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Determining the impacts of an information and communications technology intervention: empowering indigent youths and their community

posted on 16.02.2017 by Walton, Sheelagh Mary
Information and Communications Technology (ICT) is recognised as a critical factor in productivity and growth in the industrial world, leading to improved quality of life. The policy priorities of developing countries such as South Africa, pursuing an agenda of ICT for empowerment and wellbeing, are focused on issues such as infrastructure and access, skills, education and ICT industry development. At a basic foundational community level, these strategies can hamper the building of the necessary capabilities needed to achieve wellbeing and empowerment through effectual participation by small communities and powerless individuals. For indigent communities to benefit from large-scale strategies, simply getting online is not enough; members need direct hands-on exposure to technology, an understanding of the benefits of technology, and assistance with converting these capabilities into useful knowledge, and a life that is meaningful to them. Through the activities of the Community Engagement department at the South African campus of Monash University, tutor-mentored ICT classes were run for schoolchildren from a nearby informal settlement, Zandspruit. The ICT training programme equipped indigent youths with basic computer literacy skills, and (it was hoped) the self-confidence to play the role of vehicles of change by sharing their ICT learning with other members in their community. Underpinning the ICT instruction was the idea that if young people are nurtured and taught in a peer-led educational environment, they may develop the cognitive ability to share their learning and to teach others computer skills, with minimal external intervention. After three years of teaching the children at the Monash campus a review sought to discover the impacts of the ICT intervention at the individual level, and to determine whether sharing and teaching extended to their shanty town, Zandspruit. The study was undertaken at two conceptual levels: (i) the direct impact on the youth, and (ii) the indirect impact on the community. The investigation resulted in two phases. The two phases were not originally intended, but arose as a result of an additional ICT dimension, the installation at Zandspruit of the Digital Doorway, a communal open-air computer kiosk, which was introduced two years after the on-campus study began. The evaluation of learning and literacy took a new direction, requiring a change in research direction. The change allowed for more specific research methods and the creation of more focussed research instruments. The path of the investigation was influenced by the complex emergent mix of specific challenges that arose from working with the particular group of youths. As it eventuated, a moving target had been chosen to analyse, viz., a vibrant community where peoples' values clashed (e.g., need for daily survival versus the long-term benefits of learning), traditions were lost (e.g., respect for traditional generational lineage - based on a rural lifestyle -- was diluted), structures were collapsed (e.g., parentless 'families' decimated by AIDS), regular migration was commonplace (moving from one informal settlement to another), joblessness was the norm (very high unemployment), and modem knowledge and skills were unavailable. Thus the units of analysis, the children and their learning, resided in an environment of uncertainty, danger, risk, contradiction, crime, violence, and suffering on a daily basis. Under these circumstances it may have been ambitious for this project to expect to use these children as intermediaries for empowerment. The study was inspired by the theories of Social Constructivist Learning, Technology Diffusion, and the Capability Approach. It sits in the areas of Development and Community Informatics research, and ICT for Development (ICT4D). The study operationalised the Capability Approach and Diffusion Theory, in the context of a Social Constructive Learning environment. The study challenged the relevance of the three theories, and found that for people who are disempowered and living in extreme poverty, exceptional issues need to be considered before ICT interventions can be expected to achieve clear outcomes. Constant reflection on the relevance of the research process was necessary throughout the project. The Capability Approach proved most helpful. The impacts of the peer-led ICT programme were measured by assessing whether the youths played the role of ICT catalysts and change-agents, and by means of observing the user interactions at the community site where the Digital Doorway was deployed. Numerous challenges, complexities and controversies surfaced as the study progressed, rendering the initial precisely-planned research design ineffectual. The design evolved from participatory community-based action research to a more adaptable and flexible approach. Necessarily the research trajectory evolved as the study progressed. Working with people who are not familiar with any type of research mandate, and who have a low-level of understanding the benefits of ICT, added further challenges for implementation of the design. A combination of both deductive and inductive analysis produced findings which highlighted the individual impacts in three broad areas: technological educational and psychosocial, with a glimmer of impact on the wider community. The findings that emerged from the study add to the discourse ofiCT4D studies by showing that although ICT skills can be meaningfully learned, adding to the ICT capabilities of deprived individuals, the learning can only be successfully converted into useful practice (shared and transferred) if the process of learning is fully mediated- in this case, by the tutor-mentors. Mediation demonstrated the importance of human interaction at the centre of the exchange of knowledge about ICT. The study showed a positive impact of learning on wellbeing. The ICT interventions were beneficial in that they catered to the holistic needs of disadvantaged children and were particularly relevant to some of the needs of the deprived community. The assistance of the tutor-mentors meant that the ICT interventions were appreciated by the Zandspruit youth. There was less evidence of impact on the community. The lack of impact may well relate to a selfish orientation (a perception that knowledge - as a means for escape from poverty should be cherished and personally guarded) as most people's energy was absorbed by the daily struggle to survive. There is a need for different models about ICT4D - the existing models assume a degree of personal self-sufficiency and a sense of agency that are notevident in the Zandspruit context. The emergent conceptual model at the end of the thesis emphasises the need for mediation in order to develop a sense of agency. While there were positive indications, the study was not able to draw definitive conclusions about the impact of the ICT interventions on community empowerment or wellbeing. They remain open to further investigations.


Campus location


Principal supervisor

Graeme Johanson

Additional supervisor 1

Judy Backhouse

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

Clayton School of IT


Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type



Faculty of Information Technology