Cell Phones in the South of Africa: Some Images

This is a guest post by Laura Czerniewicz. Laura is the Director of the Centre for Educational Technology (CET) at the University of Capetown in South Africa.

The Centre for Educational Technology (CET) at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, where I work, has existed as a university structure since 2005. Prior to that, development and research work in ICTs in Education was undertaken for five years under the auspices of the Multimedia Education Group (MEG) which existed thanks to a single, very large, US philanthropic grant. We in CET have had several grants from US grant giving organisations, and excellent relations with them over the years. We need supportive funders, they need reliable grant recipients. All good. But in 2004 we hit our first obstacle when our new umbrella grant application – for five projects – included one on the possibilities of using cell phones to support learning in higher education. The other projects, to support participation in an open source community, to incentivise teaching with technology, to use technology for equity and efficiency in higher education – went through first time. But the project officer, first in South Africa and then in the USA, sent back the description of the mobile project repeatedly. They just did not get it. Six years ago, South Africa was way ahead of the USA in terms of cell phone use, and at that time the USA was way behind in the use of texting. Our supportive funders could not understand what we meant. Eventually after the fourth rewrite of this section of the grant proposal (now disproportionately longer, especially when compared to the budget), they asked us to visually represent for them what we imagined.

These are some of the images we sent them.

My point is that there is nothing remarkable now about these images. Not now. (Notice how we had to draw the last one as we did not have such a device available then.) (And yes, they gave us the funding. Because they believed in us.)

This next- and recent- image illustrates beautifully how things have changed.

Infographic from OnlineSchools.org

Yes, we were ahead of the trend, and yes we recognised what was coming early on. But there is an important distinction which I will return to later. Notice how this lovely representation uses the iPhone as the visual representation that the cell phone has arrived. I think that is problematic as the iPhone is the elite manifestation of a particular kind of mobility. What is far more interesting is that ubiquitous relatively low tech phone which is in the hands of so many. What its functionality is, what this widely available device affords, how simple and widespread applications have been exploited in so many ways, planned and unanticipated…now that is fascinating!

The last image for this posting is one I have just used for a presentation I gave on ICT and Higher Education; the talk was called Disruptions and Durability (it is available at http://prezi.com/sjvnqpqzz3vd/ict-in-he-conference-march-10/). The fabulous graphic artist at CET, Stacey Stent, and I had a chat about subverting iconic images, and she followed up a throw-away comment I made about the Sistine Chapel with this….

Image: Stacey Stent, CET, UCT

There are several ways of reading this – the obvious Africanising of the images and the relevance of technology to developing contexts in Africa; the questions about knowledge and what is being transferred and whether such transfer methods are still appropriate; the clouds as symbols; the gender dynamics. What intrigued me is what Stacey chose to give the cherubs- one laptop and two cell phones. And of course, what does this mean? Are they distracted, are they reporting on what is going on? You decide!

There are several ways of reading this – the obvious Africanising of the images and the relevance of technology to developing contexts in Africa; the questions about knowledge and what is being transferred  and whether such transfer methods are still appropriate; the clouds as symbols;  the gender dynamics. What intrigued me is what Stacey chose to give the cherubs- one laptop and two cell phones. And of course, what does this mean? Are they distracted, are they reporting on what is going on?  You decide!
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