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Are You Creating Educational Shovelware in Your ICT4Edu Projects?

By Guest Writer on May 9, 2019

shovelware educational content

Do you remember when discount stores sold CD-ROMs with 1,000 fonts?  Or 1,000 games? Or best of all 1,000 useless software programs?  That’s shovelware: tons of free content heaped blithely into a collection without regard to its quality, usefulness, or organization.

While the Internet might seem to some like an open platform representing all human knowledge, it is the ultimate shovelware: a weird stew of popular culture, life fixes, clickbait, and the occasional flash of brilliance… all wrapped up in the exuberant hubris of self-absorption, commodities, and digital hipsters.

The Internet is like the ubiquitous kitchen junk drawer that harbors rubber bands, chewing gum, random keys, an errant pacifier, expired coupons, and, there.. down at the bottom… a linty tube of lip balm which is precisely what you need at this moment!

You need to bring a strong back and a good rake when confronted with shovelware because there’s a lot of manure to spread if you want to find the useful bits.

How Do You Find High-Quality Content?

When I ask privileged people in the Internet-rich world to identify the valuable things they find on the Internet, most identify resources that reside behind a password, like:

  • Downloadable books and files
  • Online banking
  • Reliable news sources
  • Streaming music and video services
  • Plane ticket and hotel reservations
  • Academic research journals

Nowadays, it’s not just a password that’s needed. You must also have the ability to pay online, which is only a common convenience for a minority of global citizens.

  • Want a legal copy of a Harry Potter book or a recently-published paper? You need to log in and pay.
  • Want to take an engineering course that earns credit that your institution will apply to your degree? Log in and pay.
  • Want a printable chart representing the universe or a new pair of fuzzy pink bunny slippers? Log in and pay.

Open Content Is Not Curated Content

There are high-quality open content resources commonly included in every on-line or off-line educational solution, like:

  • Wikipedia
  • Khan Academy
  • OpenCourseware
  • Gutenberg Project
  • TED Talks.

These terrific resources are the “low hanging fruit” of the shovelware movement.  But no one earns a degree in Wikipedia, or TED, or Khan Academy.  While useful in the aggregate, these resources have limited applicability in the specific:

  • A medical practitioner can only gain so much from a Wikipedia article on Ebola;
  • An artist might gain only one new insight from a TED Talk;
  • A secondary school student might glean a new formula from a Khan Academy video, but still not comprehend the context.

We Need Content Curators

This underscores thousands of years of librarians and educators practicing high-quality curation in solidarity to create true learning pathways:

  • Interacting with their communities for the long-term
  • Responding to their expressed needs
  • Intuiting the gaps in their knowledge
  • Listening for their feedback
  • Developing systems for sorting, searching, and presenting the information in a format that best suits the users’ needs

It’s not enough for today’s educators to instruct their students to “consult the Internet.”

In the old days, students had to be taught to search a card catalog in the quiet of a library.  Nowadays we have to teach them to search while also ignoring circus barkers, targeted ads, sex purveyors, smarmy sales pitches, and a thousand other colorful dancing distractions.

As we have done since the beginning of time, educators need to winnow out the good stuff and guide their students, unmolested, to the most appropriate resources.

ICT4Edu Practitioners Should Invest in Curation

Those of us inside the Internet bubble, who easily augment a few open content sites with many more commercial and proprietary Web sites, can shrug off open resource limitations.  But those whose world is constrained by limited access are simply stuck.

After 20 years of growing the eGranary Education Server, we’ve learned how knowledgeable colleagues and allies in the well-connected world can help by identifying resources and garnering distribution permission to fulfill the broader needs of offline users.

Most importantly, we recruit and train librarians and educators in the target community to serve as information interlocutors who mix-and-match locally-generated resources with others drawn from the larger palette of open source and permitted Web items.

In every case it’s important to recognize that any gaggle of human beings represents a wide variety of inclinations and predispositions.  Prepackaged syllabi and teaching modules are useful for some situations.  Yet serving the wider interests of the individual and community is a daunting task.

  • A surgeon working in a remote area will no doubt appreciate having medical reference and research materials on hand, but she could be just as interested in engineering solutions to her community’s day-to-day technical needs as well as expanding her understanding of world religions.
  • Her children and neighbors will benefit from primary and secondary school materials, while the local officials need access to information on national laws and policies.
  • And then there’s that nerdy nephew who just can’t get enough exposure to ancient Greek history.

Developing a collection is a balancing act that requires considering information seekers both in the abstract as well as the particular.  Sometimes it’s appropriate to shovel on abundant information, yet most times it’s important to consult with the community in solidarity to gain a deep appreciation of their interests and needs.

Is It Shovelware or Solidarity?

Do the numbers of files in the collection please the bean counters or the end users?  Is the quality simply “good enough” for someone far away, or is it such that you would recommend it to your colleagues, family, and friends?

So the next time someone says they have X gigabytes of content, asks them: Is it content curated with care… or is it shovelware?

By Cliff Missen, Director, WiderNet and Clinical Associate Professor, School of Information and Library Science, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

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9 Comments to “Are You Creating Educational Shovelware in Your ICT4Edu Projects?”

  1. Cavin Mugarura says:

    The granary project belongs to a museum, this is a perfect project that show cases world war technology. One needs a shovel to bury it in the everglades hopes no one finds it. And obviously the scare tactics or fear mongers will tell you, use our solution because they are bad people on the internet, the pedophiles are roaming freely. Right off the bat, the pedo s are just 1% of the population, and the internet makes trapping them much easier, if law enforcement is not stuck in granary like technology.

  2. Gigi Gatti says:

    This is an excellent article – the need for content curators! There is so much wealth and at the same time garbage knowledge out there that it’s time to have some reliable “go-to” sites for reliable links and content. Oftentimes, we ICT4Dev practitioners think about how we can curate content so it is meaningful to the receiver – smallholder farmers, microentrepreneurs, people who do not have the luxury of time, data connection and channels. And I would love to see more of these expertise!

    I must say though that I do like ICTWorks – Wayan and team – you are wonderful curators and congratulations for a job always well done. Appreciated!

  3. Edmund Resor says:

    The author makes some good points, but may have not had enough time with teachers in developing countries to hear about problems they face with limited books and other resources. More and more they do have computers and projectors and are desperate for good content from which they can select material to improve their lesson plans.

    We have found that Wikipedia is widely appreciated by teachers who want to assign research projects and develop critical thinking. My first experience was 7th grade girls in the senior class at a primary boarding school in South Sudan. Among any possible, three groups chose to research STDs and the Sister in charge supported them. Fortunately, we had Wikipedia, the Encyclopedia from the U.S. National Library of Medicine, and the Khan Academy medical lectures.

    Who among us would have anticipated the need for all of these resource? I was hoping one group would research Rinderpest to discuss with their dads. I expected many to research their home town, tribe, or language or the history of South Sudan. All of the tribes and but the smallest towns are in Wikipedia. The history of Sudan and South Sudan is better than any book in this well-supplied school or the neighboring secondary school.

    Similarly, teachers can pick content from Khan Academy and the PhET simulations that can be easily used with a projector for an interactive discussion. Interactive discussions are especially valuable in schools without an equipped science lab.

    We have also set up OER2Go.org so schools and teachers can choose high quality modules to the existing materials. Much of this material is on 500 GB drives on our RACHEL-Plus servers, but it can be easily hidden or removed by a local administrator.

    If the standard is curated software that will replace need for teachers to develop lesson plans, we have not found any such software, but that is not our objective, more importantly it is not what good teachers want.

  4. Dan Lubar says:

    RE shovelware and the challenge of curating ICT4Ed content..
    If a curator (aka teacher?) is a key requirement, then native language translation is the next one–and a close 3rd is the curation of a “cultural translation” before or after the native language translation. (Yup.. taking one nation-state’s ICT4Ed content & generalizing its content for another nation state is a tricky “tower of babel” exercise–independent of the source of the pedagogical content)
    This was likely a lesson learned by those who did Inveneo’s design challenge back in 2015..
    (ie: http://www.ictworks.org/join-arm-and-inveneos-micro-data-center-design-challenge-to-win-10000
    http://www.inveneo.org/designchallenge/ )
    Said micro-datacenter challenge was based on using COTS “tech”–plus “shovelware” Ed content.. but w/a likely “significant hands on effort” to do language translation–and it did not have any “cultural transaction” tools to speak of.
    (Side note: Inveneo’s “ICT buyers guide” document also was a “wide view” of the things one might encounter doing what I call “dirt floor” education.. here’s the link: http://www.inveneo.org/2012/01/inveneo-buyers-guide-to-sustainable-ict-infrastructure-in-low-resource-settings/ )
    Said micro-datacenter challenge led to enabling more than just “community knowledge centers”, but also libraries. But again.. the content source vs the target audience still is the challenge–and I would point out that the curator’s role is really two fold.. the face time with students as a teacher (which IMO is inevitable) and the cultivation curation (..or really translation) of the source content.
    Last tag..all of the above assumed NO Internet access too!
    Hey.. if it was easy, everyone would be doing it!

  5. Ralph Malik says:

    This is very vital and obviously the global gap between some government program for the citizens.
    I have a passion in the implementation of projects that have goals that are Solidarity in nature.
    Thank you for publishing this article.
    Ralph M..

  6. Edmund Resor says:

    Sorry for taking up so much air time, but people should know how hard it is for teachers to use educational technology to provide real benefits for students who are completely focused on making it to the next level in education.

    Even when the national exams are in English, teachers must cover an overloaded curriculum to prepare for students for these exams. Teachers understandably resist moving away from “chalk and talk” and the lesson plans that worked last year.

    These pressures and set up time make it almost impossible to schedule personalized, competency-based, digital education such as Khan Academy math. Teachers would benefit from not have to spend time grading quizzes and would have formative feedback for each student, but there is no time in the schedule.

    Some day, someone will do to these national exams what Khan Academy has done to the SAT, MCAT, and other exams. Then students will really benefit. Most educational experts would say this is a terrible retreat to teaching to the test, but their kids are not going to get killed by terrorists at Garissa University because of low scores on the KCSE. Also, Khan Academy a couple of times a week would actually be step forward from continuous “chalk and talk” especially for classes with 60 students.

  7. Cavin Mugarura says:

    Edmund, you have some sound arguments though most are lost in translation, do you mind explaining your points. The terrorist example though seems misplaced, maybe you could explain what you are trying to say

    • Edmund Resor says:

      You are correct, it is a bad example because the number of people who die from low scores on the KCSE (the Kenyan SAT) is not a lot in the big scheme of things. I was trying to dramatize the pressure so many students are under in Africa.

      A bad, but sadly true example. One case was documented by the NY Times:
      See link above.

      BEGIN EXCERPT______
      Garissa University College, in a thorny frontier town near the Somali border, drew students from the entire country. The 800 or so studying at the university were assigned there by a national board.

      Ms. Githakwa’s family revealed at her funeral on Friday that she had actually tried to transfer to a different school because of security fears. But in the words of an uncle, the national board’s decision was “very difficult to unlock.”

      She had abruptly come home at least once, not during a vacation, to her farm in central Kenya because of terrorism warnings. The town of Garissa had been hit several times before this attack.
      END OF EXCERPT_____

  8. Cavin Mugarura says:

    I doubt you read what you type – “because the number of people who die from low scores on the KCSE” does this make any sense, maybe you type in kiswahili it might be easier to express your points better