Are You Creating Educational Shovelware in Your ICT4Edu Projects?

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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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