Saturday, February 10, 2007

More International Social Work

I'm sorry to be posting so sporadically. I'm a slug, that's all there is to it.

Here's where we are now along the questioning/figuring it out continuum. A heckuva lot closer to the questioning end of things, that's where. As I've mentioned here before, you have kids being sold into what amounts to a (very short) life of slavery. Let's just stipulate that their parents want something very different for them. And the parents want it badly enough that they will flee rural Indian life and form these bizarre squatter cities, which work, for all practical purposes. People become un-find-able and yet manage to live interesting, full, connected lives. On some level, I should do so well.

And yet.... the vulnerabilities are terrifying. And not just to me, who can be terrified by standing water in the basement. Should there be a disaster, there will be no access to services. And not because disaster responders refuse to serve the unacknowledged. We won't know they're there. And kids grow up with the catch-as-catch can education that the elders in the neighborhood can provide. They aren't paying taxes for anything else, after all. These same elders know that this is not good enough.

So, we started with education. It's measurable. The need is immediate, as opposed to some might-never-happen scenario. And education creates hope for the next generation. As much as I love disaster services, all we do is get things back to their previous state. Which might have been reprehensible. Yet, that's the very definition of disaster services -to return things to their pre-disaster state.

But here's the thing. Somehow the income that the child generated has to be replaced -or the need for it eliminated. And the school has to be accessible. And affordable. So, the idea becomes (and not a new one with us, of course) mobile schools. Bring the schools to the kids. They can still work; school comes to them.

Assume, for the sake of argument, that we'll figure out the details. (Further assume that you have a wild and hopeful imagination.) These mobile schools have to be on the order of tablets and books on a bicycle cart. (I think so, anyway.) What role does technology play in this kind of service delivery?

I'm stunned at how much is required. And none of it (or astoundingly little) will be available to-or needed by- the consumers of the service. What are we educating people for? Jobs? More education? (my personal favorite!) A way out of grinding poverty? The answer to that question determines what the curriculum should be. And who decides that? Who monitors that? Why monitor that at all? It can hardly be worse than what they currently have.

Once you have those answers, you get right away to the "how" bit. What technologies are reasonably available? Should the planning, in fact, work the other way? We have thus-and-such technology available. Let's let that constrain the pedagogical choices.

This is the stuff that keeps me awake at nights. Weird, but true. But it's not hard to see that if teachers (on their bicycles, with their tablets) had access to each other (social networking? cell phones?) they could coordinate, plan, mentor, collaborate. If researchers had access to the teachers, we could find out what works and what doesn't. In the unspeakable luxury of our offices, we could spare the time, in a way the providers just plain can't, to think about what's working and what's not. Technology could speed the results of that process, to the point where it might actually be useful. What a thought.

And of course, education isn't the only thing these children and families need. These biker-teachers are going to notice that. How do we get food to the kids? Do we/should we help people thrive in their rural villages so they don't have to move to these urban squatter communities? Should we muck around with these new urban communities so that they're safer, or will we just end up making things worse?

As with all good questions, one answer generates about a thousand more questions. Too bad there are actual desperate children waiting for us to figure it out. The poor dears.


Lisa :-] said...

It's funny, Andrea. You question like a tru social worker. I wonder if the questions are NOT as huge as you think. Some very basic things have to be provided first, before you can really even think about the technology...

Andrea Rusin said...

Well, that would be true, except for the fact that it's not. The people who pay for the "very basic things" have this odd way of wanting to be sure their money is being spent wisely. Accountability requires that someone be keeping track of things. Monitoring, in turn, requires some level of technology. And there you are. The days of the lady bountiful with a basket over her arm, wandering the neighborhood distributing largesse, are over.

Michael said...

Ah, but is education really measurable in any meaningful way? Sure, we can count the number of butts in classroom seats, but as we can all attest, sitting around in a classroom is no guarantee that education is actually taking place.

But beyond that sort of basic metric, what, really, have we got? Standardized tests don't mean anything (for that matter, neither do fancy pieces of parchment hanging on a library wall), beyond a certain ability to retain information and regurgitate it appropriately--which is the lowest of low standards by which to measure the transformative power of real education.

Andrea Rusin said...

Education the way you mean it probably isn't measurable. But I reserve the right to claim that I know it when I see it ;) But we're talking pretty basic literacy and numeracy in fairly small populations, and that's easier to measure.


Michael said...

Ultimately, I think that Justice Stewart-esque, "I know it when I see it" standard is the only one we've got. I remember having a conversation with the director of institutional research awhile back, not long after the HLC came for our most recent accreditation process. They made it abundantly clear to us that assessment was the latest buzzword, and would feature very prominently in all future accreditation reviews.

And that's when Dan and I got into this lengthy conversation about just how stupid the idea is that we can quantify education. He's seriously being asked to come up with rubrics to measure the difference, say, between someone with a bachelor's degree in teaching reading, and someone with a master's degree. How in the name of all that's holy does one measure stuff like that?

Oh, and by the by, you're missing some truly lovely weather hereabouts. The blizzard is further south, but it's still blowing like crazy. The university cancelled all its evening classes tonight, and so did my history professor (who was smart enough not to make the drive out from Chicago even though daytime classes were technically still on). Would've been irrelevant to me anyway, as I've gotten the flu--and I probably wouldn't have braved the roads, either, considering the terrible shape they were in yesterday afternoon when we hadn't even gotten three to five inches of new snow yet.