Categorized | Featured, In My Opinion

Why Distribute Documents in MS Word or OpenOffice for an International Audience?

There are many sophisticated ways to provide interactive content on the web; why would you consider publishing resources in MS Word 2003 or OpenOffice? The answer to this question depends on your intended audience.

I have been working on international development projects in developing countries for 20+ years, primarily in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. Yes, I have noticed the need to provide clean drinking water, to improve sanitary conditions, to provide mosquito nets to prevent malaria (malaria kills more people in some parts of the world than HIV/AIDS), to enable unproductive land to yield food for local use and export, to engage and employ youth, to develop the economy, and so forth. Yet in order to address these needs, one must have access to information and, preferably, access to educational opportunities facilitated by effective educators. Effective teachers need access to information beyond their communities. A great source of current information is presented at conferences and conference websites:

“My interest is education and how we can use the technology to facilitate tourism education in our countries. The more I understand the technologies, the better I am able to make recommendations, develop programmes etc. that can help the institutions to reach the goal of offering both face-to-face and online courses…What conferences would you recommend?”
(Bonita Morgan, Caribbean Tourism Organization)

If you are in a developing country, accessing an interactive online conference site for a long time can be costly and frustrating, especially as the internet bandwidth may be limited. Additionally the electrical power may be unreliable. While delivering a workshop for the National Institute of Open Schooling in New Delhi, India, the electrical power in my hotel went off seven times. Fortunately, the hotel had a back-up diesel generator, so I was not off-line for long, but I still had to re-boot the computer. In Sierra Leone, the power spiked several times within an hour and each time I had to re-boot the computer. I would just get online when the hotel computer would go off-line once again. Imagine this happening while you are viewing an extensive, interactive conference list online. You might also be frustrated, but those in the developing world persevere as the Internet is their window to the world.

At least in the situations I described above electrical power and Internet connections were available. While conducting a study of teacher training via open and distance learning in Botswana in 2008, I noted that 300 of the 700 primary schools in Botswana were not connected to the electrical grid and few schools had Internet access. In Kenya in 2007, 80% of the primary schools and 35% of secondary schools were not connected to the power grid. Thus, teachers were not able to use computers in their schools unless they had access to batteries, wind power, or portable electrical generators. If teachers wanted access to the Internet, they went to an Internet café when they travelled to town for “market day”. But this meant that they had to use their precious income to surf the net. In Sierra Leone in 2010, while working with educators at a teachers’ college, I provided funds from my own pocket so that they could access the Internet. If, for example, you are a public school teacher in The Gambia, you earn about US$75 a month. But, you can spend $3 an hour accessing a very, very slow Internet connection at a local Internet café (or $12-15 an hour at a western hotel that caters to tourists). Consequently, the time you can reasonably afford to be online is limited. Anything that will reduce your online time will be looked upon favourably. Thus, you avoid websites that require you to stay online for long periods of time or websites that require a large amount of bandwidth:

“Even if the infrastructure is somehow present, the operating cost has ensured that [the] internet remains out of reach from the bottom of the pyramid. Poor speed, erratic connection-drops, and pathetic electricity supply has buttressed the cause for no use of the internet even in the areas which are advanced in relative terms.”
(Narayan, 2007, p. 3).

 

An Upper Primary Classroom in Botswana.

 

Since 1998, time permitting, I have produced a list of Educational Technology and Related Education Conferences as a professional courtesy to inform people about the resources and expertise that may lie beyond their regular sphere of operation. If people have limited access to the web, they can save the conference list to their computer or print an MS Word or OpenOffice version of it, scan it for the events that peak their interests, mark only the events that they will seek additional information for, and then go back online. I have seen this being done in Kenya during a tea break. Instead of reading the newspaper, two teachers were looking at my conference list and discussing what event their principal might support. Others cut and paste the list and generate a list for their colleagues – even organizations such as the eLearning Industry Association of Victoria, Australia review the conference list and make a shorten version suitable for their membership. In Australia, Europe, and North America, the ease of access and relatively inexpensive bandwidth make it possible for people to access interactive, high bandwidth conference lists, but this is not possible everywhere. However, copies of MS Word can be found everywhere. On the streets of Lagos, Nigeria and Hanoi, Vietnam, pirated copies sell for $10 (a relatively large amount of money for the locals, but a doable investment). Of course, the actual price depends on your bargaining prowess so you may be able to obtain a copy for $5 or less! MS Word is also being supplied on some versions of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) computers being shipped to Africa and South America, and MS Word and OpenOffice documents can be accessed by smartphones that seem to be more prevalent than computers in some parts of the world, including Africa.

Many in developing nations cannot afford the travel, registration, and accommodation fees involved in attending the events presented in the conference list; but they can access the conference website during and after the conference. Many conference organizers post abstracts, full papers, and/or audios/videos of conference presentations. (Several educators may pool their financial resources and sit around a computer screen to watch a video.) Thus, educators can visit the conference virtually and may encounter information and contacts that would be useful in their work. Just by looking at the conference list they realize that there is a world beyond their doorstep. For those educators who live in countries, such as Zimbabwe, where professional development opportunities are scarce and the libraries may only contain donated books that are 25-40 years old, conference websites are a starting point as educators search for new teaching methods, management techniques, and learning resources.

Recently, I received this message from one of my readers of the conference list:

“Thank you very much for your usual selflessness in sharing information of this nature. It’s up to an individual to make use of this valuable resource”.

Use of these resources will provide an individual with opportunities to diversify one’s skills and knowledge without having to pay for them expensively. The beauty is an individual chooses when, what and where. It’s indeed a flexible way of learning and they can continue to do so for as long as desirable, i.e., life-long learning.

I must admit I have become knowledgeable about issues in education, particularly in open and distance learning, through exploring Internet sites and conferences you constantly bring to my attention.”
(Bethel Masauli, Malawi College of Distance Education)

It should be noted that an MS Word version of the list is also helpful for those in developed countries. I received this message from an individual who works for a police force in Canada.

“I saw your list on Tony’s (Karrer) site – I’m a ‘learning designer’. We’re in a pretty locked-down computer environment where only a select few have access to the Internet, and especially social networking/blogging-type sites….so in the interest of sharing with my colleagues, I thought your Word version [of the conference list] would be good. I could have saved the HTML version from Tony’s blog, but then I’d have to edit, clean it up, etc. and hey, since you already had done that :)…We can also cut and paste and make up our own list in Word.”

So, for the foreseeable future, I will continue to distribute the educational technology conference list in MS Word 2003 and Open Office, and let others such as Stephen Downes, Avi Hyman, and Seb Schmoller distribute the list in a form that suits them. But, the simplest method may be best for the audience that needs access to resources the most – those educators in developing and emerging nations who want to be effective teachers and yearn to embrace new ideas and practices.

While assembling the Educational Technology and Related Education Conference list, I have seen thousands of conference websites. Thus, I would like to pass on the suggestions below to conference organizers.

  • Help viewers of your conference website by placing the title, date, and location of the event in a prominent place on the first web page of your conference site. Throughout the world, different standards are used to represent dates. For example, does 06/07/11 represent June 7, 2011, July 6, 2011, or November 7, 2006? Avoid confusion by spelling out the month and indicating the year in four digits.
  • Provide an explanation of all abbreviations used, including the name of your organization or association. People want to know who is organizing or sponsoring the conference so that they can decide whether the conference is aimed at them. Conference organizers often make the assumption that everyone knows the meaning of the acronym for their organization. But if you are not a member of the organization, what does the acronym mean? Not all organizations provide an explanation of their acronym – not even on their home page!
  • Indicate the country in which your event will be held. We live in a global village and should not assume that the viewers of your web page only live in your community and know where your college, university, or resort is located. Believe it or not, there is more than one city called “Paris” in the world. Did you know that there is a Moscow in Idaho and another one in New York State in the USA and an Athens in Greece, Ohio, and Georgia in the USA that all offer conferences? Consider providing a link to Google Maps.
  • Remember, not everyone has high-speed broadband access, thus it can take time and be costly for some to view videos and sophisticated or high-resolution graphics on the opening page of the conference website. Perhaps you could make these features optional.
  • Include an e-mail contact address. I am still amazed as to how many conference websites do not provide a way for the organizers to be contacted – some provide a street address, others a phone number and others, no contact information of any kind. Perhaps, the organizers fear that they will be inundated with queries. Perhaps they are right, but then they must ensure that all the information a potential conference attendee needs is on the website. If you do provide an e-mail contact address, ensure that someone checks it daily.
  • Balance the number of words on a web page with the number of page turns/clicks required to access information. Too many words on a page or the use of an extremely small font size can present a cluttered and dense appearance that can be difficult to read on a screen. Conversely, too few words can lead to numerous page clicks and can frustrate the viewers.
  • Consider placing information within a frame comprising embedded menus. This format should be used consistently throughout the website as it is very helpful for novice viewers of the website and reduces time spent on navigation (and thus online time). Note, however, that frames can take up a significant portion of a screen and may restrict the creativity of webpage designers.
  • Ensure that there is good contrast between words and backgrounds. I have noticed a trend to use beautiful photographs or video clips to attract attention, but it can be difficult to read the text that overlay the photographs or videos.
  • Direct readers of your site to your next conference or use a consistent URL so only the year of the conference changes in the website address.
  • Pilot test the conference website with individuals who are not working on the conference. This activity can be quite revealing as outsiders can spot items such as spelling mistakes, poor directions, incorrect dates or times, or lack of attention to those with special dietary or physical needs.

I would like to keep the conference list current – I may have missed some significant events. You can assist me by letting me know about conferences that I should be tracking. Thank you for your co-operation.

References

Narayan, G. (2007). Address the digital divide: E-governance and m-governance in a hub and spoke model. The Electronic Journal of Information Systems in Developing Countries, 31(1), 1-14. Retrieved May 30, 2011 from http://www.ejisdc.org/ojs2/index.php/ejisdc/article/view/312

About the author

Clayton R. Wright, PhD has led or worked on educational technology, distance education, instructional design, curriculum development, and teacher training projects for the Association of Canadian Community Colleges, the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, the Commonwealth of Learning, the Commonwealth Secretariat, Southern Africa Development Community, United Nations Children’s Fund, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Clayton R. Wright
crwr77@gmail.com
If you enjoyed reading this article we invite you to join the Association for Learning Technology (ALT) as an individual member, and to encourage your own organisation to join ALT as an organisational or sponsoring member.

2 Responses to “Why Distribute Documents in MS Word or OpenOffice for an International Audience?”

  1. Marko Teräs says:

    To state the same here as I did in my blog: As a person who has been involved in projects also in the Sub-Saharan Africa; I believe you are making a good point here. And thanks again for creating the list!

    • Clayton says:

      Thank you Marko for your comment.
      The simple list facilitates the realization that professional development opportunities are endless. I hope that serendipity takes place – as readers of the list review it, they may find events that may be of interest, but not ones they would actively seek to find. In addition, they may discover a suitable conference for a colleague. Technology affects every aspect of our professional lives. Perhaps this list will help readers to look over their “garden walls” to see what others are doing in different disciplines and in different regions of the world.

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