Community Information Systems

An Educational Model for Engaged Civil Society Exploration and Development

Randy Groves
randy@scn.org
The Evergreen State College

Doug Schuler
douglas@scn.org
The Evergreen State College
Public Sphere Project
(of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility)

Presented at II Global Congress of Citizen Networks, Buenos Aires, December 2001

1. Introduction

In this paper, we present our recent work with the "Community Information Systems" (CIS) program that we convened at The Evergreen State College. Although we hope that educators and students adopt some of our ideas we are especially interested in discussion, possible future collaborations (including the development of international advocacy networks) and the exploration of other innovative ideas.

We recently completed Community Information Systems (CIS), a highly successful, three-quarter (nine month) half-time program at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, US. The Evergreen State College is a non-traditional four-year liberal arts college committed to interdisciplinary teaching and learning. Evergreen programs are multidisciplinary courses, typically taught by a team of two or more faculty, which use seminars and other group oriented work to promote active learning that is grounded in the real world. Students are expected to be active participants in the learning process and are evaluated with narrative evaluations. Students design their own academic path, which may include internships with real-world communities.

2. Philosophy and Motivation

Engaging students in active explorations of how communication and information technology can be used to further civic and community-oriented objectives is a key issue that educators need to address. At the same time we as computer professionals are interested in teaching -- and are expected to be teaching -- computer science and the systematic development of software. Since part of Evergreen's educational credo is integrating theory and practice, marrying software development and the study of the relationship between ICT and society, appeared to be a very reasonable approach. For that reason the major focus of the CIS program was to integrate the learning of software development in a broad, non-trivial social, "real-world" context. Student teams of 3 to 6 students worked together to develop web-based software that helps advance community goals for communities all over the world. The mechanics of this process are discussed in section three.

The learning objectives in the program were:

The educational topics included:

These topics were explored through readings, regular seminars, workshops, guest speakers, and lectures.

3. Implementation

Based upon our experience with the one-quarter Civic and Community Networks (CCN) program that we convened in spring 2000, we decided on several aspects of the class at the outset:

In the summer preceding the CIS program, we sent out a series of e-mail notes to individuals, to two selected mail lists and to some of the groups with which we had worked in the CCN program in the previous quarter. The notes described CIS and solicited responses from interested parties We were looking for community or other civic groups who would be interested in collaborating with our student teams over the course of the year to create a web-based application that would address some problem for the group.

We received over 50 responses. In order to determine the depth of interest, we designed a web site (http://www.scn.org/edu/tesc-ds/2000-2001/misc/partners-survey.html) and requested from each of the respondents a more formal proposal. In addition to information about the proposed project and contact people we also were interested in what their general philosophical objectives might be, and which "core values" their project might address. We received 39 proposals through our proposal web site. Over the subsequent few weeks, communications with the prospective partners resulted in our selection of 21 candidates to present to the students in the beginning of fall quarter. Some of the criteria that we used for our selection were:

We assembled the proposal information and the collected correspondence into packets for our students and presented each project to them in turn at one of the first meetings of the program. We then let the students form their teams. Out of the 21 prospective partner groups, 12 project teams were created.

Four of the twelve communities were geographically-based in the United States:

Three others were based in the United States with less specific geographic focus:

Five communities were outside the U.S.

Once the teams were formed, we were into the main thread of the program. Throughout the year, we followed three general tracks. The first track was the instruction in the tools with which the student teams were to create their projects and instruction in systematic software development. The second track generally consisted of project work. The third track dealt with the theoretical rationale for the program - this consisted of seminars in which we discussed various readings. Readings over the year consisted of many papers from the proceedings of the "Shaping the Network Society: The Future of the Public Space in Cyberspace" CPSR symposium as well as numerous other articles on privacy, security, social capital, and activism found in print and on the web (see References).

During the first quarter, the teams introduced themselves to their partner groups, and began the process of project definition, refining the original proposals into a preliminary plan for the rest of the year. The second quarter saw the creation of the database and interface design, and creation of supporting utility programs. During the third quarter, the teams completed their projects and delivered the completed projects to their partners.

Recently, approximately three months after the end of the program, we sent out a survey to the partners, requesting them to help us evaluate the program from the community partners' point-of-view. The results from this are not all in but at least 10 of the 12 projects were impressed with the program.

4. Evaluation

The concept of this program was untried and somewhat experimental. We covered a lot of intellectual territory and we had a wide diversity of ability, experience and temperament among our students. As far as we know, other than our CCN class the previous quarter, this type of class had not been offered before, so there is little with which to compare when it comes to evaluating the class success. One measure of success is how the class performed against the learning objectives.

Understand the theory and social issues
Results here are anecdotal and subjective. Since we did not specifically test the students, we have to look at the tenor of and level of participation in seminars, and the comments of students at the close of the program. The level of participation in seminars was universally high, with spirited discussion of the topics. At the end of the year, we received many positive comments in their self evaluations about the topics covered and how much they learned. Significantly, many of these were from the students who were more interested in the programming aspects of the class.

Work effectively in groups and with communities and other cultures on projects
Each of us took responsibility for half of the groups over the year, holding regular meetings to assess progress, and being available to handle issues as they arose. The groups managed their schedules, allocation of work, and organization. We did not issue any specific decrees on how they should manage their group, so the effectiveness of the teams was to a great degree determined by the character and enthusiasm of the individuals in the group. Since most of our students exhibited a high level of interest, energy and dedication, most of the groups were able to work together effectively. Of the 12 projects, 4 experienced significant problems at some time during the year.

Working with the communities and cultures, most of them physically distant, created both frustration and exhilaration. There were several times during the year that, even though we had vetted9 the partners, communications broke down. One project chosen at the beginning of the year had to be abandoned in favor of a replacement because the partner participants were out of their country so much that they rarely returned messages. Most of the other communications problems were solved before they reached a crisis point.

On the other side of the equation, there were many positives that the teams encountered working with remote communities. Exposure to the situations and conditions that prevailed in these communities sparked many reactions. The team working with the group in Chelyabinsk, Russia learned a great deal about the environment of this place known as the "most polluted place on the planet" and many of the associated political issues, and shared much of this with the rest of the class. One of the students working with the UK LifeMaps group requested and was granted funding from Evergreen to visit the partner group in the UK. The group working with the Nigerian Fantsuam Foundation project arranged the donation of a laptop, which they loaded with their project software. This laptop was later carried by one of the team members on his vacation to the UK, where he turned the laptop over to the Nigerian project member. Similar connections were made by most of the teams with their project partners.

Understand systematic development of software
We used lectures, seminars and workshops to convey these concepts with moderate success. The teams were exposed to many of the aspects of systematic development in their dealings with their project partners. Many real world issues, such as negotiation of project expectations, creation of a realistic statement of work, conflict resolution, and re-adjustment of project goals arose and were dealt with. For the next program, we may consider a revision of the order in which these concepts were introduced.

Become proficient with Perl, HTML, CGI, MySQL, Linux, and the supporting environments
There was a wide range of programming abilities in the CIS class - from absolute beginners to students who had been working as programmers, with the majority of the students towards the beginner end of the spectrum. We were also asking the students to master several different interlocking environments. At the end of the first quarter, it became obvious that a significant restructuring of our tool instruction was required. We changed the structure of the lectures for the rest of the year. We also had the additional resource of some of the more proficient students. Several of them earned additional credits in the course by tutoring some of the other students. By the end of the year, we were pleasantly surprised by the progress all of our students made.

Help with the development of Evergreen's planned Center for Community Partnerships
Two of our additional-credit9 students drafted a proposal for funding for a machine to support the Center. No other work specifically supported the Center. In a follow-on "group contract" sponsored by one of us (Schuler) (and discussed in the "Project Sustainability" section) there are some plans for pursuing this objective.

5. Recommendations

Although we have been pleased with the results of both the CIS and CCN programs, there are areas we will seek to improve for the next class, which is on the Evergreen schedule for the 2002-2003 academic year. The mix of those familiar with programming and those that were not as familiar was by design. There were many students who joined the class because of its high social activist and community oriented content. We definitely would not want to discourage this type of student from attending. We did not have any prerequisites for the CIS program. We may decide to set a bar for the next class, but the bar will be remain relatively low - familiarity with HTML, for example. Whether we do or not may be determined by the choice of programming environment.

The programming development environment was chosen for both its availability and its common use in the real world. However, we think that the language chosen, Perl, may not have been the best choice - especially as a beginning language, and especially combined with our desire to include students with such a varied experience level. The CIS students had the most problem with learning the Perl language and its connection to the web environment. The students had much less problem with HTML and MySQL. Therefore, we will be investigating the possibility of using a different language, one that has a more intuitive connection to web programming (PHP comes to mind).

One aspect of the class that was quite successful, and will probably play a part in any future endeavor, was the contribution of some of the more advanced students, who earned additional credits for assisting other students and creating tools and data gathering methods for the program.

In a program like this, we collected a lot of data. We would definitely like to formalize this process for the next class, both as an aid to ourselves and to preserve the information for both those who might be interested in the results and those who might be attempting a similar program.

We were fortunate in our endeavors to have had and engaged support person. Any similar project should make sure that the demands you will have to make on the computing support structure will be met.

6. Project Sustainability

Somewhere during the quarter we both became aware of various "sustainability" issues. Initially we had conceived of the program as a unique event. Early on we (and Susan Fiksdal our dean) decided to offer CIS every other year. We still noticed additional apparent gaps that the program (even if repeated every year) did not address. The first was that, although we had assumed that the projects would be completed in one year, some of the communities needed -- and wanted -- additional work done. At the same time many students were eager to continue working on the projects they had begun. From an educational point of view we realized that we had just scratched the surface. There is deeper intellectual work to be done in terms of mastering software development processes but, also, in relation to civil society, policy, activism, political economy, and development; i.e. the social context of technology. (In fact we believe that an entire institute or school could probably be devoted to the study and development of "community information systems" and their contexts.)

The fact that "real-world" enterprises don't necessarily lend themselves to precisely delimited projects (in terms of scope and schedule) that fit academic constraints is an inescapable tension of this type of work. For this reason it is critical that expectations be explicated and clarified for all parties concerned. At Evergreen we are exploring ways to address this issue. If CIS were an ongoing program that contained provisions for retaining previous students and admitting new ones while maintaining a high level of educational achievement for all, this tension could be least somewhat alleviated. While this approach could be initiated at Evergreen there are still problems. One of these, previously alluded to, is the challenge of integrating second and third (and, possibly fourth) year CIS students into more-or-less the same educational milieu, where more advanced students were not languishing or dominating. At Evergreen, also, there is an implicit expectation that students should be involved in a number of educational venues; would a multi-year concentration in CIS be at odds with this policy? This continuous offering of CIS which is designed to maximize sustainability and maintenance of ongoing projects would be difficult at Evergreen and very nearly impossible at other institutions, particularly at the undergraduate level.

In order to help sustain the community work (and, of course) to foster responsible software development practices) each student team put together a project notebook that was intended to represent their work over the three quarters in addition to helping to guide and inform any follow-on work. Thus, this notebook contained design documents and other technical work in addition to information related to the social context (including the "campaign") of the community work and lessons learned.

We believe that we have addressed to a partial extent some of the problems related to sustainability with an Evergreen specific approach: the Student Originated Studies (or "group contract") model. Students, mostly from the previous CIS program are currently working, primarily individually and with others students on various CIS topics. One opportunity is to continue working with community partners. Students will also be exploring various application development approaches, planning for the next CIS round, working with Evergreen faculty members Anne Fischel and Lin Nelson and their students in "Local Knowledge: Communities, Media Activism and the Environment" to co-design resources and services, helping with the "Shaping the Network Society" (DIAC-02) symposium as well as many other possible actions.

7. Implications and Possible Directions

The issues related to the deployment of ICT in society have largely relegated to watching commercial development of ICT. Community networkers and other types of community and civic media activists have been assuming a more active stance. Educators, too, have devoted some energy to this (in the U.S. I'd mention Ann Bishop, Joan Durrance, and Ron Eglash among many others). At the same time academic attention has been generally sporadic, inactive, and restricted within departmentalized confines.) We believe that integrating (1) theory and practice; (2) software development and societal "campaigns"; and (3) technical and social orientations is an extremely fruitful way to cultivate the next generation of citizens who have the skills, knowledge and interest in building an effective and equitable ICT infrastructure.

Evergreen's educational philosophy (five foci, interdisciplinary nature) and structure (half and full-time interdisciplinary programs; multi-quarter programs, team teaching, etc.) make it an especially appropriate home for programs of this sort. On the other hand, we believe that our generally positive experiences with CIS suggest that many of the concepts from CIS could -- and should -- be adopted into other educational settings.

Although Evergreen's non-traditional philosophy and structure was more conducive to this type of educational innovation we believe that this program could serve as a model for educational programs in other schools. Beyond this we are interested in exploring how shared resources (our online proposal system and collection of proposals, for example) and/or a network of students, faculty members, and schools, could enter into learning communities that would help support this type of effort.

We are interested in pursuing this individually but we are particularly interested in seeing how other educators have approached this topic and, also, how educators can work more strongly together in the future to help build collaborative networks of information, technology, and people -- students, teachers, and others -- that will further this work. We are happy to share our findings and challenges for the future. We are also very interested in discussing these ideas with others, particularly the possibilities of workshops, an educational consortium, student mobility between appropriate institutions and projects, the development of shared resources, among others. We believe that the role of education in communities, civil society, and communication is an extremely important issue and we welcome an extended and engaged dialogue with educators (and other interested people) from all over the world.

8. Selected Bibliography and Resources

Main CIS web page:
    http://www.scn.org/edu/tesc-ds/2000-2001/fall
Community project proposal:
    http://www.scn.org/edu/tesc-ds/2002-2003/misc/partners-survey.html
Partnership Project page (includes links to proposals):
    http://www.scn.org/edu/tesc-ds/2000-2001/fall/partnership_project.html


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We were pleasantly surprised and pleased that our project was chosen. The team that worked with us have been most dedicated and we wish we knew them better as individuals. However they have obliged us with a photograph of the team which we have proudly displayed in our headquarters at Kafanchan.
Thank you, John

John Dada
Health database & website for an NGO (Fantsuam Foundation) that works with women in rural communities in Nigeria.