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From llama herders to chai wallas: New website will engage the world

Barry Pittendrigh, extension specialist Julia Bello, extension employee Ricardo Diaz and extension educator Francisco Seufferheld. Seated, from left: business professor Madhu Viswanathan and MBA student Srinivas Venugopal.
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L. Brian Stauffer

The SusDeViki team is building an interactive, peer-reviewed information-sharing website devoted to sustainable development. The team includes, standing, from left: entomology professor Barry Pittendrigh, extension specialist Julia Bello, extension employee Ricardo Diaz and extension educator Francisco Seufferheld. Seated, from left: business professor Madhu Viswanathan and MBA student Srinivas Venugopal.

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5/19/2010 | Diana Yates, Life Sciences Editor | 217-333-5802; diya@illinois.edu

CHAMPAIGN, lll. — African cowpea farmers, Indian street vendors, Peruvian llama farmers and many others will benefit from a new interactive, peer-reviewed information-sharing website now under construction at the University of Illinois.

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The new website will provide educational materials that promote sustainable development, such as this poster demonstrating how to kill insects without insecticides. | Poster provided by Dr. Ibrahim Baoua of INRAN (Maradi, Niger)

The Sustainable Development Virtual Knowledge Interface (SusDeViki) will collect, review, organize and distribute educational materials designed to help subsistence farmers and small-scale entrepreneurs learn – and adopt – sustainable practices in different parts of the world. This “distributed knowledge” network is the brainchild of a team of academics and extension educators who are working with aid organizations to develop and share agricultural and economic information with people around the world.

The project grew out of an informal discussion among three educators at Illinois who work on international projects: Barry Pittendrigh, an entomology professor who develops educational programs for farmers in West Africa; Madhu Viswanathan, a business professor who conducts marketplace literacy education in urban and rural India; and Julia Bello, an extension specialist involved in extension projects in Illinois and abroad.

A description of the Virtual Knowledge Interface appears in the Journal of the World Universities Forum.

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The SusDeViki also will offer informational videos, such as this one, which provides a lesson in storing cowpeas to prevent insect infestation. | Courtesy Julia Bello, U. of I. Extension.

“We are creating a virtual community where people can share educational content,” Viswanathan said. “But it has to be actionable educational content. It’s got to be educational material that somebody else can take and use and give back to the interface.”

The SusDeViki will function as an interactive clearinghouse for extension information designed to reach people at all educational levels in developing nations. This means the materials should be available in local languages, reflect regional cultural practices and, ideally, communicate in pictures as well as words.

“As is the case with literate learners, enabling low-literate and often low-income learners to understand basic concepts and to access relevant information can be extremely important in their daily lives,” the authors wrote. Such information will help recipients “improve their health, expand their access to clean water, increase the productivity and well-being of their livestock, apply better pest-control measures and learn to participate more effectively in the marketplace as consumers and as entrepreneurs.”

Various programs promote this kind of learning every day around the world, Pittendrigh said. (For example, he and Bello work on a USAID project to help cowpea farmers in Africa protect their harvest from insects without using insecticides.) But when specific development programs end, the educational materials are often lost or posted on individual websites that can be difficult to find, he said.

“We need a mechanism so that hands-on materials can be put in a centralized place where other people can access them,” Pittendrigh said.

All materials submitted to the SusDeViki will be peer-reviewed for accuracy, usefulness and accessibility. Aid workers, educators, extension agents, non-governmental organizations, Peace Corps volunteers and others can modify the materials to suit their own needs and may resubmit the altered materials for another round of peer-review. This sharing process will allow the system to grow organically, Pittendrigh said. Registered website users will be able to comment on all posted material.

Access to the World Wide Web has dramatically increased in the developing world, with “smart” cell phone and Bluetooth technology available in many developing nations, including West Africa, the researchers note. This allows people in remote locations to share useful information with one another, “bypassing the middlemen,” Pittendrigh said.

To succeed, the new website must become a respected supplier of useful, culturally relevant information, video, audio and images, said team member Srinivas Venugopal, an MBA student at Illinois who has conducted programs in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

From the first seeds of information that are planted on the site, the team expects a lush “virtual ecosystem” of shared knowledge to grow, Bello said.

“We’re hoping that each submission builds around it a community,” said Ricardo Diaz, a member of the SusDeViki team who also works in extension. “Those that are good will burst into lots of layers, whereas others will likely just sit there.”

It would be a mistake to think that the information on the SusDeViki will flow only from the developed to the developing world, said team member Francisco Seufferheld, an extension educator who, with Bello, took a group of Illinois winemakers to Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, so that the Midwesterners could learn from the South Americans how to market their wines globally.

“There is a lot to be learned from innovations that occur in other parts of the planet that can have positive impacts on Illinois,” Bello said. “For some folks these experiences can be captured through an educational trip to another country. But for most we hope that at least some experiences and innovations can be shared through such web-based systems.”

The SusDeViki team has completed the first incarnation – the alpha stage – of the website. A group of international collaborators are testing it and providing feedback to the team.

These institutions, organizations and university units have provided funding for this initiative: the C.W. Kearns, C.L. Metcalf and W.P. Flint Endowment Funds; the Bureau for Economic Growth, Agriculture and Trade, the U.S. Agency for International Development by way of the Dry Grains Pulses Collaborative Research Support Program; U. of I. Extension; the Center for International Business Education and Research; the Academy for Entrepreneurial Leadership; the Community Informatics Initiative; and the U. of I. Office of Public Engagement.

The views expressed in this news release are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Agency for International Development or the U.S. government.

Editor's note: To contact Barry Pittendrigh, call 217-244-0567; e-mail pittendr@illinois.edu. To reach Julia Bello, call 217-333-4735; e-mail juliabb@illinois.edu. To reach Madhu Viswanathan, call 217-333-4550; e-mail mviswana@illinois.edu. The paper, “Expanding the Impact of Practical Scientific Concepts for Low-literate Learners Through an Inclusive and Participatory Virtual Knowledge Ecosystem,” is available online.
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