experience learning in a different environment but would also contribute positively to the community by generating database for the community which can be used for developmental purposes. They learn about the relationship between the community and the environment and also learn to conserve resources and improve the quality of life.



The process of Neighbourhood Mapping being followed in Almora


 


This neighbourhood mapping process not only involves generating community maps but also involves deliberative discussions as a framework for solving problems. With enhanced awareness about the community, the students are provided a ground where they can

  • understand the complexities of issues their community faces;
  • openly share their diverse perspectives and concerns; and
  • identify solutions to problems

Discussion forums are an integral part of neighbourhood mapping. The students discuss, from their personal experiences, issues that concern their locality and community. They proceed to examine multiple views and perspectives. In the end they understand the complexities of the issue and come to an informed opinion. Rather than responding to presentations or proposals by experts and advocates, the students exchange ideas on issues of common concern.

In the same way, ordinary citizen from all sections of the community has been involved in open discussions about an issue of importance to them. After the conclusion of the discussion or study, results can be shared with the community, and action ideas may be considered and developed in an “action forum.” The results of the forums can then be shared with local leaders. In addition, community members who have attended a forum may often decide to continue to work together to try to solve problems in their community. Thus neighbourhood maps created by the students with community assistance can help the community to make informed decisions about the best policies and most appropriate programs for the areas.

Experiences
The students of most of the government schools in rural areas were found non-responsive and hesitant in the beginning of the project. However as the project proceeded and technology was introduced, the students became very inquisitive and excited. Most of the rural students involved in our project knew very little about the computers. Urban school students were more open and had in fact far more knowledge about the computers than their rural counterparts. The best part of it all was that they were all ready to learn. This was enough for us to start and introduce the new technology.

The students, who were exposed to new technologies, which they had neither heard nor used before, received the exercise enthusiastically. They were thrilled to see their own school and its surroundings on maps in a computer. The use of ICT brought a new facet in the learning process.

Conclusion
The use of ICT as an alternate form of education in rural and urban areas has demonstrated that this form of education can have a positive affect on the community at large, leading towards community development. Innovative use of technology can change the way development takes place and ensures that the issues of the general public are addressed. Taking the children as the 'agents of change', this project has tried to evolve an alternate form of education as well as developmental process.

 


 

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