During recent discussions with two high-profile social benefit organizations, I was struck by the narrowness of their strategic framework. Their focus was almost exclusively on delivering information to people in developing nations. Yes, much of the information delivered may be useful, but their theory of change misses a vital element: listening to their “users” about how useful they find the information that has been delivered. It is classic, top down, one-way delivery, moving information in one direction from “sources” to “users.”
I believe that model is fundamentally flawed. It is a “faith-based” model that fails to gather and use evidence concerning the value of the information delivered. It fails to understand who benefits, in what ways, and who does not.
This model is familiar. Publishing has historically been a delivery system. Once published, traditional information systems have not benefited from built-in, improvement-oriented feedback. Reviews by experts, sales, and subsequent actions taken on the basis of the publication are not integrated with continuous improvement in the accuracy and usefulness of the information. They are, at best, weak indicators of value.
Hierarchical delivery of information remains the dominant model for education, especially in developing nations. Typically, teachers and books deliver information. Students absorb some of it. They may find some of it useful. However educators have long known that their approaches have not been sufficient to overcome the barriers to learning. Despite the fact that they and their students were doing their best, under their circumstances, too many learned too little. But they saw no better way.
Now we have a better way. We no longer need limit education to delivery systems. The power of the Internet makes it possible, and cost effective, to convert our information delivery systems into two way “conversations” between the sources of knowledge and their users. We can now learn what works for some and does not work for others. We can learn that some things work for nobody and others work for virtually everyone. And it is not that difficult.
OLE’s Basic e-Learning Library (BeLL) system includes such exchange of information between providers and users. It encourages the BeLL members to rate and comment on the resources they use. Working on the Internet, or asynchronously off the Internet, this information is linked to their profile and sent, from their community library to a national center where it can be analyzed by gender, age, role, and location. High rated resources can be featured on home pages; low-rated resources can be sent back to their sources for improvement. The comments from different types of users can inform the content creators about the members’ concerns and suggestions for improvement.
So, together, let us rethink the role of information in society. It is time to move beyond one-way delivery systems. Let us reconfigure our information systems to promote collaborative conversations, listening to, and debating with, our clients about what is needed and what works.