Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Building your trainers ICT skills | ECDL certificate as an alternative for train of trainer programs

Having qualified trainers is one of the most important elements of e-skills training programs, this is well known, not really rocket science. However, the way that NGOs approach train of trainer (TOT) programs really varies depending on the needs of the target population, the social mission of the organization, the availability of human capital (i.e. trainers willing to improve their skills if necessary), and the resources available to train them.

Some NGOs develop their own TOT programs combining a variety of skills (e-skills, teaching methodology for groups with special needs, cultural sensitivity, etc). Others, use readily available e-skills training programs that lead to official certification, and this is the case of
LIKTA and its NGO partners in Latvia. LIKTA provides resources to its NGO partners for train the trainer programs that require trainers to become ECDL (European Computer Driver LIcense) certified, ensuring not only the quality of the trainers that the partners recruit, but offering also an incentive for them to build ICT skills that are transferable to the broader labor market.

For many trainers, the income they receive for teaching e-skills to underserved populations is an additional income aside to their every day jobs. For others, working with NGOs as trainers is the main and sole source of income they bring home. In either case, improving trainers quality and ability to teach while providing an incentive such an ECDL certificate, which by the way is expensive and out of the reach to many,is definitely a very wise strategy:
  • It is a smart use of NGO resources: time and money | instead of channeling resources to develop the actual ICT skills component of TOT - no need to reinvent the wheel
  • NGOs end up with qualified trainers with transferable skills in the labor market (either currently employed outside the NGO, or building experience for future employment)
NGOs working with a variety of groups (disabled, elderly, etc.) can bring "expert" trainers that help these groups with "specialized" teaching approaches. LIKTA's partner in Ventpils, the Digital Center, provides training for deaf and blind or visually impaired people using this strategy and, as the NGO director reported, they think it is a successful approach.

Some food for thought...

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Field research in Latvia | e-inclusion projects in Preili and Ventspils

On Wednesday and Thursday during our visit to Latvia, we had the opportunity to travel to the southern and western provinces of this country. Since there are many commonalities between the two e-inclusion projects, I decided to write about them jointly and point in separate posts to unique features of the e-skills training programs of these organizations. First, a brief intro to Preili and Ventspils, as we all know locality matters.

On Wednesday, we traveled to Southern Latvia to visit one of LIKTA's partner the Society Preili NGO centre, in a beautiful town called Preili located in the Latgale region. This region was declared one of the poorest in the newly expanded European Union, and similar to what we witnessed in Bialystok, Poland, the lack of opportunities has caused a significant migration of the workforce to Ireland and the UK. The region main economic activity is agriculture and of the most important sources of jobs is a big dairy farm, located at the heart of the city. This region has a strong Russian population

On Thursday, field research took us to Western Latvia to Ventpils, a beautiful port city located in the Kurzeme region and in the only part of the Baltic Sea that doesn't freeze during the winter. The city is also known for its Universities which attract a large population of students from all over the country. We visited the Digital Center of Ventspils. The city's main economic activities revolve around the port, the Universities, a chemical plant, and some small and medium enterprises.

During these two days, we interviewed NGO staff, trainers, and trainees. We visited the training facilities, and another important ICT public access point: libraries

Cultural Note 4 Revisited: On women in Latvia

I must say, this is the first time that I visit a country were women are the center of any possible activity in society. I've heard about women in Latvia been much more active in different economic, social, and every day circles than men... this is an understatement. I've never been surrounded by so many motivated women eager to always improve themselves, find the next thing, and been completely outgoing and outspoken. I must be honest, I loved it!!

I shared with you
before how hard was for me to engage men in conversation while doing the interviews for the research. Well, with women I didn't have that problem and actually the problem became having enough time to capture their experiences and motivation with the e-skills training, enough time to capture their stories. I tried my best.

I asked during my interviews why women seem to be more active than men and more willing to learn new things and a I got a wide range of responses influenced, of course, by people's own stories and personal experiences. However, my interpreter Gatis, a very nice smart men by the way, explained to me that during Soviet times the collectivization of work brought women into spheres that were solely dominated by men (factories, farms, etc).

The Soviets even created an award called The Labor Hero to be granted to all those men and women whose hard work - work as in labor - had made a difference in their communities.The younger generation of women for whom the Soviet occupation is a historical memory are taken this full participation to heart too.

In the centers we visited during our research, almost all the trainees, trainers, and NGO workers were women of all ages. All of those demanding the NGOs to provide more e-skills training programs were women. There is something about labor heroes, I guess.
Once again, the advantage of having good interpreters and local friends for that cultural immersion!

(My thanks to Katya Fedotova for the correction on my note)

Understanding LIKTA's work on e-inclusion | The project Latvia@World

On Tuesday, I had the opportunity to meet with Mara Jacobsone and her team at the LIKTA office in Riga. The Latvian Information and Communications Technology Association (LIKTA) is a professional NGO that encompasses the ICT industry and ICT professionals. Established in 1998, LIKTA works to promote the development of the information society, ICT education and e-skills, and to encourage the growth of the ICT industry. LITKA represents over 80 organizations from the ICT industry, research, and educational institutions.

Of particular relevance for our discussion on e-skills and employability is LIKTA's initiative Latvia@World. The goal of this initiative is to provide opportunities for different undeserved groups to acquire the basic skills needed for using computers and the Internet while strengthening social networks at the local and national level through participation and cooperation. Within this e-inclusion initiative, LIKTA partners with local social organizations in different regions of the country providing them with training materials and train-of-trainer programs to build the e-capacity of these organizations. During this field research, we will have the opportunity to visit LIKTA's social partners and learn more about their work in two locations: Preili, in southern Latvia and Ventspils, a port town in the west side of the country.

Something that is worth mentioning is that LIKTA is an special kind of NGO since through their work the organization is able to reach and bring together three different spheres that affect significantly e-inclusion initiatives: 1) The social organizations or NGOs sphere; 2) The private sector sphere; and 3) The government sphere. Finding ways in which these three spheres intersect is very unique of the work LIKTA does.

The details of these intersections will become more clear in the next pos

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Fighting misperceptions about disabled people in society and in the labor market | key component of employability programs

The active participation of NGOs in promotion campaigns that help society and the labor market change their perceptions about what disabled people can accomplish, may seem as a small step forward towards reaching employability goals, but it is actually a very important one. Similar to what we learned in Poland, for a long time disabled people were not given the same educational and work opportunities because of the misconception of what they can achieve as citizens and in their professional life.

Changing these misconceptions is crucial for opening the much needed doors to the labor market. Through campaigns, awareness workshops, and active participation in policy discussions organizations like Apeirons create a more welcoming and enabling environment for disabled people in the job market. In Latvia there is a wide spread problem of people drinking and driving and becoming disabled because of car crash accidents. The problem is endemic and wide spread and through prevention campaigns organization not only fight prejudice against disabled people but also help prevent one of the main causes for people becoming disabled. I can't underscore enough the importance of comprehensive approaches at all levels. No contribution is small!

These are some of the posters for an awareness campaign that Apeirons organized together with Art Students here in Riga:

Mobility and Independence for Disabled People

Drink, Drive, and Join the Club

More pictures of the poster exhibition are in my flickr

Monday, March 3, 2008

The work of Apeirons | providing e-skills and employability programs for disabled people the Latvian way

On Monday, I had the opportunity to visit Apeirons and learn about the work this organization is doing on the area of e-skills training and employability for disabled people. Although this connection between e-skills and employment is the focus of this research, it is not possible to discuss this connection without understanding the broad range of activities that organizations like Apeirons do to integrate into society people with physical disabilities.

As I mentioned, Apeirons has a range of programs but there are three that are particularly relevant to the area of employability:
  1. The organization provides e-skills training (basic and advanced) in their location here in Riga, but it also reaches smaller cities and rural population through its Mobile Classroom that was donated by HP.
  2. Apeirons is an official certifier for accessibility standards in offices, buildings, etc. The government recently enacted a mandate for all new buildings in the country to be accessible for disabled people and the organization works with architects to certified these accessibility standards. It also works with other NGOs to help them improve and adapt physical spaces to make them accessible.
  3. The organization developed an innovative online data base for people looking for employment where job-seekers and employers have the opportunity to learn about each other. A very interesting component of this data base is the use of video clips of the job seekers where people with disabilities introduce themselves, their interests, and disclose to employers the type of disability they have.

Similar to what we learned with the Foundation Supporting Mathematicians and IT Specialists in Poland, e-inclusion and e-skills programs for disabled people that incorporate employability goals work with an integrated approach that allows the organization to provide needed skills, improve access and work conditions making job spaces more adequate for the needs of disabled people, and connect job-seekers with employers. Once again, an integrated approach is the way to go.

On the road to Riga, Latvia | Visiting Apeirons and LIKTA

Hellooooo Riga!! What an amazingly beautiful city this is. I'd heard many things about it, but the city really exceeded my expectations. I arrived in Riga late on Sunday after 8 hours of bus ride from Bialystok. It was very pleasant for the most part, with the small little detail that the bus driver was running the heat in the bus full power. The temperature inside the bus = 20 C, the temperature when got out of the bus = -5 C - I got a bad bad cold.

My field research in Latvia started on Monday, when I visited Apeirons - an NGO that works with disabled people in many areas, including e-skills training -. But before sharing my notes of all the things I've learned during these two days, I would like to give some brief Latvian context to understand a bit more my learnings so far.

Latvia is a very culturally rich country that gained its independence from Soviet Occupation in 1991. After a decade of painful economic reform the country enjoyed a period of growth that is starting to overheat the economy causing a sky-rocketing inflation, and a significant migration of the Latvian labor force to Ireland and the UK; very similar to the situation in Poland. Unemployment rates vary per region but on average Latvia has between 6% - 8.5% (have in mind that although the rates are artificially low since to some extent is driven by migration of the workforce).

People in Riga are super polite, nice, and the women are all very nicely dressed. My interpreter told me that women in Latvia dress up even to go to the super market. I haven't had the chance to walk much around the city beyond my walks to and from meetings so I haven't experienced much of that cultural immersion I described in a previous post. Something that is becoming really clear, from interviews specially, is that women are much more outgoing and talkative than men. I am a very talkative person myself and during the interviews it was hard for me to get men talking openly without me asking questions 1-5. Women are also more active in the e-skills projects, as trainers, as trainees, as NGO staff... will share later why this is the case

Innovative Partnerships | NGOs, libraries, and e-skills programs

One of the most interesting aspects of the work that the Institute for Responsible Business (RBI) is doing is trying to connect libraries and librarians to e-skills training programs. This is also true in the case of one of the organizations that I am doing research right now in Latvia (sorry the blog is off by two days, will update very soon).

As my college Kara would argued, libraries are centerpieces for community development in many countries of the work, and in Eastern Europe this is right on target. My experience in Poland with the RBI's work strongly supports Kara's conception of libraries as institutions that not only promote knowledge, but also build communities, build and strengthen social networks. It is also true that libraries and librarians, in many cases, are not fully aware of the potential and innovative uses of the space for providing something beyond public access to computers. I am not generalizing, of course, but this seems to be a common problem across the countries I have visited during this trip. It is rare to find a library where e-skills training happens, and this is definitely a missed opportunity. Librarians need to think more innovative about their work and about the importance of the institutions they represent to promote values of e-inclusion in the community. Public access in libraries is not enough to make these institutions relevant to today's information and communication needs.

A great grassroots example of how libraries can actually work towards this goal, is the partnership between the RBI and the Library Ikonkas (public access points) in the Podlasie region of Poland. The RBI realized the potential of this partnership and organized a workshop inviting all the librarians from the region to a workshop to share how its volunteer trainer program works, the value of an e-skills training program in the libraries, and the value for and from the librarians to be active participants in projects of this kind. The workshop was very successful in terms of participation, 50/118 libraries in the region were represented. As my friend Pawel says: "Little by little". The picture was taken by the RBI during this workshop, for the full photo collection go here

Right now, the RBI is starting to work with 12 Library Ikonka points around the region. I had the opportunity to join a workshop organized for volunteers in Wapi, a small city one hour and half south from Bialystok. I had the opportunity to chat with two of the librarians and they were very excited about this innovative use of their institution, of their space. In their own words: "We want to feel relevant, we want libraries to be relevant in the communities. We also want to be better versed in e-skills and this is a great way of doing it".

I will share some pictures that Pawel took at the Wapi workshop later...

What motivates seniors and pensioners to become basic e-skills savy?

Although a bit outside of our employability focus, it is worth discussing the factors that motivate seniors and pensioners to learn basic e-skills in the Podlasie region of Poland. Under the e-inclusion framework of the European Union, the promotion of active aging and social inclusion of seniors and retired pensioners is one of the building blocks behind the effort towards building an inclusive European information society.

As I discussed previously, the e-skills training program provided by the Institute for Responsible Business definitely contributes towards this goal. Something worth noticing is that the motivations for the beneficiaries we interviewed are not only relevant for Poland but must surely they apply to other countries of the region, specially the newly EU members. Since accession to the EU, countries in Eastern Europe are facing a massive migration of workers primarily to UK, Belgium, and Ireland. This is particularly true in Poland and Latvia (I wonder if my college Mark West is finding the same in Bulgaria, Romania, and the Czech Republic where he is doing research)

This migration is damaging local economies (many of the people migrating are highly-skilled workers), and separating families; specially in regions like Podlasie where the family is the center around which the whole society revolves. For seniors and older people fighting the feeling of social isolation and separation from their families, learning basic e-skills, is not only a need but a question of survival. During our group interviews with the trainees at the RBI digital literacy training, almost all of them said that one of the biggest contribution of the training program was precisely the possibility of communicating with their sons, daughters, and grandchildren living abroad. In the trainees themselves own words: "We are learning how to be alive, how to feel useful in this fast-changing world. We are learning how to be relevant within our family, how to be humans"

Powerful and inspiring words... worth sharing

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Volunteers as your main asset | Motivations for young people to become trainers for Institute for Reponsible Business (RBI)

Before discussing the motivations of the young volunteer trainers we interviewed in the last three days, a bit more information on the Institute for Responsible Business (RBI for its acronym in Polish) is needed. The RBI was created in 2003 as a social organization to promote entrepreneurship and social development. The Institute has different programs, among them: a portal for responsible consumption, CSR training, e-skills basic training etc.

The mission and entrepreneurial values that guides the RBI are clearly reflected in the people they attract to the e-skills training programs. From volunteers, program coordinators, to the trainees themselves, all of them share a common value: "Help others, help yourself". This value may seem way too optimistic in a world ridden by individualist perspectives of life, but it is actually quite present in the activities that RBI promotes and quite important to understand the motivation of young people to become trainers in basic e-skills program for seniors and pensioners.

During our visit, we interviewed 9 volunteers, 3 program coordinators, and two groups of beneficiaries with 15 people each. The trainers, and also the program coordinators, consistently expressed that among the main motivations was the opportunity that this volunteer program offered to be able to share their know-ledge, do something useful with their free time, and gain valuable skills and experience that they could use to find employment. As I discussed in my previous post, one of the biggest challenges for young people graduating from University to find jobs is lack of any experience in their CVs.

In Andrew's, a program coordinator, own words... "we [trainers and trainees] mutually help each other to grow, to find our inner self and the kind of human we want to be"

A brief note on Methodology | Group and Situational interviews as a more efficient way to gather evidence

As researchers traveling to distant countries and cultures for a brief period of time we often become so hungry for information and evidence that we forget the many ways in which we can gather very valuable information without been intrusive with people's time and every day activities. Interviewing people one-on-one is one of the most common research activities in this type of research experiences, and there is a lot of value from getting one person for one full hour only giving attention to your questions and interests.

However, this comes at a price. Often times, the long interview process interrupts people daily activities and it limits the number of stories that you can gather since there is only limited available time during the day and during the trip. A nice alternative however, are the group and situational interviews where you gather an X number of people in a space where they can share their background, their motivation for taking e-skills training programs, their goals in life, and the contribution in their own lives from having basic e-skills knowledge.

I had done some group interviews before, but during the trip to Poland group and situational interviews became the norm more than the exception, and I must say it was very productive and uniquely valuable way for me to understand culture, locality, perception of technology, sense of community, etc. Walking with volunteer trainers from the IRB program around Bialystok, gathering a group if senior trainees to discuss their experiences, their stories, talking to a group of disabled people while in a break from their ECDL training, sharing dinner, etc., gave me such a thorough understanding of these programs, of the many stories, of the many paths of life that bring people together that I couldn't have gotten through individual interviews alone.

A good learning experience for me as a researcher and I hope a lesson that reminds us every day that the hunger for "data" can't not lead us to interrupt in people's lives, much less to de-contextualized their experiences from the community they belong while we interview them

Employability through a different lens | relevance of e-skills programs to the local context is crucial

One of the most challenging aspects of doing research with e-skills and employability programs it is precisely the existence of multiple definitions and goals of "employability". It is not possible to look at employability programs through the same lens since it is this same diversity of lenses that brings the variety of contexts and needs in these contexts to life. Each with its own advantages and its own challenges.

In the case of the Foundation Supporting Mathematicians and IT specialists in Warsaw, the advantages in relation to employability is the fact that the city has almost a natural unempl
oyment rate (5% or so). It is a vibrant economy and this vibrancy is reflected in the amount and qualities of jobs available. The key point for this organization is how to provide a bridge between disabled people and the job market. Not easy, not less challenging (remember my post about prejudices against people with disabilities in the labor market) but relevant to the local context and its target group

The work of the Institute for Responsible Business falls under a different category and we need to use a different employability lens to understand and appreciate the contribution an value of the e-skills program towards the economic and social development of the Podlasie region. The IRB provides basic e-skills training programs for seniors and pensioners through 6 community technology centers. Along with this, the IRB offers opportunities for young people to become the trainers of these programs and gain some important skills and experience that can improve the chances of them finding employment once they finish school.

There are many important contributions of a program of this kind, two are particularly innovative and relevant for this discussion:
  1. By engaging young people as trainers for senior or pensioners this program narrows the generational digital divide and foster the feeling among youth of "giving back to their community", it strengthens the feeling of community.
  2. By offering young people the opportunity to gain skills such as team work, group management, culture of responsibility, etc., the program provides a badly needed bridge between students and the labor market. As it will be more evident when I discuss some of the main motivations of students to become volunteer trainers, one of the biggest challenge young people face to find a job is the lack of experience. The IRB volunteer work offers opportunities to build some of these valuable job skills.
Relevance to the local context is one of the most important factors to understand different employability programs.

Important facts about the Podlasie region | locality matters

Bialystok is located in the north-east of Poland and it is part of the Podlasie Voivodeship or province. This province is home to a wide diversity of ethnic groups that throughout history have made this site their home. Polish, Belorussians, Ukrainian, Lithuanian, and Tatar communities settled down in this province making Podlasie one of the most culturally diverse regions of this country. My friend Pawel elegantly described the region as the "historical bridge between East and West"

The variety in cultures brought with it a variety in religions and ways of life. Orthodox Christians, Catholics, Jewish, and Muslim groups sharing a land rich in natural resources and rich in history. This confluence of cultures nourished a sense of tolerance towards diversity creating a sense of community and "locality" that leaves its marks in the architectural and social environment of the region.

Bialystok was created in the 16th century and a century later became a powerhouse of the textile industry after Lodz. Similar to other regions in the country, the WWII wasn't particularly forgiven. The Nazis murdered half of the the city's population, including almost all the Jews, and destroyed most of the industrial infrastructure. After the war, investments targeted the reconstruction of industry and infrastructure. Bialystok is also the home of Hammenhof, a philologist that created the language Esperanto to foster peace and international communication

Agriculture is one the main economic activities in the region, and the accession to the European Union hit hardly the small farmers who were not equipped to compete with bigger and consolidated farmers. Today, the unemployment rate in Podlasie is around 20%, four times higher than in Warsaw and almost double the national average.

It is under this context that the Institute for Responsible Business (IRB)developed an initiative to provide e-skills to seniors and pensioners of the region, and with it, an opportunity to young people to become more active in their communities and gain important job skills such as team work, group management, individual responsibility, etc. Just as Podlasie is described as the bridge between East and West, the IRB is a bridge between generations (youth and senior) and a bridge between life as a student and life as a responsible professional.