Daily Archives: November 30, 2014

Table of Contents: Issue Six

Kiersten Greene and Stephen Brier, Issue Co-Editors

Africa is a Country? Digital Diasporas, ICTs, and Heritage Development Strategies for Social Justice
Marla L. Jaksch and Angel David Nieves, Guest Co-Editors

Runaway Quilt Project: Digital Humanities Exploration of Quilting During the Era of Slavery
Deimosa Webber-Bey

Teaching Online Journals in Tanzania: Knowledge Production and the Digital Divide
Tom Fisher

How the San of Southern Africa Used Digital Media as Educational and Political Tools
Philip Kreniske, Photography by Jesse Kipp

Transcultural Dialogue Mashup
Richard Kabiito, Christine Liao, Jennifer Motter, and Karen Keifer-Boyd

“All Corners of the World”: the Possibilities and Challenges of International Electronic Education
Sheila T. Cavanagh


Issue Six Masthead

Issue Editors
Kiersten A. Greene
Stephen Brier

Guest Editors
Marla L. Jaksch
Angel David Nieves

Managing Editor
Leila Walker

Stephen Brier
Anne Donlon
Carlos Hernandez
Michelle Johnson
Andrew Lucchesi
Benjamin Miller
Leila Walker

Style & Structure Editors
Benjamin Miller
Dominique Zino

“All Corners of the World”: the Possibilities and Challenges of International Electronic Education


Sheila Cavanagh, Emory University


The World Shakespeare Project (WSP) uses videoconferencing to link students in the US, UK, India, Morocco, Argentina, Brazil, and North American Tribal Colleges. This essay discusses the practical and theoretical bases of this project, including its background in brain-based learning. The WSP engages students in wide-ranging discussions and performance exercises, facilitating pedagogical communication between a disparate group of international institutions.

The World Shakespeare Project (WSP) uses new media to enable college and university students to interact academically across several continents, including North and South America, Europe, Asia, and North Africa. We also collaborate with incarcerated students studying Shakespeare at Monroe Correctional Facility in Washington State and have begun partnership discussions with universities in Ethiopia. Though an increasing number of online educational models rely on asynchronous communication, the WSP focuses on live interaction whenever possible. Some of the WSP’s partners are located in urban centers, with access to diverse modes of information and communication technology. Others reside in comparatively isolated rural regions, with limited technological facilities. Nevertheless, as much as possible, the WSP promotes “real time” academic and cultural conversation between disparate groups of students who are studying Shakespeare.

This essay details some of the pedagogical, philosophical, and technological facets that simultaneously invigorate and challenge this project. Since the beginning, the WSP has benefitted greatly from the kind of collaborative engagement that undergirds so many electronic academic projects. At the start, the WSP included co-instructors who inhabited different continents: Sheila T. Cavanagh (author of this piece), Professor of English at Emory University in Atlanta, had just been named Emory College Distinguished Teaching Professor. Kevin Quarmby, a long-time professional actor in the United Kingdom, had recently completed his PhD and was teaching for a variety of academic programs in London.[1] Cavanagh had taught a “Shakespeare in Performance” course for many years and the pair determined that introducing an actor turned scholar into the academic mix might prove valuable. At the outset, neither participant had any real idea of what would happen and how students would receive it. Needless to say, however, this initial foray became a resounding success. After a few months of linking classes between London and Atlanta, Cavanagh (with support from the Halle Center for Global Learning) called an international meeting of expert faculty and educational technologists and began exploring the promises and pitfalls of global education through videoconferencing. Soon afterwards, the World Shakespeare Project was born. Within a couple of years, the WSP had expanded its partnerships across many continents, time zones, and cultural differences, creating vibrant exchanges between students, faculty, and technologists in widely disparate settings.

The WSP uses videoconferencing, iPads, iPhones, Blackboard, email and other electronic resources to redesign traditional classroom encounters. In some sessions, participants from multiple venues participate in what we term “on yer feet” performance modules designed to recreate the rehearsal process followed by actors at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre or Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London. Other times, students in places such as Atlanta and Casablanca join email or videoconference conversations that range from textual analysis to cultural exchange and discussions about educational, historical and familial differences related to Shakespearean drama. This essay uses the WSP to illustrate the kinds of educational opportunities and questions that modern technology can facilitate. While these benefits are not exclusive to Shakespeare, his drama appears to offer unusual ways to engage people from multiple cultures, something that London’s 2012 Globe to Globe Festival illustrated magnificently when 37 Shakespeare plays were presented in 37 different languages. Shakespeare’s recurring presence in theatres and classrooms around the world makes it particularly valuable for cross-cultural conversations and collaborations, although the techniques we employ are designed to be transferable across disciplines. Shakespeare may not achieve universality, but the canon still provides access to an international academic conversation that many, including the College Board’s Lawrence Gladieux (1999), worry could be undercut by expanding technology use. As he suggests, “the virtual campus may widen opportunities for some, but not generally for those at the low end of the economic scale. [. . .] The Internet has great power and potential for good, which we must harness to the cause of educational opportunity. We must not let information technology become a new engine of global inequality” (3). Noted educational theorist Philip Altbach (2007) raises similar concerns, remarking, “Contemporary inequalities may in fact be intensified by globalization” (2).

If employed judiciously, however, electronic communication creates portals for international and other cross-institutional interactions that were previously unimaginable. As the WSP has grown, it established partnerships with a range of distinctive institutions. The exchanges are vibrant and valuable for those involved. Often, however, these collaborations do not fit the profile regularly invoked at Emory when academic linkages are discussed. WSP partnerships frequently do not involve “peer institutions”; they do not necessarily formalize ties with the kinds of prestigious colleges and universities Emory typically races to embrace. Instead, the specific WSP collaborations emphasized today bring together Emory students—enrolled at an American private university that prides itself on its US News & World Report “top 20” ranking—with students who are commonly the first members of their families to participate in tertiary education. Some of the non-Emory students come from families completely lacking in formal education. Distinctive from most Emory undergraduates, these WSP collaborators often come from homes and communities where educational opportunities have been extremely limited, where English is rarely or never spoken, and/or where role models for economic, professional, and academic success remain hard to find. Rather than seeking personal advancement by attending a wealthy, well-established private university, many of these students study, for example, in tribal colleges, institutions that were created specifically to bring higher education to what is often, though controversially, called “indigenous” populations. As Ladislaus Semali and Joe Kincheloe (1999) suggest, “indigenous knowledge is an ambiguous topic that immediately places analysts on a dangerous terrain. [. . .] Nevertheless, we perceive the benefits of the study of indigenous knowledge sufficiently powerful to merit the risk” (3). They further encourage goals closely resembling those of the WSP, namely, “enhancing the internationalization of the curriculum of academic institutions by giving faculty and students ready access to a global network of indigenous knowledge resource centers” (Semali and Kincheloe 1999, 5). This essay emphasizes the value of including eclectic international, indigenous, and incarcerated students with more mainstream partners and teaching materials. The WSP promotes these kinds of “asymmetrical” academic collaborations. In a 1947 UNESCO symposium on “The Universal Right to Education,” I. L. Kandel notes that “even when equality of educational opportunity is provided, certain social and economic classes feel that the opportunities are not intended for them” (quoted in Spring 2000, 16-17). While this situation arguably continues today, the WSP operates from an assumption that opposes such educational divides. As Michael Peters (2006) argues,The economics of knowledge and information is not one of scarcity [. . .] but rather one of abundance, for, unlike most resources that are depleted when used, information and knowledge can be shared and can actually grow through application” (96). If this is the case, the Shakespeare world and the broader educational community has much to gain by sharing information and concerns with faculty and students who were essentially impossible to reach prior to the availability of modern technologies such as videoconferencing.

Typically, WSP interactions by email or videoconferencing focus predominantly on Shakespeare, but they also allow participants the opportunity to converse on other topics. Emory undergraduates, for example, tend to know little or nothing about African literature. In the midst of discussions about Shakespeare’s prominent place in British drama, therefore, Moroccan students frequently urge the Americans to read significant global authors such as Tahar Ben Jelloun and Driss Chraïbi. Other international classes have provided similarly unforeseen but fruitful interventions. During a session linking Emory with undergraduates in Argentina and director Tom Magill in Northern Ireland (director of Mickey B, a film version of Macbeth acted by prisoners in Belfast), for instance, the conversation took an unexpected detour after a chance comment about frequent journalistic comparisons between Lady Macbeth and diverse contemporary and historic female political figures. At the mention of then recently deceased Margaret Thatcher in this context, everyone in Argentina and Belfast cringed, while Emory students looked on without comprehension. The ensuing discussion circled back to Macbeth, but also included illuminating accounts of British actions in the Maldives/Falkland Islands and their treatment of political prisoners during the Irish “troubles.” Such unanticipated, fruitful results from our encounters with far-flung partner colleges are common. In the middle of a segment devoted to passages from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, for example, one student’s face appeared transformed as realization dawned. For this young mother, a full time student at Saginaw Chippewa Tribal College in Michigan (www.sagchip.edu) and a leader in her tribe, a section of Shakespeare’s text suddenly hit home, as documentary maker Steve Rowland’s film of the class indicates:



Shakespeare describes Prospero, the exiled Milanese Duke in The Tempest, arriving by ship at a remote island. In the years that followed, Prospero claims sovereignty over the land and its inhabitants, namely, a magical being called “Ariel” and the locally-born “monster” Caliban. Numerous Shakespeareans in recent years have written about postcolonial interpretations of this play (Thomas Cartelli, for instance), but this nontraditional Chippewa student needed no post-colonial insights to grasp familiar implications from the text. As soon as the words were spoken aloud, she exclaimed about the parallels between the history of American tribal populations and what had happened to the natives of Shakespeare’s unnamed island. Shakespeare was clearly telling the story of her people despite the centuries separating his writings from contemporary society.



As often happens, Shakespeare’s narratives found immediate resonance with a temporally and geographically distanced audience. As this American Indian student explained, the challenges associated with Shakespeare’s language did not overpower the cultural connections his drama forged with the students at this Midwestern Tribal College, one of the thirty-seven colleges forming AIHEC or the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.

A few months earlier, students at Sido Kanhu Murmu University, an institution established for the local tribal population in Dumka, Jharkhand, India, experienced a similarly striking Shakespearean moment. Performing the trial scene from The Merchant of Venice in their native Santali dialect, these first-generation learners then shared childhood stories of watching their parents being beaten by local moneylenders and discussed how these memories helped shape their representation of the moneylender Shylock in Shakespeare’s play.

Figure 1. Students at Sido Kanhu Murmu University

Figure 1. Students at Sido Kanhu Murmu University

The power of these students’ stories and the resonance between their life histories and the details of Shakespeare’s texts was palpable for all who witnessed it in person or through viewing the flawed electronic record. Dumka, a recipient of financial support from India’s “Backwards Regions Grant Fund,” has not typically been involved in international educational dialogues. Until the advent of widespread modern technology, they had no opportunity to discuss intersections between their lives and these plays with anyone outside their local environments.

The tribal colleges and universities the WSP works with in India are located in comparatively remote regions that suffer from poverty and geographical isolation compounded by the significant presence of armed Maoist rebels. Those conditions often make travel dangerous and occasionally interfere with the possibility of electronic communication. In March, 2014, for example, 15 policemen were ambushed and killed by Maoist insurgents in the state of Chhattisgarh, a region adjacent to WSP partner communities. The students who attend these tribal colleges typically reside in homes with only basic amenities or they stay in local hostels. Faculty often provide supplementary meals as well as education for their undergraduates. During site visits to homes of several WSP educational partners in Purulia, West Bengal and Dumka, Jharkhand, students regularly comment that they have never met a “foreigner” before. The students majoring in English literature typically plan to teach English in elementary or secondary school, although occasionally, the WSP encounters students with aspirations for advanced degrees. One student in Dumka, for example, who performed Shakespearean scenes during site visits in 2012 and 2013, plans to translate all of the Merchant of Venice into Santali as part of the doctoral study he hopes to undertake after he completes the M.A. he is currently pursuing. In this same environment, however, where doctoral education can now be imagined, several local women are killed every month after accusations of witchcraft, an occurrence documented in the international press as well as in student and faculty narratives. In studying plays such as Macbeth, the combination of such contradictory perspectives within the same villages opens up remarkable possibilities for discussion and research. Students’ own experiences enable them to respond to many facets of the drama, such as Shakespeare’s integration into his plays of folk beliefs, intellectual conceptualizations, and common human emotional experiences.

The dynamic pedagogical snapshots described above occurred during site visits undertaken by the WSP in preparation for its subsequent live videoconferencing sessions. Created with seed grant funding in 2011 from Emory’s Halle Institute for Global Learning (halleinstitute.emory.edu) and Emory’s Center for Interactive Teaching, in 2012 the WSP became the sole recipient of Emory’s “High Risk/High Potential Initiative” grant (Guo 2012). Throughout its development, the WSP has collaborated with a team of talented educational technologists in order to create a template for synchronous global educational exchange that can facilitate a similar linking of international institutions seeking a range of pedagogical and disciplinary goals. Collaborators are chosen both through strategic planning and through less structured means. As noted above, collaborators encompass students and institutions from a broad spectrum of religious, national, linguistic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. While the partnerships involved vary considerably, the WSP always seeks to align with the tenets Renate Nummela Caine and Geoffrey Caine (1994) associate with “brain-based learning” which, in their terms,

involves the entire learner in a challenging learning process that simultaneously engages the intellect, creativity, emotions, and physiology. It allows for the unique abilities and contributions from the learner in the teaching-learning environment. It acknowledges that learning takes place within a multiplicity of contexts—classroom, school, community, country and planet. It appreciates the interpenetration of parts and wholes by connecting what is learned to the greater picture and allowing learners to investigate the parts within the whole. (9)

As much as possible, the WSP employs these and other concepts of brain-based learning.[2] As we expand our scope, we hope to create additional ways that cooperative international education can draw from key pedagogical and technological advances in order to enhance the educational experience for all concerned. Since an expansion in contemporary research focused on cognition and learning has paralleled the growth in educational technology, the WSP actively draws from experts in both areas as it develops its curriculum.[3]

The performance exercises that remain central to WSP classes were initially transmitted through Skype, more through default than design. The instructors already communicated regularly through Skype and the platform was relatively available and reliable. While the WSP’s reliance on fairly basic technology originated without conscious deliberation, however, it has now become an important philosophical tenet of the project, employed whenever possible. Although the WSP regularly tests more sophisticated videoconferencing platforms, such as Vidyo, the Blue Jeans Network, and others, we insist upon widespread availability. Sometimes our partners can take advantage of Emory’s site licenses to gain access to advanced technologies; nevertheless, we remain committed to using the most affordable avenues possible for interactivity. While Emory’s educational technologists are thrilled, therefore, when we partner with an institution that boasts cutting edge equipment or expertise, we resist limiting our interactions to colleges or universities with robust electronic infrastructures. To do so would undermine our primary goal of bringing together widely diverse academic populations. Comparative affluence is not a barrier to participation in the WSP’s educational endeavors, but it is not a demand either. Some of our most memorable exchanges—such as our initial communication with Nistarini Women’s College in Purulia, West Bengal—have relied solely upon an instructor’s laptop, iPad, or iPhone.

Figure 2. Nistarini Women's College, Purulia, West Bengal

Figure 2. Nistarini Women’s College, Purulia, West Bengal


Figure 3. The Macbeths in Purulia, West Bengal, India

Figure 3. The Macbeths in Purulia, West Bengal, India

Keeping technological requirements as minimal as possible facilitates access with a broad range of institutions and populations. While we still need to confront practical issues, such as time zone differences and varying curricula and exam schedules, therefore, we embrace the joys and frustrations accompanying widely available videoconferencing platforms, such as Skype and FaceTime.

Collaborating with the WSP often leads, however, to expanded technological resources at our partnering institutions, as our affiliation with Université Hassan II Ben M’sik in Casablanca, Morocco demonstrates. In this instance, the WSP traveled to Morocco in late February, 2012, in order to assess local interest in the project. Since we were working predominantly with Hindu communities in India at this time, it seemed appropriate to explore collaborative possibilities with an Islamic institution. At Hassan II, we encountered an enthusiastic group of students, who relished the opportunity to perform scenes from Shakespeare, even though this drama is not currently a regular part of their curriculum. They also eagerly participated in classroom discussions with students in Atlanta, where both groups confessed ignorance about each other’s cultural and educational circumstances. While the Moroccan technological infrastructure was limited, electronic challenges were offset by the collective energy contributed by actively engaged students on both sides of the Atlantic. These international dialogues also reflected what Jay Caulfield (2011) identifies as the power of learning that integrates a “blended classroom” with “online and experiential activities”:

A learner constructs knowledge primarily through dialogue. It is a process whereby the learner internalizes what is being learned by finding a personal application for the new concepts while determining the worthiness of those concepts. (21)

Technology did not enable a “perfect” dialogue, but it did offer students the opportunity to put this Shakespearean study into a context that made sense to them.

In addition, the technological landscape at Hassan II soon changed. Traveling back to Morocco in order to facilitate class meetings during Emory’s inaugural intensive, three-week “Maymester” term, the WSP encountered a completely different technological landscape. Inspired by classroom links with Emory, Université Hassan II had generated sufficient governmental support to institute immediate and extensive upgrades to their facilities. In contrast to the outdated computer used during connections in early March, the May class sessions enjoyed state-of-the-art equipment housed in newly renovated classrooms. As this clip indicates, the local technological support team enthusiastically welcomed these changes, which opened up a host of new electronic possibilities for their campus. As remarkable as this transformation at Hassan II was, the WSP finds that this kind of renewed investment in technology often accompanies institutional involvement in our cross-cultural educational partnerships.



The technological advances enjoyed in Casablanca and elsewhere resulted from the enthusiasm generated when WSP participants recognize the exciting possibilities of such connections, even though most WSP interactions take place only for a few short sessions. For several semesters, however, the WSP experimented with lengthier virtual classroom collaborations. In August, 2012, Quarmby began a tenure-track appointment as an assistant professor of English at Oxford College of Emory University. Oxford College is situated on the site of Emory’s original founding in 1836, about thirty-eight miles from the main campus in Atlanta. Serving first- and second-year students only, Oxford College enrolls about 900 students who move to the Atlanta campus to complete their degrees. For three terms after Quarmby relocated from London, UK to Oxford, Georgia, the WSP offered a “Shakespeare in Text and Performance” class simultaneously to students on both campuses. Using a Cisco High-Definition Videoconferencing system, the students were seated in semi-circles in their respective classrooms, forming a virtual Shakespearean “O” (Henry V, Chorus, prologue 13) to provide space for discussion and performance. Screensharing facilitated joint presentations between students in the two locations, while technical crews supported our regular, extended sessions.

For this shared class, we wanted to eschew premiere technology in order to replicate the experience and resources of our non-Emory partners. Unfortunately, technical issues proliferated, threatening to undermine student patience with the vagaries of electronic communication. As a result, we decided to use the sophisticated room system available to us, while concentrating on how best to integrate students from different locations into a unified classroom experience. Concurrently, we enlisted the expertise of Emory’s Educational Analyst Leah Chuchran, who works on developing appropriate assessment tools to monitor student satisfaction and their dismay with this unconventional configuration. Our periodic adjustments in technological practices and philosophies indicate some of the complicated issues emerging during these electronic pedagogical interactions. We still employ many common videoconferencing tools, but remain open to change, as needed. At the moment, WSP connections with domestic and international partners generally occur in distinct modules. Sometimes these sessions include interactions with multiple sites simultaneously, but they are limited to a few days in duration. These structured parameters provide opportunities for students to engage directly with each other during class and afterwards, but they reduce the scope for the frustration that can develop with longer collaborative units. In our experience, the challenge of keeping a three- or four-site connection live and stable for a few classes does not unduly distract students. When the regular Oxford College / Emory College shared meetings began, however, it quickly became clear that students were not prepared for regular electronic disruptions. Typically, students accommodated the occasional audio or visual glitches with apparent good humor; but more frequent or extended interruptions were not patiently tolerated. While the novelty of videoconferencing has not yet worn off completely, it is no longer sufficiently exotic to override student demands for consistently high-quality exchange when they are communicating with a fairly comparable population. Students typically remain relatively sanguine about electronic mishaps when they are linking up with their peers in culturally distinctive locations, but appear to expect a more seamless connection with those close to home. It seems as though distances that cannot be easily traversed without technology generate more patience than the forty miles separating the two Emory classrooms, particularly since those Georgia conversations include students from reasonably similar backgrounds.

As suggested above, the WSP includes a number of separate, but interrelated elements, including site visits, videoconferencing, visiting fellows, and shared guest speakers. Occasionally, students are even able to meet in person, as when two Emory students served as WSP interns for the 2012 International Theatre Festival hosted by our partner university in Casablanca (www.fituc.ma). Typically, classes share common features, whether the sessions bring together students from abroad, from American Tribal Colleges, or from the relative proximity of urban or rural Georgia. During sessions with performance exercises, for instance, we solicit a “casting director” from each location, who assigns dramatic roles to students on a campus other than their own. This maneuver offers students a way to participate even if they prefer not to recite aloud. At the same time, it gives everyone a chance to interact and makes the casting process less predictable than it might be if students were choosing from a group they are familiar with. A casting director from Morocco, for example, will not know which American students tend to shy away from discussion and which grab the spotlight whenever possible. In comparatively small gatherings, such as those incorporating Emory College, Oxford College, and Saginaw Chippewa Tribal College, it also allows students to build on their growing knowledge of each other.[4] After a few classes, students can refer to one another by name, rather than identifying each other predominantly by gender and clothing. Such shifts both mark and deepen the level of community feeling that the program strives for. Even before such enriched communication becomes possible, however, students exchange significant information about themselves and their cultural backgrounds that provide insights into their lives and environments, while simultaneously illuminating Shakespeare’s texts. An early class session between Atlanta and Casablanca, for example, focused on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Students in Morocco, who initially were unnecessarily concerned about their level of fluency in English, were emboldened by realizing that Shakespearean vocabulary is difficult even for native speakers of the language. Watching American students struggle with deciphering the surprisingly unfamiliar word “auditor,” for example (Act 1, scene 1), reduced the Casablancan undergraduates’ hesitancy about admitting that there were words in the text they did not know. Soon, a shared willingness to experiment with the unknown brought the students together in a mutual endeavor.

These performance modules invite students to present sight-readings of a given text, an exercise that invariably produces verbal stumbling. After an initial presentation of the lines, the instructors and students start to unravel the chosen passage before the students are invited to offer it again, with their newly found knowledge and insight informing subsequent readings. As Colin Beard and John P. Wilson (2006) note, dramatic exercises such as these can prompt both strategic and fortuitous educational results: “The concept of planned and unplanned learning can be further explored in dramaturgy, which recognizes that learning design and learning outcomes can be both anticipated and unanticipated” (112).

In WSP classes, these modified rehearsal techniques not only increase student comfort with the text, thereby supporting formal curricular goals, but they also open up space for significant unscripted cultural exchanges. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for instance, many of the central characters are fairies. In discussions between the two countries, students are asked to recount their personal knowledge or experience with fairies. Typically, American students offer lighthearted accounts of these creatures. Happily ignoring the darker side of famous “Western” fairies such as Tinkerbell, Emory undergraduates describe fairies as being playful and effervescent. For American students, fairies spark happy childhood memories. In Morocco, however, fairies evoke malevolence and danger. Students there tell stories of modern day security guards abandoning their posts when fairies were reported in the vicinity. For these undergraduates, fairies connote danger. Some of the Moroccan students we’ve encountered express belief in fairies, while others deem them fantastical, but everyone we have spoken to in Morocco categorizes fairies as evil. Shakespeare’s fairies incorporate both playful and malicious tendencies (Act 2, scene 1). Puck, for example, contains a vicious streak that American students generally overlook until this aspect of the character is specifically highlighted, while Moroccan undergraduates often miss the benign traits associated with the Fairy Queen Titania’s followers. Having peers introduce these topics gives them added resonance, however, that cannot be matched by an instructor’s intervention into discussion. After sharing their cultural preconceptions of this otherworldly set of characters, both groups of students recognize complications in the text that were previously hidden.


Figure 4. Université Hassan II Ben-M'sik, Casablanca, Morocco

Figure 4. Université Hassan II Ben-M’sik, Casablanca, Morocco

In addition to incorporating concepts supporting current theories of cognition and learning, the WSP exemplifies what is popularly, though often confusingly, known as “hybrid” or “blended” learning, a model that combines face-to-face interactions with electronic classroom involvement (Caulfield 2011), via such tools as videoconferencing and email. This type of pedagogy offers students ways to partner with each other and with visitors before, after, or instead of, meeting personally. This particular aspect of hybrid learning is something the WSP frequently explores. As noted, this project has received considerable moral and financial support from Emory University, which has wholeheartedly embraced the goals of the project. As part of this close collaboration with the broader university, the WSP has been able to invite a series of significant visitors to its live and virtual class meetings in order to determine how such hybrid interactions might work in different settings. We were honored the past two years, for example, to welcome University Distinguished Professor Sir Salman Rushdie to participate in sessions about Shakespearean drama and for an evening of “on yer feet” scenes where he undertook the role of Iago from Othello, playing opposite a student’s Roderigo.

In addition to performing, Rushdie was able to introduce the unique perspective of one acclaimed writer discussing another. While involving internationally renowned writers in videoconferencing sessions is unusual, the WSP incorporates theatrical and technological professionals in the physical and virtual classrooms as often as possible in order to deepen the impact of each interaction both within and beyond Emory’s physical boundaries. We regularly include international actors and directors in our sessions with overseas and American Indian partners and invite a number of Shakespeare in Prison practitioners, such as Curt Tofteland (Shakespeare Behind Bars) and Tom Magill (Mickey B) to join our classes.

This pedagogical examination of the technology supporting the curriculum is most pronounced in the WSP “Maymester” course offering “International Shakespeare in a New Media World,” which balances a pedagogical focus equally among the “international,” the “Shakespeare,” and the “new media” elements of the course (Jacobs 2012).


The “new media” aspect of the syllabus includes readings, guest speakers, and assignments designed to encourage student engagement with both theoretical and practical aspects of electronic communication. During these discussions, introducing the trajectory leading from 19th century international telegraphy to Skype often transforms students’ understanding of how information is communicated and the similar ways that disparate technologies can foster international dialogue. Students typically have never given much sustained thought to the role of technology in their undergraduate educations. In this course, however, they are asked to deepen their familiarity with a diverse range of current and historical technologies and to give thoughtful consideration to philosophical and ethical issues that arise when these media are implemented. They are concurrently required to make individual connections with international students and others that enrich their Shakespeare work as they grapple with intersections between the drama and their cultural differences. With rare exceptions, these transnational conversations involve ICT (information communication technology), whether the students communicate through phone, email, or videoconferencing. The course also includes discussions and writing assignments exploring the ways that both media and internationalization transform Shakespearean drama.

The final student project assignment guides participants in drawing together these varied course components. Students are asked to use “new” media to create an internationalized Shakespearean product in conjunction with a standard academic essay whereby they present and analyze the electronic, international, and Shakespearean material that led to their creation. Some students fashion electronic books, score operatic compositions, or make movies. Others find innovative ways to bridge cultural and academic divides through multiple media. In one instance, a Mexican and a Korean student joined forces in order to make a complex image merging Macbeth with an Aztec calendar. They then decided to emulate Shepard Fairey by posting copies of their art at different points in Atlanta, using Emory as the epicenter of a four-quadrant grid. Once the posters were hung, they waited for people to view the art, then interviewed passersby about their reactions to the drawing. Finally, in addition to writing the assigned analytical essay, they filmed and edited a documentary video that recounted their process and included segments of their interviews, including a conversation about Macbeth with a local self-described witch.

Figure 5. Aztec Calendar Macbeth

Figure 5. Aztec Calendar Macbeth

Given that the entire semester lasted only three weeks (with intensive daily meetings), the students’ projects and the analysis they offered were remarkable. By the end of the short term, Emory students in this course had spoken with people in Africa, Asia, Europe, South America, and the Middle East, while engaging in serious consideration about the ways that Shakespeare, the world, and new modes of electronic communication intersect. As the image below suggests, such international interactions consistently generated enthusiastic responses. These students from Universidad del Salvador in Buenos Aires, Argentina, joined the WSP in live sessions in 2013, then performed and discussed Shakespeare for the next two years via videoconferencing with Emory students. Students in each location requested email addresses so that they could continue their conversations privately.

Figure 6. Universidad Del Salvador, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Figure 6. Universidad Del Salvador, Buenos Aires, Argentina

The WSP remains an evolving entity, but the significant progress made since its relatively recent inception suggests that this approach to cooperative, international electronic education holds great promise. Now that many WSP links are well established, we look forward to expanding the number of partners we can effectively communicate with simultaneously and to increasing the ways that students from the diverse participating institutions can work collaboratively. We recently submitted a grant proposal, for instance, to develop partnerships with universities in Ethiopia. We know, of course, that any shifts in or additions to our collaborations or our techniques will introduce new issues that will need to be addressed. Our commitment to international technological and pedagogical cooperation creates both opportunities and pitfalls. The modern electronic technology journey continues to provide a host of challenges and possibilities that the WSP hopes to confront productively. As Shakespeare might have said, the course of true learning never did run smooth, but the opportunities for global educational exchange continue to stimulate pedagogical advancements. The intersection of Shakespeare and videoconferencing portends a dynamic pedagogical future.


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Jacobs, Hal. 2012. “Skyping Shakespeare.” Emory Quadrangle. Accessed 25 September, 2014. http://www.college.emory.edu/home/news/quadrangle/2012fall/pages12_15.html.

Peters, Michael A. with Tina Besley. 2006. Building Knowledge Cultures: Education and Development in the Age of Knowledge Capitalism (Critical Education Policy and Politics). New York: Rowman and Littlefield. OCLC 62322201.

Semali, Ladislaus and Joe L. Kincheloe, eds. 1999. What is Indigenous Knowledge? Voices from the Academy. New York: Falmer Press. OCLC 52467562.

Shakespeare, William. 1986. The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works. Edited by Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press. OCLC 15548918.

Spring, Joel H. 2000. The Universal Right to Education: Justification, Definition, and Guidelines. Mahwah, N.J.: Laurence Erlbaum Associates. OCLC 45732162.

Wikipedia Contributors. 2014. “Shepard Fairey.” In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 24 September, 20:09 UTC. Accessed 25 September. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Shepard_Fairey&oldid=626939361.

World Shakespeare Project. Directed by Sheila T. Cavanagh. www.worldshakespeareproject.org.

[1] Quarmby is no longer participating in the WSP, but we appreciate his involvement in the early development of this project. We also thank all the educational technologists at Emory who support the WSP, including Jason Brewer, Brenda Rockswold, Barbara Brandt, Wayne Morse, Jr., Stewart Varner, and numerous others. Emory’s ongoing commitment to this project is gratefully acknowledged.

[2] Long after I received my PhD, Emory provided support for me to complete a Master’s Degree focused on cognition and learning through the University of New Hampshire’s Center for Teaching Excellence. I wish to acknowledge both Emory and UNH with gratitude.

[3] In an effort to support future innovation, all theses sessions are recorded. The students sign consent waivers, so that a pedagogical archive can be fashioned while simultaneously serving immediate teaching goals.

[4] Classes in India and Morocco tend to include dozens of students. Class sizes in Argentina vary considerably between institutions: some class sessions include a handful of Argentinean students; others fill an auditorium. At the two Emory campuses, the WSP Shakespeare courses are limited to 20 students per site. The drama class linking Saginaw Chippewa Tribal College with the WSP was a new course, specifically established in order to facilitate this partnership, with only a handful of students enrolled. Our Tribal College collaborators, Cankdeska Cikana Tribal College in North Dakota (http://www.littlehoop.edu) and Saginaw Chippewa Tribal College in Michigan, have total student populations that comprise no more than 200 students. Currently, we are working with Scott Jackson of Shakespeare Notre Dame in order to further our Tribal College initiative, which is being supported by the Royal Society of the Arts (http://www.blog.rsa-us.org/2013/05/the-world-shakespeare-project-received-challenge-grant/).



About the Author

Dr. Sheila T. Cavanagh, founding director of the World Shakespeare Project (www.worldshakespeareproject.org), is Professor of English and Distinguished Teaching Scholar at Emory. She also held the Masse-Martin/NEH Distinguished Teaching Professorship. Author of Wanton Eyes and Chaste Desires: Female Sexuality in the Faerie Queene and Cherished Torment: the Emotional Geography of Lady Mary Wroth’s Urania, she has also published widely in the fields of pedagogy and of Renaissance literature. She is also active in the electronic realm, having directed the Emory Women Writers Resource Project (womenwriters.library.emory.edu) since 1994 and serving for many years as editor of the online Spenser Review.

Transcultural Dialogue Mashup


Richard Kabiito, Makerere University
Christine Liao, University of North Carolina Wilmington
Jennifer Motter, Co-president of the National Art Education Association Women’s Caucus
Karen Keifer-Boyd, Pennsylvania State University[1]


The Transcultural Dialogue project presented and discussed in this article can be used, and adapted accordingly, as an effective approach to learn about self and others. By facilitating transcultural dialogue, teachers can guide students of all ages in diverse locations in powerful collaborative meaning-making through group artworks that deconstruct and reconstruct visual culture. The Transcultural Dialogue contemporary approach to global group work embraces and supports peer-to-peer learning and generative knowledge construction. We discuss challenges, possibilities, and opportunities of collaborating online between two higher education institutions: Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, and Penn State at University Park, Pennsylvania, USA.

Visual Culture Mashup

Transcultural Dialogue is an action research project, begun in 2007 by Karen Keifer-Boyd, with colleagues at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, and University of Helsinki. The Transcultural Dialogue concerns contemporary visual culture in U.S., Ugandan, and Finnish contexts in a project designed to erode assumptions, ignorance, and misunderstandings about each other’s lives, beliefs, and values through reciprocal reflections, in the form of a conversation, as a mashup of perspectives.[2] Mashup is a term most often associated with a musical genre of new work composed of selected elements of other songs, seamlessly blending diverse lyrics, vocals, riffs, and instrumental soundtracks. Typically, the purpose is to critique music culture. The Transcultural Dialogue project is a techno-cultural mashup–that is, a hybrid mixed reality of virtual and physical, participatory pedagogy and online architecture for learning about self and others. We adapt the term “mashup” to describe the Transcultural Dialogue process of critiquing visual culture through participatory pedagogy.[3] Visual culture is an economical and powerful medium for creating artwork, as it involves using images that are easily accessible, surround us daily, and subconsciously impact our worldviews and beliefs. In collaborative visual culture artworks, meaning is made through the collective art-making process and interpretations of the finished work. Multiple voices have the potential to create rich artworks that lead to deep interpretations. Group effort can generate unanticipated new knowledge and unique learning experiences that vary based on participant grouping.

The Transcultural Dialogue project was created in order to find ways to breakdown cultural stereotypes and misunderstandings between people from different cultural backgrounds. We achieved our goals through the use of social media to facilitate learner conversation and collaborative art-making (see Figure 1). This is based on three theoretical arguments. First, visual culture is a powerful space to explore social justice issues and one of the means to teach through visual culture is through creative mashup art-making (Darts 2004; Freedman 2000; Garoian 2006; Knight, Keifer-Boyd, and Amburgy 2004). Second, collaborative constructivist learning (such as creative mashup art-making) creates a community of learners[4] who work together to transform their learning experience (Hung et al. 2005, Mintrop 2004, Whitcomb 2004). Third, after establishing a reflexive understanding of the learning process in a local setting, social media is an effective means to promote dialogues among people across different cultures and geographic locations (Ertmer et al. 2011; Higgins, Wolf, and Torres 2013; Leppisaari and Lee 2012; Rautenbach and Black-Hughes 2012; Sun and Puterbaugh 2013). From researching Transcultural Dialogue participants’ reflections and experiences, we argue that our approach of using social media to create a community of learners and facilitate learner collaboration of visual culture mashup art-making to disrupt misconceptions about different cultures is effective and meaningful for use in art courses from sixth grade to higher education to help students learn about self and others in relation to societal expectations and embodied place-based experiences.

Presented here is the third iteration of our Transcultural Dialogue project, in 2010, which involved students at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda in dialogue with students at Penn State, University Park, Pennsylvania, USA. The authors share their experiences of teaching and learning using social media to collaborate in creating art from dialogue between two groups of art students who are culturally and geographically distant from each other.

Mashup Process

Ladson-Billings (1995, 2012) introduced culturally relevant pedagogy as a theoretical model to understand student achievement in developing critical perspectives that challenge inequities. The pedagogical approach, also referred to as culturally responsive teaching (Gay, 2000), incorporates and explores, through a dialogic and collaborative learning project, the culturally situated knowledges and standpoints of students and facilitators. The Transcultural Dialogue project, based in culturally relevant pedagogical theory, provides collaboration opportunity for project participants to make visible to self and others their cultural beliefs, practices, and values.

The project began with participants bookmarking websites that they perceived represented the visual culture of Uganda and the United States. We used a free Web 2.0 tool, Diigo, that could be used with low bandwidth, an issue for the Ugandan participants. The original plan was to use Dabbleboard,[5] an online whiteboard, to create artworks collaboratively between Ugandan participants and U.S. participants. However, Dabbleboard would not work on the weak Internet connection in Uganda. Diigo is a social bookmarking tool that has a plug-in for web browsers. Participants used the plug-in with their browsers to bookmark websites. A Diigo group was set up on the Diigo website as a virtual space for the interactions between participates. The U.S. and Ugandan participants were asked to bookmark websites they think related to the culture or visual culture presentation of the other country and add their comments on these sites. All the bookmarked sites and commentary fed into the project’s group in Diigo set-up by Keifer-Boyd, the facilitator who designed the online pedagogical architecture, and participated in all stages of the project and artmaking while in Uganda. Each of the participants in the project commented on why they selected the particular representations to bookmark. Participants next explored what was bookmarked regarding their own country by those not from their country. They read the rationales for the selected visual culture representations and commented in response regarding if and how the representation relates to their life. The commentary and selected representations were the source for collaborative artworks. Participants dialogued about the images in relation to their lives, and constructed art that visually conveyed a particularly meaningful exchange in their dialogue about how the image portrays or does not portray their lived experiences. At this collaborative artmaking stage, participants worked together via email to send their individual visual response to the dialogue and to discuss how to collaborate so that the individual artworks inspire a work created by all in the smaller groups of two or three participants from each country. After uploading the finished collaborated artwork into VoiceThread, [6]participants discussed the artworks and recorded their responses to these three questions: How is subjectivity constructed in the image? Whose subjectivity is constructed? What prior knowledge is assumed? The five collaborative artworks generated from the dialogue concerned specific references to familiar activities, daily-life objects and themes, as well as to larger issues such as power differences, absence of taboo topics, and cultural pride (see Figure 1).


Figure 1. Five collaborative artworks created by groups comprised of both Ugandan and U.S. participants during the 2010 Transcultural Dialogue project.

Throughout the world, people are connecting with free, open source applications such as online collaborative workspaces, social networking tools (Human Rights First 2012), and mobile devices (Johnson, Levine, and Smith 2009, 5). “Improved collaboration can enrich learning when people come together to discuss a topic, especially when the participants have different backgrounds and can amend one another’s knowledge,” claim Tétard, Patokorpi, and Packalén (2009, 5). Importantly, collaboration among educators fosters dialogue that can be reflective about teaching with suggestions from collaborators and can further curriculum and resource development. We asked the following questions in reflecting on a 2010 iteration of Transcultural Dialogue:

How will faculty and students in institutions of higher learning initiate and sustain online collaboration under the constraints of cultural and geographical distance? What are cultural differences between the Ugandan and U.S. institutional and personal contexts and how would these potentially affect online collaboration? How will students relate to each other online in terms of their own cultural orientation and what effects would this have on collaborative learning? Which types of social software are familiar to students and how would they enable the creation of communities of learners?

Although other studies of transcultural collaborations have diverse goals and backgrounds as well as rules of engagement, almost all show that participants learned to appreciate their cultural differences and others’ perspectives (Ertmer et al. 2011, Camardese and Peled 2014, Leppisaari and Lee 2012, Lindberg and Sahlin 2011) and learned more about their own cultural identity (Leppisaari and Lee 2012, Lindberg and Sahlin 2011). Even though “social matters prove to be the main obstacles for successful virtual collaborative learning” (Tétard, Patokorpi, and Packalén 2009, 5) and language and time zone differences can create difficulties (Camardese and Peled 2014; Sun and Puterbaugh 2013; Higgins, Wolf, and Torres 2013; Leppisaari and Lee 2012; Ertmer et al. 2011), the value of transcultural projects outweighs the challenges in the context of classroom learning for students who do not have many experiences with in-depth dialogue about their cultural beliefs and practices and with creating art with people from other cultures.

Several studies have shown that transcultural collaboration motivates the participants because of the opportunity to collaborate with people with different backgrounds (Camardese and Peled 2014; Sun and Puterbaugh 2013; Higgins, Wolf, and Torres 2013; Leppisaari and Lee 2012; Ertmer et al. 2011; Rautenbach and Black-Hughes 2012; Lindberg and Sahlin 2011). Abramo, D’Angelo, and Solazzi (2011) demonstrated that transcultural collaborations provide diversity that leads to greater learning, understanding, and innovation for researchers. Based on their research into collaboration that utilized social media between two academic libraries, one in the U.S. and the other in China, Sue and Puterbaugh (2013) conclude that “the dissimilarities in language, culture, and general outlook provide a richer work relationship” and more meaningful outcome (64). Higgins, Wolf, and Torres (2013) studied collaboration between comparable undergraduate marketing classes in the U.S. and Ireland, in which both U.S. classes used the social media platform ValuePluse[7] but one class did not have the international component. Their research shows a significant difference in students’ learning from their peers in the international group and indicates that the transcultural component adds engagement and interest for students’ learning. The examples above and the Transcultural Dialogue project’s participants’ reflection below all indicate that transcultural collaboration provides meaningful learning experiences and creates an important space for sharing and exchanging perspectives through written text, spoken audio recordings, and images. Moreover, participants, as conveyed in Kabiito’s reflections below, were able to learn how others from a different country view their country.

It has been an exciting but challenging engagement with the Transcultural Dialogue project. It provided an opportunity to produce works of art in different ways. I mostly create art with physical objects. In this class, I was able to work with a digital medium, which is not only an end in itself, but also a material for artistic engagement. Secondly, it was revealing to learn about how people from outside Uganda view us, and how Ugandans view the United States. (R. Kabiito, personal communication, November 26, 2011)

The Transcultural Dialogue project presented here stems from learners’ participation in culturally relevant pedagogy where one’s cultural orientation comes into play (Lu 2008). The Transcultural Dialogue project is designed as a culturally relevant pedagogy with a community of learners. This practice is aligned with what these studies have identified as the significance of transcultural collaboration.

Challenges Across and Within Communities of Practice:
Time Constructs, Cultural Difference, and Geographical Distance

Social media can further communities of practice with constructivist learning principles. Constructivist learning begins with learners collaborating with others from their own interests and concerns (Tétard, Patokorpi, and Packalén 2009). Transcultural dialogue makes visible social relations, behavior, beliefs, preferences, and orientation toward others.

Ligorio and Van Veen (2006) note: “The community of learners approach focuses on the social dimension of learning and considers collaboration to be the engine of learning” (105). To create a community of learning requires three component parts: cognitive presence, teaching presence, and social presence (Anderson 2008). Cognitive presence refers to learners’ reflective and sustained dialogue to challenge their assumptions and construct new understandings, a transformative learning. Students perceive teaching presence when facilitators are engaged in making and sustaining the dialogic space of learning. With social presence in particular, students establish supportive environments in which they “feel the necessary degree of comfort and safety to express their ideas in a collaborative context, and to present themselves as real and functional human beings” (Anderson 2008, 344). Presence in contexts with the potential for dialectic and dialogic learning can be democratic spaces “whose relationships mediate learning as much as the processes and tools that are in play” (Ravenscroft et al. 2008, 6). In dialogic educational spaces, new forms of intersubjective orientations are created in which transformative learning can happen. It is from these premises of democratic spaces for culturally relevant practice with a community of learners that the Transcultural Dialogue project was launched in spring 2010.

In the Transcultural Dialogue model, the intersection between visual culture, stereotyping, and transcultural communication may present problematic issues. For example, transcultural communication has the potential to unveil participants’ hurtful false beliefs and stereotyping of others that stem from mass media consumption. Unfortunately, mass media provides a limited portrayal of others’ reality, and it has the power to (mis)inform and mold our beliefs and opinion of others based on narrow perspectives. If this is the case, a participant’s comments may offend other participants. Also, there is the possibility for misrepresentation, miscommunication, and misinterpretation to occur when participants from different cultures interact with one another using the Transcultural Dialogue model. However, in our experience some participants expressed fear that they might unwittingly offend and none mentioned they were offended, only misinterpreted. Differences in interpretation were discussed in the exchanges. Long waits for responses was the main frustration expressed by U.S. students.

Time Constructs

Similar to other studies on transcultural collaboration, challenges of scheduling and technology were part of our Transcultural Dialogue project experience. Language was not as great an issue in the 2010 Transcultural Dialogue as it was found to be in other studies involving collaboration between different language speakers (Sun and Puterbaugh 2013; Higgins, Wolf, and Torres 2013; Leppisaari and Lee 2012; Ertmer et al. 2011). Scheduling with time zone differences is a challenge (Camardese and Peled 2014, Sun and Puterbaugh 2013, Leppisaari and Lee 2012). The U.S. students in the Transcultural Dialogue project had regular class meetings twice a week. They often had to wait for the Ugandan participants to respond to their posts because of the different scheduling. This sometimes created disappointment if U.S. participants did not receive responses within their time expectations. Ugandan students participated outside of a structured course, and while this choice to participate motivated involvement, obstacles such as frequent electrical outages and slow bandwidth kept them from responding as frequently as the U.S. students expected. Ugandan participants seemed to be patient with electricity and technology. Some Ugandan participants found particular times of the day provided faster Internet connectivity. Several commented that the Internet is faster when the United States sleeps. Similarly, the concept of time as a constraint or being integral in the constitution of culture may not be understood in the same way. In Uganda, time may appear as a given, whereas in the United States, time is often interpreted as a constraint. For most Ugandan participants, time as a given meant there is a schedule but adherence depends on other life circumstances and situations. For most U.S. participants, they expected to work within the time constraints allotted for the project in a course that had a specific ending date.

In addition, technical difficulty was a huge challenge. Munguatosha, Muyinda, and Lubega (2011) state that for developing countries to adopt learning with social media, it requires “self efficacy, reliable technical and administrative support, infrastructure, system interactivity, adequate budgeting and accountability, and a flexible organisational culture” (307). This highlights the challenges in many transcultural collaborations with social media. Sue and Puterbaugh’s (2013) study of collaboration with China and Rautenback and Black-Hughes’ study of collaboration between U.K., U.S., and South Africa also found that technology difference is an obstacle. For our Transcultural Dialogue project, the bandwidth problem altered the original plan of using certain technology, such as Dabbleboard. The art-making collaboration therefore moved to e-mail communication, which is more difficult to track.

Social software that is available and accessible in Uganda and the U.S. should provide a platform for collaboration with minimal physical contact, yet it is mired with challenges. The challenges include differences in how students relate online in terms of conversation, understanding of self in relation to others, understanding of others’ concept of time and how time is spent by other cultures, human activity, sources of truth, commitment to school, friends, or family, and cultural understandings of giving and receiving respect. For example, one participant reflects on her notions of time in relation to the 2010 Transcultural Dialogue project:

Time and technology presented challenges and restricted the project. Instant feedback could not be expected due to the time difference and Uganda’s slow Internet speed. At times, this made it difficult to engage in dialogue with others. As a participant in a group art project in which communication was vital, I waited hours/days for Ugandan participants’ responses and contributions. This was challenging for me living in a culture of instant gratification. However, delayed response time served as a reminder of the distance and difference between our locations and cultures. Reflecting on time and technology constraints, I find our Web 2.0 artmaking/meaning-making accomplishment admirable. We were able to connect, learn, and create with others in an enlightening way. (J. Motter, personal communication, November 26, 2011)

Difference in time and timing in several other ways is one of the greatest challenges to both online and face-to-face (F2F) collaboration. F2F brings everyone into the same time space and promotes richer learning experiences than online if the time immersed in another culture can be for ten weeks or more. Short visits are mired with problems of tourist views. Ten or more weeks can still be within a semester, making a F2F visit possible for a group of university students. However, ten weeks in an online collaboration may be too short if the time during the ten weeks is divided among many other responsibilities, including work, study, and family. From our experiences, projects spanning less than ten weeks do not work well because shorter durations fail to allow for flexibility with holidays, electrical outages, and other unforeseen events like university faculty strikes or other environmental, cultural, or political crises. Ten weeks is the minimum we have found and fifteen weeks might be the optimal length of time for an online Transcultural Dialogue project so that the focus on creating collaborative art is not lost.

Cultural Difference

Culture is commonly understood as attitudes, beliefs, and daily practices that distinguish one group of people from another. Cultural practices are both sustained and changed through language, material objects including art, and educational, social, religious, and political institutions. However, one’s own culture is often invisible when there is not dialogue about attitudes, beliefs, practices, and material objects with cultural groups different from one’s own culture. Through dialogue and art-making with those from cultures different from one’s own, misunderstandings surface, making visible the nuances and complexity of cultural comparison across space and time. The Transcultural Dialogue project examines issues of cultural difference within and between groups, as well as cultural differences understood through the lens of place and identity—that are socially, historically, politically, and psychologically constructed and practiced.

The 2010 online Transcultural Dialogue project revealed cultural differences in conceptualization, dialogue, and application of knowledge and resources available to the collaborating students from both regions. Students in Uganda viewed culture as something that had already been constructed. For the U.S. students, culture existed in the present and was therefore always in a state of becoming; for the Ugandan students, on the other hand, Ugandan culture is perceived in the distant past, prior to colonial legacies that control the present. This represents a contrast in the understanding of culture between the two groups of students.

U.S. participants learned about themselves through others’ misconceptions. Knowing how others understand their culture gave them a chance to reflect on the influence of media and visual culture. However, Ugandan participants did not seem to benefit from this because U.S. participants generally lack knowledge about Uganda’s culture. The following are reflections from participants on the process of the 2010 Transcultural Dialogue from a cultural-difference lens.

Admittedly, I was unsure of what to expect when beginning my participation in the project. However, I was excited about the opportunity to utilize Web 2.0 to converse and collaboratively create with others whom I likely would not meet otherwise. When thinking about my exposure to the contemporary visual culture of Uganda, I recalled a colorful yet simplistic batik that my cousin purchased in Uganda and now decorates her home. I envisioned the contemporary visual culture of Uganda as handmade artifacts.

When asked to bookmark digital visual culture that conveyed how I perceived Uganda and to comment on the websites I selected, I bookmarked Uganda Travel Guide,[8] a site for tourists, which includes information about the traditional crafts of Uganda including pottery, basketry, and wood-carving. I also bookmarked Ugandart,[9] a Uganda Online Art Consortium that includes a video of a 2009 sponsored workshop that facilitated children’s exploration of art in Namungona. The children partook in drawing and jewelry-making, as well as collaboratively created a large oil on canvas mural by contributing painted symbols of familiar objects and living beings including houses, vehicles, and wildlife. This video, while only a glimpse of Uganda, influenced my understanding of the culture represented. Uganda Wildlife Education Centre (UWEC)[10] is another website that I bookmarked. It exists as a conservation education model to educate the public, including youth, on preservation of wildlife. All animals at UWEC have been rescued from poachers, illegal traders, or accidents (Uganda Wildlife Education Centre 2010). My bookmarked websites represented my perceptions of Uganda, as well as my personal interests.

When contributing to collaborative artwork, these bookmarked websites influenced the imagery that I selected for inclusion in our digital piece. The imagery that I contributed included a child beading a necklace, a heart-shaped beaded necklace, and a child’s painting that depicted a woman, bloomed flower, fish, water, and connected people in the background. My group’s artwork is titled Hope (the lower middle artwork in Figure 1) and is visual culture that represents my understanding of Uganda via visual culture exposure and transcultural dialogue. Makerere University students’ clarifications of Penn State students’ contemporary visual culture selections, descriptions, and questions helped me to better understand Ugandan visual culture by providing missing context that can influence meaning. (J. Motter, personal communication, November 26, 2011)

I also participated in creating a collaborative artwork (see Figure 2) and helped facilitate U.S. students’ art-making. My visual response to my small group of Ugandan and U.S. participants was to create an image that reflected the experience of dialogue with people from different cultures so I began by composing an image of participants’ portraits from screenshots that I took of the participants as posted in our Diigo forum. Besides learning from our conversations, I loved the idea of communicating with others through an online platform. Therefore, the artwork showed the process of this project. Later, other participants in my group added question mark symbols to reflect the questions that arose in the communication process. Making changes and adding to the artwork was a way to collaboratively reflect on our common experience. The action of other participants in my group showed that we all considered the questions exchanged between participants an important part of this experience. (C. Liao, personal communication, November 26, 2011)


Figure 2. Artwork created by participant Christine Liao.

The dialogue, for me, began when I made a remark, out of a cultural misconception, that people in the U.S. do not know much about the outside world. This was a remark based on Sarah Palin’s misinformed statement that “you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska” (Walls and Stein 2008, para. 9).[11] When asked about what people from Uganda knew about the U.S., I based my analysis on film images and the mass media, which regularly project contradicting images. On the one hand, the U.S. is portrayed as a land of plenty, where everything is in abundance, yet on the other, we see images that project violence and extreme crime. Indeed, my last night in the U.S. in 2009 was spent in New York’s neighborhood of Harlem, a place I have “known” for crime. I was so uncomfortable that I did not move out into the streets or even peep through the window. I did not, however, find any difficulty walking to the train station the following morning. More so, the warm reception that I received in the U.S., specifically at Penn State, was not what I had anticipated. I had anticipated a numb and detached people, self-conceited due to the vices of capitalism. This and other misconceptions were expressed in the dialogue as we gave rationales for our visual culture selections of the other country and those living in the country responded if and how the visual culture conveyed their experiences. The dialogue, which became the content for our collaborative artworks from our collective reflection on the dialogue, often revealed and challenged stereotypes perpetuated in popular culture or news media representations. (R. Kabiito, personal communication, November 26, 2011)

One challenge for this project was to start with asking questions. One of my students said that she did not know where to begin because she did not know anything about Uganda. This is an interesting imbalance in this project. One group of participants believes they know “more” about the other group of participants. Some people from Uganda learned about U.S. culture through the pop culture export and globalization. However, most U.S. university students did not know much about Uganda. Their almost nonexistent knowledge about Uganda could lead them to have misconceptions about Uganda’s culture(s). The beginning of Transcultural Dialogue, thus, from my observation, started with U.S. students searching for information on the Internet to learn, for the first time, about Uganda. Their understandings of Uganda came from the Internet. Then the dialogue began. They posted what they found about Uganda on the Diigo discussion forum. Some of the Ugandan participants responded, but not everyone’s post received a response. Some participants from Uganda talked about their perception of the United States. For example, one Ugandan participant mentioned that the U.S was uninhabitable because U.S. is often portrayed as violent in the movies. The U.S. students replied, thus sparking discussions about how the media creates stereotypes. Learning happened with such discussion. However, to increase learning, participants needed to do more research about each other’s country before or at the beginning of this project. The U.S. participants appreciated direct answers to their questions, but this did not challenge their previous knowledge, and would be similar to an initial exchange with a foreigner, such as learning about a holiday in a different country. Hence, the learning of Ugandan participants could be different from what U.S. participants learned. (C. Liao, personal communication, November 26, 2011)

Geographical Distance

Unlike in the transcultural dialogues research previously conducted (e.g., Tupuola 2006, Gilberti 2006), this study takes a new twist. In the studies cited above, the interlocutors are mainly fact-to-face with the members of the dialogue team. In some instances, we have virtual environments in play, but such environments are not the focus of the study. In Tupuola’s transcultural study, for example, she creates an engagement process that in a sense was imaginary, whereby dialogue between youth from different geographical locations was mediated by a transnational researcher who relayed the words of one group to another across borders. This is a far different model from the one adopted in this study where dialogue is in real time, only mediated by technological interfaces. This provides a more inclusive basis for participation in the dialogue. The participants’ location introduces a new dimension to the dialogue where educational technologies are used as a set of tools to facilitate the dialogue.

There is an intrinsic connectivity between the platforms under use to facilitate dialogue and the nature of the dialogue itself. The concept upon which the dialogue is built comes with demands of democratic spaces for interaction between dialoguing members. This demand is facilitated by the free access of social media such as Diigo, a tool used in this particular study. Within this space, members are able to exchange views, ideas, and even engage in art-making, even though many of them have never been in real-time encounters outside the virtual environment. The transactional borders are immediately erased to allow real-time dialogue within a common space accessible to everyone regardless of location.

In this way, since members in the dialogue are free to enter, exit, and re-enter the space, more democratic means of dialogue are established and the result is a rich collection of trans-cultural texts—texts not bound by borders, ethnicity, age, or gender insofar as the dialogue is shaped into a whole, meaningful text. At the end, all these texts are built into a tangible outcome that constitutes a common structure of texts that bring together new ideas, understandings, and knowledge within a diverse group of people. This is a unique aspect not part of the design of other transcultural dialogue projects. The following is a reflection from one participant in the 2010 Transcultural Dialogue project regarding use of social media with those who are geographically distant and how social media interaction between two groups of people reveals the impact of visual culture.

The greatest benefit of using social media in this project is that it provides images and texts of visual culture that are easily accessible on the Internet and going online is most people’s daily experience, at least among the U.S. participants. My first thought about the project came from my own transcultural experience—from Taiwan to the United States. I thought it would be like learning cultural traditions from friends who were born in and grew up within the United States when I first came to the U.S. I knew little about Uganda before participating in the project. I had not even heard much about Uganda from news and other media. The images and stereotypes I had about Uganda were generically similar to my stereotypical understanding about African countries—poor, underdeveloped, and war-torn. I thought it would be a good chance to hear from Ugandans about their own country and culture. However, it was not until starting the project that I realized that Transcultural Dialogue is much more than learning traditions of a different culture from friends of a different country. Through social media, we can see how visual culture and images are prevalent on the Internet and how easily we can obtain mis/conceptions through these visual culture presentations of a country. Knowing how Ugandans learned about the U.S. from these presentations was like putting a mirror in front of the U.S. participants and provided them a different angle to see the impact of visual culture. It is a way to create reflexivity for one’s belief and understanding of culture. Reflexive means turning things back toward itself. Through hearing others’ (people from another country) mis/conceptions of what one (the person from the country that is discussed) believes to know better, the exchange shapes one’s knowledge and critical thinking about truth and myth (C. Liao, personal communication, November 26, 2011).

Development of Transcultural Dialogue

We present reflections on our experiences forming and participating in the 2010 Transcultural Dialogue project using a dialogic first-person writing form to weave a narrative of distinct experiences and positionalities of the four authors of this article. The potential of transcultural dialogue emerges from our collective reflections.

Richard: In 2006, while pursuing my doctoral studies at the University of Art and Design Helsinki–TaiK (now Aalto University), I became interested in joining a class titled “Virtual Learning Communities in Art Education: Current Issues and Practices,” taught by Dr. Keifer-Boyd, a Fulbright professor. One of the things I had promised myself before I left Uganda was to create as many linkages and initiate as many collaboration opportunities with foreign universities as possible in order to introduce indigenous Ugandan arts and culture to the world. I presented my ideas for collaboration between Makerere University and Penn State to Dr. Keifer-Boyd. The Margaret Trowell School of Art and Design (MTSIFA) at Makerere University was in the process of transforming its programs to integrate local indigenous cultures into its arts curricula. The Transcultural Dialogue project could support our efforts in revisioning the MTSIFA programs with a focus on Ugandan culture, rather than the current MTSIFA art curriculum based on a modernist European art education curriculum established by the British founder of the school, Margaret Trowell.

In March 2009, I visited Penn State, attended some of the classes, and made presentations about Ugandan culture in general. The visit was not only an academic presentation, but also an initial exchange between faculty—those from the U.S. and Uganda. This visit included meetings with university administrators to propose a student/teacher exchange between both institutions. Several students were curious to know about Uganda and how people there lived. A student in one of the classes asked whether they could freely walk into an Internet café and surf the net. I replied that Uganda has Internet cafés. It was an eye-opening experience indeed.

While visiting the U.S. at Penn State, it became apparent that we were already moving forward with one of the ways of continuing our collaboration—an online and onsite exhibition of work by MTSIFA and Penn State students. Since we did not have a source of funding that would allow students and teachers to travel abroad, social media would be an inexpensive yet effective option for collaboration. Moreover, our online collaboration would build support networks for teachers and students to travel and study in both university visual arts programs in Uganda and the United States. To begin an exchange, I requested that Dr. Keifer-Boyd visit Uganda. During her trip, she would visit our physical facilities, learn about our infrastructure, study our curriculum, attend some of our classes, and generally make recommendations to collaborating partners on how to proceed with an exchange. She would also facilitate a Transcultural Dialogue project as one of the ways of crossing cultures and transcending the barriers that have, over time, created misconceptions about our own cultures and others.

Karen: In preparing a grant proposal, I asked Dr. Venny Nakazibwe and Dr. Richard Kabiito, professors at Makerere University who had visited Penn State in 2007 and 2009 respectively, for feedback on the proposal and a letter of support to include with the funding application. Nakazibwe, the Deputy Dean of the Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Arts, wrote a letter of support that emphasized the development of “mutual understanding, cultural, and academic exchange.” After introducing the Transcultural Dialogue project to students at Penn State, I traveled to Kampala, Uganda, to introduce the project there with these goals.

Christine: I first learned about Transcultural Dialogue from Dr. Keifer-Boyd. In preparing for her visit to Uganda, Dr. Keifer-Boyd asked if I would be willing to participate and lead students at Penn State in the “Visual Culture and Educational Technologies” course during the semester she visited Uganda.

Karen: I planned for Ugandan and United States participants to get involved in different stages in the Transcultural Dialogue project in spring 2010. I met with the students at Penn State who would be participating as part of their course taught by Christine in order to explain the project and to inspire their involvement. I also drafted a plan and discussed it with Venny and Richard via e-mail and Skype so that we could launch the Transcultural Dialogue project during my five-week visit to Makerere University.

In the first week of my visit to Uganda in March 2010, I met with MTSIFA faculty and studied through observation, artifact exploration, interviews, and reflective journal writing about MTSIFA’s curricula, types of pedagogy, and student and faculty teaching and learning culture. During the second week, through critical reflection from week one at MTSIFA and from my presentation to faculty members about possibilities with Web 2.0 free applications—such as VoiceThread, Diigo, Second Life, Google Docs, and wikis—we developed a plan of action for transcultural critical dialogue with art students and art teachers in Uganda and the United States. In the third and fourth weeks, I participated with faculty and students at MTSIFA and Penn State in the Transcultural Dialogue project. Also, I visited high schools in Kampala to meet art teachers, see their art teaching facilities, and ask if they were interested in a future Transcultural Dialogue project with a high school class in the U.S. The English language is used in the Ugandan schools and there was interest. Almost all students had e-mail addresses. Some of the high school students used e-mail regularly, often after school at Internet cafés.

Jennifer: My interest in Web 2.0 technologies’ potential for collaborative, generative, and transformative learning and knowledge stems from my enrollment in New Media Pedagogy, a graduate course taught by Dr. Keifer-Boyd, in spring 2009. During this course, I facilitated Challenging Gender Stereotypes, a week-long online learning activity in which I asked art education graduate students to use Diigo to post critical comments that unveiled their assumptions about the identities of creators of postcards displayed on PostSecret (http://www.postsecret.com) based on the revealed secrets, imagery, color palette, handwriting, and other potential visible indicators of gender stereotypes.[12] This online learning activity led to my further exploration of the potentials for meaningful informal art education via Web 2.0.

In spring 2010, I accepted Dr. Keifer-Boyd’s invitation to participate in the Transcultural Dialogue project, as I found it to be an excellent opportunity for powerful transcultural collaborative art-making and exploration using Web 2.0 tools. My cousin Natalie Sara Weaver’s stories about her recent trips to Kampala, Gulu, and Pader in Uganda also inspired my participation in this collaborative project. My cousin’s goal was to teach songwriting as a tool for empowerment by enabling youth to tell their stories of oppression, resilience, and hope in creative and transformative ways, which resulted in repeated trips to Uganda. Natalie piloted a songwriting program for young women living in Uganda who were previously enslaved as child wives, child soldiers, and/or who had been orphaned by HIV/AIDS, poverty, and war (The SONG Project Live 2011). What little knowledge I had of Uganda, prior to participating in Transcultural Dialogue, derives from stories of my cousin’s experiences working with youth and music in Uganda and my own exposure to minimal Ugandan media coverage.

Future Transcultural Dialogues

Gilberti (2006) cautions against reducing reality to a limited space in dialogue, suggesting instead that we should work toward entering a third space “where differences are understood to be complementary to each other” (33). In this space (also referred to as “relational space”), there is commitment to learning and understanding each other. This outlines the future of transcultural dialogue. Transcultural dialogue emphasizes relations with others, which effectively changes people’s approach to others, in real situations (Mangano 2009). Transcultural dialogue is crucial, as an approach, in eroding assumptions and misconceptions about different cultures and transcending the borders of a single culture to develop a transcultural model of analysis and debate (Dagnino 2012). In an increasingly interconnected world, “cultures are increasingly intertwined and people often constitute their cultural identities by drawing on more than one culture” (Dagnino 2012, 6). Indeed, in addition to creating an open atmosphere where we become more tolerant and get to know new friends, it also creates a space for fundamental explorations of ideas from different perspectives.

Although there are still many challenges as outlined in the earlier section, the potentials of transcultural dialogue exceed these challenges. The greatest potential is that it opens up new spaces for collaborations and understandings. This is supported by the belief that new understandings within new cultural contexts open up new ways of interacting, building networks, and creating platforms upon which future interactions are built. Lindberg and Sahlin’s (2011) study on transcultural collaboration found authenticity in students’ learning about a different culture because they were in conversation with those they were studying. Our Transcultural Dialogue project also provided an authentic experience of conversation between the U.S. and Ugandan students. Such an experience motivated some students to want to collaborate further and to travel. Similarly, Ertmer et al. (2011), who used Web 2.0 technologies to facilitate pre-service teacher’s global perspectives, found that because of the transcultural collaboration experience, the pre-service teachers were more likely to incorporate similar activities into their future teaching. Most of the U.S. participants of the Transcultural Dialogue project were pre-service teachers planning to teach art in k-12. Transcultural dialogue in pre-service curriculum could motivate students to include transcultural collaboration in their teaching and participate in cross-cultural activities (Ertmer et al. 2011). Indeed, one of the 2010 U.S. participants, inspired by the 2010 Transcultural Dialogue project, expressed interest in creating a transcultural collaboration with people in Belize, where she has connections.

The online collaboration between two groups of people at different locations creates a mashup space where online virtual spaces host real learning experiences. The selected websites, discussion texts, artworks, and voice reflections are the elements that constituted our transcultural mashup experiences. With changing technologies, we expect that ways of communicating between distances will improve. We envision that some of the misunderstandings between cultures will change, but also caution that new misconceptions may arise. Transcultural Dialogue is a space where students from different cultures can develop new knowledge about each other, and visual culture, texts, images, and voices can be mashed up to create new meanings.

The Transcultural Dialogue project utilized Web 2.0 technologies to create a mixed reality experience in which participants brought their physical lived experiences into virtual space and created unique insight and knowledge that was not easy to obtain through classroom lectures alone. Accessible Web 2.0 technologies afforded participants the opportunity to deconstruct, construct, and reconstruct cultural narratives through the sharing of the personal in a global public space via transcultural, collaboratively generated user-content that disrupted stereotypes and preconceived notions. This approach can be developed further in the future when technology and energy infrastructure improve worldwide.

Translation, transfer, critique, and questioning of relevance to the context were important to setting up the online architecture and facilitating the dialogue in this project. The Transcultural Dialogue strategies are intended to further understanding and to celebrate and sustain difference. In our work to pedagogically enact this goal, we have identified challenges, tried solutions, and continue to develop an arts-based research and teaching methodology.


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[1] There is no lead author. Instead, we used a collaborative exchange of writing to develop the article. We list our names in alphabetical order with one exception to this order for Keifer-Boyd, whose leadership style is one of initiating, motivating, and joining forces. Correspondence regarding this submission should be sent to Karen Keifer-Boyd at kk-b@psu.edu

[2] Martina Paatela-Nieminen, Richard Kabiito, and Karen Keifer-Boyd developed the first iteration of the Transcultural Dialogue project in 2007 titled Intertextual House. The goal was to foster an intertextual approach to inquiry and engagement with others concerning the subjective process of producing meaning from relationships between images, discourses, and cultures of house as experience, symbolism, and metaphor (e.g., governing houses as in House of Parliament, body as house as in Louise Bourgeois’s art (1947-1993, see http://maddicara.com/2013/12/10/documents-of-memory-the-house-and-the-body-in-the-work-of-louise-bourgeois/), and house as site of identity and societal expectations as explored in WomanHouse (1970-71) and At Home in Kentucky (2001-2002) art installations. An intertextual interpretation emphasizes social and cultural contexts of images as the necessary framework for understanding meanings and functions of signification systems. Other Transcultural Dialogue iterations included Keifer-Boyd’s courses with Kabiito’s or Paatela-Nieminen’s courses, or both together. Kabiito and Keifer-Boyd continued to incorporate the Transcultural Dialogue project in our courses in fall 2010, 2011, and 2012 semesters (Keifer-Boyd 2012). The fifth iteration is being planned for 2015.

[3] Participatory pedagogy refers here to the participation of many people in a dialogue about visual culture in which their dialogue is the artistic medium and material from which collaborative artworks are created.

[4] Communities of learners, also referred to as communities of practice, are formed from shared interests in which the community utilizes collective resources of experience, skills, and shared access to materials and facilities (Wenger-Trayner 2006).

[5] Dabbleboard was an online whiteboard for collaboration. Users can type, draw, or import images to create a board together. It was shut down in August 2012.

[6] VoiceThread enables users to post images, documents, or videos, and others can make comments using voice recording, video recording, or text.

[7] ValuePluse (ValuePulse.com) is a social media platform that allows users to download and share news with others via RSS news feed. It enables real time discussion on news.

[8] Uganda Travel Guide. 2010. “Welcome to Uganda Travel Guide.” http://www.ugandatravelguide.com/.

[9] Ugandart. 2008. “Uganda Online Art Consortium: A Project of KISA Foundation USA.” http://ugandart.com.

[10] Uganda Wildlife Education Centre. 2010. http://www.uweczoo.org.

[11] Sarah Palin was the governor of Alaska from 2006 to 2009 and the Republican candidate for vice president of the U.S. in 2008.

[12] For further information about the Challenging Gender Stereotypes activity, see “PostSecret: Disrupting Gender Stereotypes” (Motter 2010).



About the Authors

Karen Keifer-Boyd, Ph.D., is professor of art education and women’s studies at the Pennsylvania State University. She is past president of the National Art Education Association (NAEA) Women’s Caucus (2012-2014), NAEA Distinguished Fellow Class of 2013, and 2012 Fulbright Distinguished Chair in Gender Studies at Alpen-Adria-Universität Klagenfurt, Austria. She serves on the NAEA Higher Education Research Steering Committee; on the Council for Policy Studies; and as past coordinator of the Caucus on Social Theory. She is co-founder and co-editor of Visual Culture & Gender, and has served on 15 editorial and review boards. She has been honored with leadership and teaching awards, including two Fulbright Awards (2006 in Finland and 2012 in Austria) and the 2013 Edwin Ziegfeld Award. Her writings on feminist pedagogy, visual culture, inclusion, cyberart activism, transcultural dialogues, action research, social justice arts-based research, and identity are in more than 50 peer-reviewed research publications, and translated into several languages. She co-authored Including Difference: A Communitarian Approach to Art Education in the Least Restrictive Environment (NAEA, 2013); InCITE, InSIGHT, InSITE (NAEA, 2008); Engaging Visual Culture (Davis, 2007); co-edited Real-World Readings in Art Education: Things Your Professors Never Told You (Falmer, 2000); and served as editor of the Journal of Social Theory in Art Education and guest editor for Visual Arts Research. She is coordinator of the Judy Chicago Art Education Collection.

Christine Liao, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Watson College of Education at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. She received her Ph.D. in Art Education with a minor in Science, Technology, and Society from The Pennsylvania State University. After receiving her Bachelors and Masters degrees from National Hsinchu University of Education she was an elementary school art teacher in Taiwan, where she originates. She taught Visual Culture and Educational Technologies from 2008-2011 at Penn State. Currently, she is teaching arts integration to elementary undergraduates and graduates at UNCW. Her research interest focuses on avatar creation, embodiment, identity, and new media in art education. She has published in journals and book anthologies including Journal of Art Education, Visual Culture and Gender, Journal of Virtual Worlds Research, and Visual Arts Research. She is also the Chair of Art Education Technology Issues Group (2014-2016) in the National Art Education Association.

Jennifer Motter, Ph.D. graduated from The Pennsylvania State University in May 2012. Her doctoral research “Feminist Art Curriculum: Politicizing the Personal via Cyberpost Activism” involves socially-responsible and culturally-responsive art education. Through Motter’s research and praxis, she aims to encourage meaningful experience-based artmaking and strategic social media interventions in order to promote and facilitate social justice. Motter is particularly interested in the empowerment potentials of new media for marginalized groups, such as girls and women. She is co-president of the National Art Education Association Women’s Caucus. Motter is a new media art program developer and teacher at a middle school in Western Pennsylvania.

How the San of Southern Africa Used Digital Media as Educational and Political Tools


Philip Kreniske, The CUNY Graduate Center & Baruch College

Photography by Jesse Kipp, New York University


The term San refers to the indigenous people of southern Africa, who for thousands of years lived a nomadic lifestyle, hunting and gathering for subsistence. Some contemporary San still subsist partially on food gathered from the bush. Many others have been pushed from their traditional lands and lifestyles and now struggle to subsist earning low wages in rural areas on the edges of cattle farms or urban areas working in factories and living on the fringes of informal settlements. In the past decade the San have begun to use new digital tools to document, communicate, and represent their values and struggles. This article focuses on how San people used digital technologies to generate educational texts by transcribing and web publishing traditional oral folktales and to inject their own perspectives into critical political debates. In each of these cases digital media enabled San people to realize explicit and implicit social and political agendas. This paper focuses on select digital representations of San people by San people and explores how these examples relate to larger issues of education and globalization in the region.


Seminal scholarly work in the late 1950s portrayed the San people of Southern Africa as living the quintessential hunter-gatherer life—much as we might imagine our earliest ancestors to have done thousands of years ago. Today, there are about 100,000 San people, the majority of whom are spread across Namibia, Botswana and South Africa (Hays & Siegrühn 2005, 27). In each of these nations the San people have been economically, politically, and socially marginalized (Hays & Siegrühn 2005, 27; Hitchcock & Vinding 2004, 12-13, 19). Some contemporary San still live in remote villages throughout the Kalahari desert (Figure 1) and subsist partially on food gathered from the bush (Lee 2013, 218), while many others have been pushed from their traditional lands and lifestyles and now struggle to subsist earning low wages in rural areas on the edges of cattle farms or urban areas working in factories and living on the fringes of informal settlements (Susser 2009, 173).


Figure 1. A San Village in Nyae Nyae, Namibia

This article focuses on two ways that San people use digital technologies: first, to generate educational texts by transcribing and web publishing traditional oral folktales; and second, to inject their perspectives into political debates, as was the case when San bloggers wrote about issues of land rights and education. In each of these cases there were explicit and implicit social and political agendas that were realized through the use of narratives and digital media. Narrative is one of the oldest tools for sharing and creating knowledge (Bruner 1986, 3-44), and written narratives become physical manifestations of this knowledge. These works may indicate a new era of San activism in which San people create the educational agenda and write the historical narrative.

Historically the terms San, Khoisan, Bushmen, Basarwa, and Kwhe have all been used to refer to the diverse groups of indigenous southern African hunter-gatherers who speak related yet mutually unintelligible languages (Barnard 1992, 3-36; Suzman 2001a, 2, 55). Hitchcock, Ikeya, Biesele, and Lee (2006, 6) relate that at a meeting in Namibia in 1996, and reaffirmed at a meeting on Khoisan Identities and Cultural Heritage held in Cape Town in 1997, representatives of various San groups agreed that Khoisan be dropped in favor of two separate names, Khoe and San, and to allow the general term San to designate them externally. Furthermore, it was agreed that specific San group names, some of which are indicated in their general geographic region in Figure 2, should be employed for the various named social units (Hitchcock et al. 2006, 6). The current work focuses on the Ju|’hoansi in Namibia, the Naro in Botswana and the ǂKhomani in South Africa.



Figure 2. Map of San Groups by Region (Biesele and Hitchcock, 2011, p. 52).

The residual impact of apartheid policies in South Africa and Namibia, and more recent policies in Botswana, manifests in low literacy rates and, concurrently, few economic opportunities for the San people in these regions (Suzman 2001a, 9-13; WIMSA 2005, 2008). However, as will be explored in more detail below, the effects of such policies against the San differ vastly depending on their geo-political circumstances. For example, the Ju|’hoansi in the Nyae Nyae region live in a fairly expansive and isolated area. This isolation has made it difficult for contemporary San in the Nyae Nyae to earn a formal education, but historically this isolation has also served as a protective mechanism against the most culturally devastating aspects of the apartheid era, and more recently as a buffer against the AIDS epidemic (Susser 2009, 171-199).

The San in Namibia

The region currently known as Namibia earned its independence in 1990. From 1915 to 1990 the region, then called South-West Africa, was a mandate of South Africa and as such was subject to South Africa’s apartheid policies, which discriminated against all people of color, but were particularly pernicious for the San. For example, while other ethnic groups were allotted “homelands,” a series of policies that culminated with the Odendaal Commission’s recommendations in 1968 denied land rights to all but 2 percent of the San people in Namibia (Suzman 2001b, 85). Similarly, the San were largely excluded from formal economic and educational opportunities. In the mid-1990s Namibia began to address and remediate the impact of residual apartheid policies on the San people. In a watershed moment in 1997 at The National Workshop on African Languages in Basic Education, the Honorable Minister of Basic Education and Culture, John Mutorwa, publicly acknowledged:

In our country before Independence was achieved African languages were developed on a piecemeal basis. The result was that some languages received more attention than others and some were hardly developed at all. For example, one marginalized group of Namibian citizens, namely the Bushmen or San people, received so little attention that no education was available for them in any language except Afrikaans (cited in Brock-Utne 1997, 248).

For the San people in Namibia the legacy of these Apartheid policies persists to the present day. Namibia is a multi-cultural state with 13 recognized languages, ranking seventh among African nations with literacy rates of 91 and 94 percent for men and women respectively (UNICEF 2007). These high national literacy rates fail to capture the disparities within the nation, however. Demographics aggregated on an ethno-linguistic basis indicate the San[1] have the lowest life expectancy, the lowest income levels, and the lowest education rates in Namibia (UNDP 1998). According to the Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa (WIMSA) Report (2007-08), “this figure is so low that if the Namibian San were representative of the country as a whole, Namibia would rank between the Central African Republic and Sierra Leone at number 178 of the 180 countries ranked around the world” (13). Though Namibia may boast relatively high literacy rates, the San are a nation within a nation who by explicit or implicit policies have been denied the chance to secure an education.

The Digital Landscape in Nyae Nyae

In 1998 the Nyae Nyae conservancy was established as an autonomous San region within Namibia through the combined efforts of the government of Namibia and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). These organizations cooperated with consultants, development workers and local people.[2] Located in northeastern Namibia along the Botswana border, the Nyae Nyae Conservancy spans 250 km of the Kalahari Desert. The majority of San in the Nyae Nyae are Ju|’hoansi and they maintain a somewhat traditional lifestyle, living in numerous small villages dispersed across the area and subsisting on a combination of food gathered from the bush, store bought food, and government food subsidies (Lee 2013, 218). Traditionally huts were constructed of wood and thatch—though contemporary structures often use a variety of materials, for instance in Figure 3 a plastic tarp serves as a makeshift wall.


Figure 3. A San family home in Tsumkwe, Namibia.

A series of solar and wind powered boreholes dotted across the region provides the main water supply (Biesele and Hitchcock 2013, 10, 47; Hitchcock and Vinding 2004, 13) and few huts have electric power sources. In general, electrical power is scarce, and sources that can generate power in this type of remote region such as solar panels (Figure 4), windmills, vehicles and diesel generators are rarely available to the San (Biesele and Hitchcock 2013, 47; Lee 2013, xxii).

Figure 4. Rig-up of a battery to operate lights and recharge phones, powered by solar panel. This is at a remote location Apl-pos, a Ju|’hoan village 12 km. west of Tsumkwe. Photo from Richard Lee’s personal collection.

Until recently, even Tsumkwe, the largest village and the municipal center for the region, had power for only 10 hours a day. In 2012 this changed as the Desert Research Foundation completed the Tsumkwe Energy project, installing a solar diesel hybrid energy supply system that provided power to the village for 24 hours a day (“ACP EU Tsumkwe,” n.d.; “Tsumkwe Energy” 2012). In the center of Tsumkwe, there are a series of concrete government constructed houses (Figure 5), a community center, and a primary and secondary school. The first public computers were introduced in 2008, when the Namibian Ministry of Education, with support from the Namibia Association of Norway (NAMAS), established the Captain Kxao Kxami Community Centre in Tsumkwe (“News” 2009). This center served as a local library and was equipped with a few computers connected to the Internet, which was a major accomplishment (Susser 2009, 197). However, in my experience there in 2010, the connection was quite slow and it took the better part of an hour to send a single email. These remain the only computers connected to the Internet for public use in Nyae Nyae.


Figure 5. Young man sits outside row of concrete houses in center of Tsumkwe, Namibia.

How then can the San learn and engage with digital technologies? Despite technological obstacles, some San people have embraced the limited opportunities to work with digital technologies such as word processing and blogging, using these tools as a means of thinking through local debates and documenting political struggles often related to land rights. Specific developments such as improved infrastructure, the community center with public computers and Internet access, and an activist digital education project suggest a sea change.

The Ju|’hoansi Transcription Group (JTG)

In 2002, Megan Biesele, an anthropologist and community organizer who has been working in the region since the 1970s, organized one such educational opportunity (Biesele 2009, i-vii; Biesele and Hitchcock 2013). The project focused on transcribing the recordings of Ju|’hoansi folktales and political meetings that Biesele and others had been compiling for the last four decades. Over a ten-year period, Biesele worked with approximately twenty multi-lingual Ju|’hoansi from Nyae Nyae and surrounding areas. Using laptops donated by Sony and Redbush Tea Company and solar panels donated by BP (by 2006 consistent electricity was available in Tsumkwe and the solar panels were no longer necessary), the team transcribed the recordings into both written English and Ju|’hoansi.

One of the main goals of this project was to create culturally relevant curricula for Ju|’hoansi San learners (Biesele and Hitchcock 2013). A lack of relevant curricula has emerged as one issue that may contribute to the high attrition rate of San learners from the local schools (see Figure 6; Gabototwe 2011; Kreniske 2011). Gabototwe described how in his twelve years of schooling in Botswana he learned about King Shaka and Nelson Mandela, “but not once did a teacher mention past accounts of any San community.” Another goal, according to Biesele and Hitchcock (2013), was to combine the new technology of word processing, the transcription software Elan, and audio files with the “old” technology of collaborative learning that was traditional among the Ju|’hoansi and other San” (240). As part of the project, Biesele, along with three assistants, Catherine Collett, Taesun Moon and Victoria Goodman, helped the 22 San translators learn basic computer literacy skills.


Figure 6. Curricular materials for 8th and 10th grade respectively, Tsumkwe, Namibia.

Prior to this project there were no opportunities for San in the region to gain such computer skills. The participants were so motivated by the experience that over the course of the project the transcribers initiated a transcription group, in which they began to teach local San youth computer literacy skills. Biesele and Hitchcock detailed how upon learning of the project some of the most senior members of the community emerged from their more isolated villages and spent weeks helping the young transcribers decode aged audio files. The JTG bridged generations, creating a context of shared purpose where youth trainees, the relatively young transcribers, and the elderly members of the community generated a text that served as an archive of oral folktales and a useful tool for future Ju|’hoansi learners.

Culturally relevant texts are particularly useful for developing readers from underrepresented groups (Hale 2001, 111-152; Hillard 1992, 370-77; Lee 1995, 357-381; Lee 2012, 348-355). Students often struggle to connect and interpret traditional textbook materials that bear little relevance to their daily lives. The challenge becomes two-fold: a student must interpret the words and learn about the foreign context presented in the material. Relevant texts give learners the opportunity to call upon their semantic, procedural and conceptual understanding of the world, generally referred to as prior knowledge, to support their developing reading skills (Wolf 2008). For example, San students in Nyae Nyae have a rich understanding of the local flora and fauna. A text about local plants and animals would allow for these students to develop their reading skills while they draw on their past experiences and interpret the text. Considering the thirteen recognized languages in Namibia, providing each group of learners with culturally relevant materials is a great challenge. As noted earlier, the San are one group whose educational needs have been largely neglected. The compilation of Ju|’hoan folktales was created explicitly to meet this need, and is appropriately titled Ju|’haon Folktales: Transcriptions and English Translations: A Literacy Primer by and for Youth and Adults of the Ju|’hoan Community (Biesele 2009).

Furthermore, the compilation produced by the transcription project served as one of the few archival and historical records of Ju|’hoan folktales. The process of transcribing was an occasion for intergenerational communication, involving the development of young trainees’ computer literacy in collaboration with the elders’ unique language comprehension skills. In the print and web published text, traditional values of collaboration and practices of storytelling were integrated with digital literacy and community organizing to produce a tool for future educational and cultural purposes.

The published book itself is an impressive product, but perhaps the most important contribution of this community-based educational initiative was the intergenerational collaboration developed with and by the local participants and the genesis of a core group of skilled San people who continued to produce texts in varied digital and print media. At least one member of the JTG, Tsamkxao Fanni Cwi, continued working on Ju|’hoan – English translations. In collaboration with Kerry Jones, Cwi recently published the Ju|’hoan Children’s Picture Dictionary (2014), a culturally relevant text that Ju|’hoan can use to develop their literacy skills. The digital translation and word processing skills learned by these San people allowed them to take an active role in creating culturally relevant educational materials. In light of the years of exclusion from the educational system during the apartheid era, the creation of Ju|’hoansi educational texts stands as a major political statement and accomplishment. Both Fanni Cwi and another JTG member, Beesa Crystal Bo would also join the The Kalahari Peoples Network (KPN), a community-based educational initiative that grew into a rich tool for digital communication and community activism.

San Bloggers

Issues of San representation have long been a topic of academic interest and debate (Barnard, 2007; Hitchcock, et al. 2006, 1-7). In popular culture from films to websites the San people are typically exhibited in their traditional garb and in some cases even listed as attractions alongside exotic animals (Cooper 2013; “Extreme Namibia” 2013; “San in Kruger Park” n.d.; The Gods Must Be Crazy 1984). However, digital representations—like printed texts—authored by San people are scarce.

The KPN is a unique example of a site where San people wrote and posted their own perspectives on current issues and values. Founded in 2008 by a group of activists and academics affiliated with the Kalahari Peoples Fund (a small non-profit based in Austin, Texas and founded in the 1970’s), KPN’s mission was to provide a network for exchange of ideas and information between Kalahari communities and individuals across Southern Africa (“About” n.d.).

In 2011, KPN held a twelve-day course in !Khwa ttu, a San educational and cultural center near Cape Town. The word !Khwa ttu means water or water pan in the no longer spoken San language |Xam (Staehelin 2002). |Xam also provides the motto for the South African coat of arms, !ke e: /xarra//ke, literally meaning “diverse peoples unite” (Government Communication and Information System 2000; Figure 7). Interestingly, this motto might also be appropriate for !Khwa ttu and KPN, two organizations that worked to unify San people from across the region. Furthermore, both !Khwa ttu and KPN sought to empower San people with the technical skills to represent their own communities and values.




Figure 7. South African Coat of Arms.

Established through the combination of efforts by local San organizers and a small Swiss charitable organization, UBUNTU Foundation, !Khwa ttu’s mandate reads, “that we, the San, must gain control over our own image and presence in the tourism industry. We strive to acquire the skills for income generating activities and to be proactive in preventing exploitation of our less educated San relatives” (“Mission” n.d.). Considering that the San groups exist as disparate entities spread across southern Africa—many like the Ju|’hoansi in Nyae Nyae Namibia live in remote regions—this appears to be a weighty and possibly problematic task. For instance, it is unlikely that the Ju|’hoansi in Nyae Nyae Namibia would want the mainly ǂKhomani San in !Kwa ttu to intervene on their behalf. The KPN was founded in part to address such challenging issues and to develop a communication and support network run by San and for San people with representatives from a variety of groups.

The !Khwa ttu workshop and the subsequent KPN project sought to unite San from across the region and to serve as “a virtual space for networking and exchange of information among contemporary Kalahari communities and individuals…” and as a space for “San and other indigenous Kalahari dwellers to speak in their own voices to each other and to interested people outside their communities (“About” n.d.). As will be explored below, some of the KPN editors expanded their work beyond the San people, broadening their network and developing connections with international indigenous rights groups.

The immediate goal of the KPN training course was to identify and prepare ten San deputy editors from across the region (“Education” 2011). One editor, Jobe Gabototwe, would later blog about this formative experience, writing:

As a young boy growing up in the small village of Kedia in central Botswana I believed that my people, the San (also known as Basarwa or Bushmen) were only to be found in my country. All people coming from Namibia, I, and all around me, used to address as ‘Hereros.’ I was proven wrong when I enrolled in the !Khwa ttu Training Programme for Trainee Guides (2011).

Gabototwe noted that the attendees were San from different cultural, linguistic, and geographic regions including South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Namibia.
A narrative analysis approach based on the methods of values analysis (Daiute 2004,111-135; Daiute 2014, 68-113; Ninkovic 2012) was used to examine over 30 blog posts written by two San deputy editors and consistent contributors, Magdelena Lucas and Job Morris. A values analysis is useful for exploring how narrators position themselves in relation to particular contexts. For example, Lucas often used her posts to express the value that earning an education was important especially for San people. Lucas’s position directly contests the position communicated by the apartheid state that expressed its values that education was not important for the San people through a series of discriminatory legislation. The analysis—explored in detail below—showed how Lucas and Morris used their blog posts to expound on the value of education and debate issues such as the displacement of San people and the uses of cultural tourism in their communities.

Both deputy editors wrote about their own life journeys and academic accomplishments. However, their emphases differed. While Lucas frequently described the personal importance of specific internships and educational accomplishments, Morris more often wrestled with issues of San leadership and the San peoples’ struggles with local and global interests and powers. Through their writing, these two San bloggers struggled to make sense of how they and their communities fit into the changing local and global context. Literary theorists (Berthoff & Stephens 1988; Emig 1977, 122-128; Fulwiler 1983, 122-133) and social scientists have shown how the act of writing is a tool for sense-making (Daiute & Nelson 1997, 207-216; Lucic 2013, 434-439). Sense-making often involves asking questions and working through complex dilemmas. For example, both Morris and Lucas used their writing to explore the positive and negative effects of cultural tourism for the San people. Through writing about this question, each blogger formulated a clearer position on the role they thought cultural tourism should play in their respective communities.

One way to make sense of questions is to talk about them. However, the spoken word is evanescent, while written words are thoughts manifested in physical space (Ong [1982] 2002, 77-114)—on paper or on a computer screen, or, if posted on the Internet, possibly on many screens. As compared to oral communication, reading the words in physical form, and therefore thinking about what one has written, makes the act of writing a distinct tool for sense-making. Writing requires high levels of cognitive and emotional effort, and it is in this process of sorting out how best to explain a set of thoughts or emotions to a specific audience that sense-making occurs. Furthermore, writing in an interactive medium like a blog allows for an active audience and such interaction has been shown to motivate writers (Boniel-Nissim & Barak 2011,333-341; Ducate & Lomicka 2008, 9-28; Sosnowy 2013, 80-86). Lucas and Morris were likely motivated by the potential to interact with a diverse audience as they used the blog to hone their positions and to simultaneously draw attention to key social, political and historical issues in their communities.

Their writings reflect both the similarities shared across San groups and also the different struggles each group faced. Lucas, a ǂKhomani, was born in Ashkam, a town in South Africa near the Botswana-Namibia border. For Lucas, education was of central importance and she demonstrated this by focusing her posts on telling the story of her own journey in contrast to that of her father’s experience during the apartheid regime. Whereas, Morris, a Naro from Botswana, blogged about issues of land rights focusing on large-scale displacement policies that have affected the San in Botswana for the past twenty years.

The history and current circumstances of the ǂKhomani San are quite different from those of the Ju|’hoansi in Nyae Nyae, who still speak their native language and subsist at least partially from food gathered from the bush. Lucas wrote that she learned Afrikaans as a first language and never learned her ancestral San language, N/u, because “farmers and old governments took our land and forbade us to use our own language” (Lucas 2011a, Figure 8).



Figure 8. Screenshot of “Cultural Tourism – a Personal View” By Magdalena Lucas.

The story of Lucas and her father reflects that of many ǂKhomani in South Africa who were kept from learning their native language and often denied the opportunity to attend formal schooling. These policies were so destructive that there are no surviving speakers of the N/u language (Barnard 1992, 88-90). In 1994, South Africa earned independence from the white minority, as voters in the first non-racial democratic elections selected the African National Congress (ANC) as the nation’s governing party. Although no San languages were included in the 11 official languages of South Africa, this massive political shift allowed for young San people, like Lucas, to be the first in their families to attend school and earn an education. Furthermore, initiatives such as those by KPN and the project at the resources center at !Khwa ttu provided Lucas with additional support as she developed her intellectual and technical skills.

To fully appreciate the importance of Lucas’s posts we need to consider not only the history of apartheid in southern Africa but also the continuing marginalization that the San people across the region endure (Suzman 2001b, 7-18, 38-40). Lucas’s (2010) story about her educational journey serves as an example of San resiliency in spite of a history of exclusion from formal educational institutions. Lucas described growing up with an alcoholic father who worked on a local “white” farm and a mother who valued education. Despite struggling to find basic necessities, Lucas persevered and graduated from grade 12. The post then shifts to the present, with Lucas expressing her excitement about being accepted into a nine-month training course at !Khwa ttu where she hoped to “learn about the past and the present of all the San groups that live in southern Africa.” In the final sentence of her post, Lucas wrote that she wanted “to use the knowledge and experience that she gained from the training wherever she will be lucky to get a job.” For Lucas, it was most important that this training lead to a job.

Over the nine-month tour guide training course Lucas posted about her experiences at !Khwa ttu and she also posted about the two-week Kalahari Peoples Network training mentioned above. In part through the connections and skills developed in these trainings Lucas landed a museum curator internship with Iziko Museums in Cape Town (Newsflash 2011-12). Following nearly two years of these trainings and internships, Lucas found herself again unemployed. Interestingly, she did not forsake the importance of education, but instead wrote a post titled Education is Power (2011b). In this post, Lucas initially acknowledged some of the financial obstacles stopping many San from enrolling in educational programs. She then launched into a detailed account of how her community had been battling for a civic project to install electricity and housing:

We also need educated San people to speak out for our rights as South African citizens; For example, we don’t have electricity on our farm. The people of Andriesvale in the southern Kalahari, where a lot of ǂKhomani families live, have told the municipality that they want houses. However, each year the municipality postpones the construction of houses. Each year, the government has given money for development but nothing has happened in our community. The community members wanted to know where the money went. Well, the municipality told us that it went back where it came from (Lucas 2011b).

In this statement, Lucas argued that had there been more educated community members they could have articulated the town’s position and this project would not have been abandoned. “Yes,” she continued, “We are living far away in the Kalahari but that doesn’t mean that the world can ignore us. We need our own lawyers, teachers and our representatives at the municipalities. It’s about time that we, the San take on challenges and change our circumstances.” Lucas described how the lack of advocacy allowed the local government to ignore the needs of her community. She understood that for this public project to recommence there needed to be educated San people who could fight the legal battles and voice their position at the municipal level.

Many of the barriers to San securing an education are related to decades of systematic oppression. There are also tensions between the San people’s traditional lifestyle and the current logistical realities of schooling. Lucas, for example, described spending much of her childhood living in a dormitory near the Ashkam primary school and then moving 90km further away to her secondary school in Rietfontein. Lucas’s story highlights the differences between her context and that of other San groups like the Ju|’hoansi in Nyae Nyae, Namibia. In Nyae Nyae, tensions between traditional lifestyles and the logistical demands of schooling are even more pronounced. Limited transportation is an issue of critical concern to many local residents (Hays 2002, 132; Kreniske 2011).

Many villages can only be reached using four-wheel drive vehicles, as throughout the Nyae Nyae only a few roads are paved and there is no formal public transportation system. Hardly any San have access to vehicles and therefore hitchhiking and walking are the only options. These circumstances are challenging enough for an average adult, but for a child traveling hundreds of kilometers from their village to their school, the lack of transport is often an insurmountable obstacle. These obstacles force children to choose between living with their families and boarding at school. Researchers have documented some of the struggles that San people face in earning an education (Biesele & Hitchcock 2013, 233-44; Kreniske 2011; Hays 2002, 123-139). However, Lucas’s posts present a first-hand account of the struggles that many San face as they attempt to earn a formal education.

Perhaps Lucas could and would have written about these issues in print. However, there is something special about writing in digital media and specifically posting on the Internet that inspires individuals to inject themselves into public debates, as Yochai Benkler has argued. According to Benkler:

Individuals become less passive, and thus more engaged observers of social spaces that could potentially become subjects for political conversation; they become more engaged participants in the debates about their observations. The various formats of the networked public sphere provide anyone with an outlet to speak, to inquire, to investigate, without need to access the resources of a major media organization (Benkler 2006, 11).

For Lucas the outlet was the KPN blog, and her posts about earning an education functioned as social and political acts. The KPN blog provided a medium for Lucas to enter a conversation that has long revolved around San peoples’ inability to earn an education that rarely included San voices. Her story provides a narrative that counters this negative perception of the San. With her posts Lucas makes a political statement and shows how San can succeed within the current educational system in spite of the many obstacles they may face.

Morris, a Naro San who grew up in D’Kar Botswana, also used his blog posts to engage in social and political debates. In one post, Morris directly addressed cultural tourism by weighing the pros and cons of practices such as dressing in traditional garb and showing tourists the traditional way of life (2011a). Morris argued that in some ways cultural tourism encouraged San people to remember their traditional ways and counter what he described as “cultural pollution,” which occurs when San people adopt a “foreign/western way of life” (Morris 2011a, Figure 9). However, he noted the economic returns from cultural tourism were minimal. Further, Morris explained that the problem with cultural tourism was that it distracts young people from pursuing other potentially rewarding career paths. He wrote that cultural tourism “diverts the young people from school and distracts them from a better future. It creates only seasonal means of employment and has no job security, no health care, low benefits and no protective organization.” Morris worried that cultural tourism too often exploited the San—promising only minor compensation and few broader benefits. Morris explained that the San still value and respect their traditional culture, but that they “do not live a traditional lifestyle on a daily basis.”



Figure 9. Screenshot of “Cultural Tourism – Good or Bad?” By Job Morris.

A related post by Morris revolved around destruction of the environment and the displacement of the San from their traditional lands. Morris wrote: “Mother Earth is a source of life for the San and their very existence as a people is embedded in how they survive in that land…[and] for other people to take away their precious land is more like killing the San.”

This statement may appear to be figurative, however according to Lee (2013, 218) it is literally true. Lee described how contemporary San in the Nyae Nyae still forage nearly half of their sustenance from the Kalahari, and that without these natural sources many San would live in complete destitution, facing near starvation. In his post, Morris also connected the figurative and emotional with the practical uses of the land by describing the practice of foraging for tubers. After digging up a tuber the San rebury the root so the tuber can grow again “and be a resource to others as well.” Morris used this post to illustrate one way that contemporary San still subsist on foods foraged from the bush using traditional practices.

Given the continued importance of foraging for food, a critical struggle for many San groups across the region, from the early twentieth century to the present moment, concerns challenges to their land rights. At times these challenges arrived in the form of military force (Suzman, 2001a), political mandates (“Bushmen” n.d.), or in a less dramatic, but still destructive guise, as cattle herding squatters (Odendaal 2013). Morris used a number of blog posts to call for regional leadership structures that he and his fellow San could organize with the goal of securing San land rights in Southern Africa. One similar value shared across many San groups is an egalitarian—and to an outsider enigmatic—leadership system (Lee 2013, 121-124). Morris described this leadership system as “everyone can lead but not anyone can lead” (2012a). He then described his experiences with leadership and the decision making process. A leader:

[…] invites his people around the fire and they establish dialogue about the matters that have aroused in the clan/community. Around the fire, the leader invites his people to talk about the things that should be done and it is where healing takes place. He invites them to touch upon their joys and sorrows and around the fire, they tell stories. These are the folklores or tails that have been passed on to them by the generations before them and they can be seen on the rock art that has existed through many lifetimes.

This post illustrates the tensions between the similarities and the distinct cultural practices of different San groups. Morris is attempting to marshal the images of rock art to support a narrative of unified San identity. Notably, only the San of South Africa have a history of creating rock art. As Morris described, many San groups did traditionally use similar leadership systems that emphasized egalitarian community-based discussions and decision-making that some scholars have referred to as direct democracy (Biesele & Hitchcock 2013). With this and other posts Morris attempted to amalgamate the San people into a unified political force. For Morris, the project of a unified San identity extended well beyond the proverbial campfire.

Morris’s posts reflected the work he was doing to actively share the story of the San people in international forums. Morris seemed to understand the power of presenting a unified San identity as he attempted to organize regional leadership and develop connections with international indigenous rights activists. In D’Kar, Morris collaborated primarily with the Kuru Family of Organizations which supported him as he blogged and submitted proposals to international conferences. In 2011, Morris presented the case of the San of Botswana to the 10th United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) in New York. Morris used the forum and his subsequent blog post to focus on issues of forceful relocation in Botswana, writing:

Numerous San communities were relocated from their Ancestral Lands as in the recent CKGR (Central Kalahari Game Reserve) case. Some San were forced to move in the name of Development and some died in the name of development. There in CKGR, because of the forced relocation, their livelihood, culture and values are slowly diminishing. They have a small land for a vast number of people. (2011b)

Morris then called attention to Botswana’s refusal to ratify ILO Convention 169, which would officially eliminate the colonialist doctrine of discovery (Lee 2012), and in the words of Morris, “give us our right to own land that we have traditionally occupied from time immemorial and protect our languages, cultures, and heritage. This to us is development” (2011b). Lucas and Morris both envisioned educated San voicing their respective struggles in local and international forums. With his speech at the UN, Morris took a leadership role on a global stage for the rights of San people and also for indigenous people across the globe. Morris concluded by calling on other “indigenous Peoples who have made it” to “empower us, show us, guide us, strengthen us, motivate us and increase our capacities based on your experiences so that we can become more than just how other societies perceive us, but also people who are sustainable and independent.” As Morris delivered this closing statement he seemed acutely aware of the international audience of indigenous people and activists. Sharing the story of the San, and specifically those who were relocated from the CKGR in Botswana, certainly drew international attention to issues of San land rights. Gaining this attention was the product of efforts by Morris and by Kuru and others who supported him along his journey.

However, there was an inherent tension between Morris’s depiction of the campfire community meeting and his solo presentation at the UN. Where in his speech was there room for egalitarian discussion that he previously noted as a key characteristic of San decision-making and leadership? In theory the KPN was founded in an attempt to create a network for San people and activists throughout southern Africa to communicate. Morris’s posts on the KPN blog had the potential to function as a space for discussion, with interested San people from across the region commenting on his ideas for action or perhaps contributing to, or even editing the script for his speech.

Despite his prolific posting and international speeches, Morris received few comments on his posts, and the comments he did receive were rarely written by fellow San. One reply to Morris’s UN address was posted by Eugene Skeef, a South African born percussionist and activist residing in the UK since the 1980s, who wrote, “Thanks for a very moving account. We all need to pull together to realize the vision of your statement.”[3] In general, comments on the KPN site were limited, with Morris and Jobe Gabototwe being the most active commenters—often adding positive comments to fellow bloggers’ posts.

Based on the mission statement, the intended audience of the KPN blog was other San people, academics, activists, and policymakers interested in indigenous issues. Likely reasons for the lack of comments from other San people include the aforementioned relative isolation of many San communities, combined with the lack of material means such as computers and reliable Internet connections. Additionally, the long history of exclusion from traditional educational systems and resulting low literacy rates precluded many San people from participating in any written media.

Another possible factor leading to the low number of comments on the KPN was that the blog required users to login or register to leave a comment. No doubt this login requirement was intended to limit advertisers and other web crawlers who take advantage of many blogs’ comment sections as a space to promote unrelated products and sites. In my experience as an administrator for a number of blogs, the majority of comments are often from advertisers, and legitimate comments are relatively rare. Requiring a login can discourage the aforementioned ne’er-do-wells but may also limit contributions from potential casual commenters and less savvy Internet users. While academics and activists posted some comments, there were no comments posted by San people, aside from the comments posted by San deputy editors like Morris, Lucas, and Gabototwe. The lack of comments makes it difficult to determine who was in fact reading the KPN blog.[4] Despite the few comments, or the larger question of determining who reads what on any particular website, the content produced on KPN remains a valuable resource for academics, activists, and policymakers.

Over the two years that Morris and Lucas posted on KPN, they, along with the other deputy editors, created a rich database of folk stories, testimonials, and archival records both for San people and by San people. The act of blogging may have encouraged them to “observe the social environments through new eyes—the eyes of someone who could actually inject a thought, a criticism, or a concern into the public debate” (Benkler 2006, 11). Using their blog posts, Lucas and Morris worked through challenging issues and formulated critical positions on controversial topics such as the value of and access to an education, the pros and cons of cultural tourism, and the large-scale displacement of San peoples in Botswana. At least in part, it was through his blogging that Morris nurtured his leadership skills and honed the positions that he would eventually present at the United Nations. But even before Morris arrived at the UN, his words could reach activists across the globe. Writing online made the KPN bloggers’ work accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. As Daiute (2013) notes, “the digital world makes conflicts, inequalities, and abuses worldwide visible to all with access not only to personal computers but also to public displays, news and conversation” (65). These bloggers created an active network for documenting their experiences and critiquing the policies of the regional states.

The site remains a rich resource featuring opinions from San people depicting their understanding of local and global issues, although in 2012 KPN’s funding dried up and the site is presently an inactive archive. If we understand blogging as a key aspect of Lucas’s and Morris’s development as community activists and global advocates, then it seems imperative to continue to support San bloggers. KPF, the agency that founded KPN, remains open to donations for similar initiatives. One such initiative could be to follow Morris’s recommendation and work with San people to establish a sustainable and independent site where San people could continue to develop as activists while sharing their struggles and triumphs in coordinating future projects.

Concluding Thoughts

The Kalahari is a harsh environment for humans to live: water is scarce; nubby plants dot a sandy landscape that seems to extend for infinity; animals—some of them large and dangerous—migrate over great distances; while the temperature fluctuates from freezing at night to sweltering during the day. In spite of these apparent ecological challenges, the San people, using their expansive knowledge of the environment, have thrived on this land for thousands of years. In recent decades, the increasing interconnectedness of the global and the local, in part due to technological advances, has presented new challenges and opportunities for the San. Like many across the globe, the San have begun to use new digital tools to document, communicate, and represent their values and struggles.

In Nyae Nyae, the Ju|’hoansi Transcription Group created one of the first published works of San folktales. In this project, the San combined the traditional practice of storytelling with computer literacy and transcribing tools. The project bridged generational gaps as older community members were called in to help decipher some of the recordings and younger San became apprentices to the trained transcribers—learning basic computer literacy skills along the way. The digital tools enabled a grass roots team of linguists and locals to create a desperately needed culturally relevant text. The book, also published on the web, is not only an archive of stories that might otherwise have been lost to future generations, but also a relevant pedagogical tool that can be leveraged to support developing Ju|’hoansi readers. The work illustrates a growing sense of the value of education for and within the Ju|’hoansi community.

Similarly, the KPN blog was often used as a forum to discuss the impediments to, and to tout the importance of earning an education for San people across the region. The blog was also a space for the deputy editors to work through concepts of leadership and articulate their perspectives on community issues, such as the struggles against international diamond corporations which, with the help of the government of Botswana, pushed many San from their lands. After years of legal battles the San have begun to return to their lands in Botswana, but this conflict is far from resolved, nor are such conflicts isolated to Botswana. In 2010 in Namibia, Herero crossed the border from Botswana and settled on San owned lands in Nyae Nyae Conservancy (Biesele 2010). In part because the local San have little political influence, they have not been able to extradite these illegal squatters who strain the areas’ already limited water, land, and educational resources. By using digital tools, like the KPN blog, in combination with speeches at international conferences and legal battles at home, the San have been able to push back and gain some recognition of their land rights.

Facilitated by digital tools, the transcription group created culturally relevant texts and the San bloggers developed critical social and political commentary. However, it remains to be seen what the lasting effects of these projects will be. A series of questions remain unanswered: Will the Ju|’hoan Children’s dictionary be the last work translated, or will it be just the second in a litany of educational texts? Does the lack of comments on the KPN blog by other San mean that the work of the KPN bloggers went largely unnoticed? Or does the number of comments written by the KPN deputy editors indicate that San people—when they can get access—will embrace digital tools and use them to develop cohesive inter and intra group activist networks? What is known is that these works suggest a great potential for the uses of digital technology by underrepresented peoples, and stand as rare examples of texts—digital or print—about San, by San, and for the San. Especially for people like the San who have been represented and misrepresented in innumerable ways, writing about their values and struggles is a political act, and the San bloggers used their posts to construct a powerful new narrative for the San of the modern era.


I would like to thank Richard Lee and Megan Biesele for their support in the field and their comments on the manuscript.


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Hays, Jennifer. 2002. “‘We should learn as we go ahead’: Finding the way forward for Nyae Nyae Village Schools Project.” Perspectives in Education, 20 (1): 123-139. OCLC 775995239.

Hays, Jennifer, and Amanda Siegrühn. 2005. “Education and the San of Southern Africa.” Indigenous Affairs. (1): 26-34. OCLC 775150286.

Hilliard, Asa G., III. 1992. “Behavioral Style, Culture, and Teaching and Learning.” Journal of Negro Education. 61 (3): 370-77. OCLC 425478076.

Hitchcock, Robert K., and Diana Vinding. 2004. Indigenous Peoples’ Rights in Southern Africa. Copenhagen: IWGIA. OCLC 57255814.

Kalahari Peoples Network. “About the Site.” http://www.kalaharipeoples.net/about.php (accessed February 12, 2014).

Ibid. 2011. “Education: Kalahari Peoples Network Workshop.” http://www.kalaharipeoples.net/article.php?i=301&c=26 (accessed February 12, 2014).

Kreniske, Philip. 2011. “Education in Nyae Nyae.” Kalahari Peoples Network (blog). http://www.kalaharipeoples.net/article.php?i=278&c=26 (accessed March 1, 2014).

Kruger Park. “San.” http://www.krugerpark.co.za/africa_bushmen.html (accessed March 1, 2014).

ǂ Khomani San. “History of the San.” http://www.khomanisan.com/about-us/ (accessed March 3, 2014).

!Khwa ttu. “Newsflash: Summer 2011/12.” http://www.khwattu.org/engage/newsletter/dec-and-jan-2011-2012/?id=109 (accessed March 10, 2014).

Lee, Carol D. 1995. “Signifying as a Scaffold for Literary Interpretation.” Journal of Black Psychology. 21 (4): 357-381. OCLC 197886943.

Ibid. 2012. “Conceptualizing Cultural and Racialized Process in Learning.” Human Development. 55 (5-6): 348-355. OCLC 4939164484.

Lee, Richard B. 2013. The Dobe Ju|’hoansi, Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning. OCLC 801223566.

Ibid. 2012. “Historic day for the San.” The Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa. http://www.osisa.org/indigenous-peoples/regional/historic-day-san (accessed March 5, 2014).

Lee, Richard, B., Robert Hitchcock and Megan Biesele. 2002. “Foragers to First Peoples: The Kalahari San Today.” Cultural Survival Quarterly 26.1.

Lucas, Magdalena. 2010. “New Writing: Life is Worth Living…” Kalahari Peoples Network (blog). http://www.kalaharipeoples.net/article.php?i=201&c=10 (accessed March 15, 2014).

Ibid. 2011a. “Cultural Tourism – a Personal View.” Kalahari Peoples Network (blog). http://www.kalaharipeoples.net/article.php?i=276&c=8 (accessed March 15, 2014).

Ibid. 2011b. “Education is Power.” Kalahari Peoples Network (blog). http://www.kalaharipeoples.net/article.php?i=292&c=8 (accessed March 15, 2014).

Lucić, Luka. 2013. “Use of evaluative devices by youth for sense-making of culturally diverse interpersonal interactions”. International Journal of Intercultural Relations. 37 (4): 434-449. OCLC 5108856615.

Morris, Job. 2011a. “Cultural Tourism—good or bad?.” Kalahari Peoples Network (blog). http://www.kalaharipeoples.net/article.php?i=275&c=8 (accessed March 15, 2014).

Ibid. 2011b. “Statement of San issues at UN.” Kalahari Peoples Network (blog). http://www.kalaharipeoples.net/article.php?i=290&c=8 (accessed March 15, 2014).

Ibid. 2012. “Leadership of the San.” Kalahari Peoples Network (blog). http://www.kalaharipeoples.net/article.php?i=355&c=8 (accessed March 15, 2014).

News. “News: Captain Kxao Kxami Community Centre, Tsumkwe”. August, 2009. http://www.kalaharipeoples.net/article.php?i=139&c=6 (accessed August 27, 2014).

Namibia Tourism Board. “Extreme Namibia—The World’s First People.” http://stories.namibiatourism.com.na/blog/bid/266317/EXTREME-NAMIBIA-The-World-s-First-People (accessed March 15, 2014).

Ninkovic, M. 2012. Changing the Subject: Human Resource Management in Post

Socialist Workplaces. PhD Diss. The Graduate Center, City University of New York.

Odendaal, Willems. 2013. “Land Laws Failing the San.” The Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa. http://www.osisa.org/fr/indigenous-peoples/blog/land-laws-failing-san (accessed March 5, 2014).

Ong, Walter J. [1982] 2002. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Routledge. OCLC 49874897.

Simpson, John. 2011. “The Kalahari Bushmen are Home Again.” The Guardian, December 13. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/dec/13/kalahari-bushmen-home-again-botswana-diamonds (accessed March 15, 2014).

Sosnowy, Collette. 2013. Blogging Chronic Illness and Negotiating Patient-hood: Online Narratives of Women with MS. PhD diss. Graduate Center, City University of New York. OCLC 868831972.

Staehelin, Irene. 2002. “!Khwa ttu: San Culture & Education Centre.” Cultural Survival Quarterly, Spring. https://www.culturalsurvival.org/ourpublications/csq/article/khwa-ttu-san-culture-education-centre (accessed August 22, 2014).

Susser, Ida. 2009. AIDS, Sex, and Culture: Global Politics and Survival in Southern Africa. Chichester, West Sussex, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell. OCLC 244598965.

Survival International. “Bushmen.” http://www.survivalinternational.org/tribes/bushmen (accessed February 27, 2014).

Suzman, James. 2001a. Regional Assessment of the Status of the San in Southern Africa. Windhoek: Legal Assistance Centre, Report no. 1. OCLC 50630191.

Ibid. 2001b. Regional Assessment of the Status of the San in Southern Africa. Windhoek: Legal Assistance Centre, Report no. 5. OCLC 50630191.

Tsumkwe Energy Project. 2012. “Tsunkwe Energy.” http://www.tsumkweenergy.org/overview/ (accessed October 3, 2014).

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United Nations Development Programme. 1998. Namibia Human Development Report 1998.

Windhoek: UNDP. OCLC 47075453.

Wolf, Maryanne, and Catherine J. Stoodley. 2008. Proust and the squid: The story and science of the reading brain. New York: Harper Perennial. OCLC 191932021.

Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa. 2005. Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa (WIMSA): report on activities April 2004 to March 2005. Windhoek: WIMSA. OCLC 69992992.

Ibid. 2008. Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa (WIMSA): report on activities April 2007 to March 2008. Windhoek: WIMSA.

[1] There are at least 10 distinct San populations in Namibia, the largest five in order are Hai//om, Ju|’hoansi, !Xun, Kwhe, Naro, and =Au//eisi (Biesele & Hitchcock 2011, 6)

[2] For a more complete history of these events see Biesele & Hitchcock, 2011, 198-227.

[3] Skeef confirmed he wrote this comment via personal communication to the author on September 19, 2014.

[4] National Public Radio (NPR) demonstrated with a recent April Fools’ Day prank that many people comment on articles they have not actually read, and therefore the number of comments on any web article is not necessarily equal to the number of people who actually read a particular article (Hathaway 2014).



About the Author and Photographer

Philip Kreniske is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Human Development Psychology Program at the Graduate Center and a Writing Fellow at Baruch College. He is an editor for theSociety for the Teaching of Psychology Graduate Student Teaching Association (GSTA) blog and he maintains a personal blog on OpenCUNY. Philip’s research focuses on the intersection of technology and education with a particular emphasis on expressive writing in digital contexts. His dissertation explores how diverse college freshmen used interactive writing media as a tool to reflect on their transition to college and what difference this made in terms of their social relational writing and academic achievement.

Jesse Kipp is a travel writer,photographer, and videographer, with a master’s degree in journalism from NYU.

Teaching Online Journals in Tanzania: Knowledge Production and the Digital Divide


Tom Fisher



While online academic journals have theoretically made a vast amount of material available to academics and students at institutions of all kinds, there is a great deal of variation in their use. This article explores issues of access to these materials in African universities, arguing that it is not infrastructure but rather lack of skills that hampers access. It is based on a series of workshops taught to students at Saint Augustine University of Tanzania (SAUT), a large new private university. This article argues for the importance of accessing online journals for the developing the research culture of an institution such as SAUT. Journal articles are almost entirely produced in the global North, yet if access is taught in the context of critically engaging with these discourses, this can be of great benefit to the South. It is not a question of encouraging the students to accept the authority of these sources; rather, they can be used to illustrate an academic debate and broaden students’ exposure to different paradigms and epistemologies. Similarly, by confronting the practicalities of teaching the workshops within the local infrastructure of SAUT, the workshops engaged with the existing strategies used by students in dealing with the limitations to Internet access in Tanzania. Through using the students’ own experiences of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), the workshops illustrated how making use of their strategies not only increased the relevance of the workshops, but also smoothed many of the practical pitfalls of teaching in Tanzania.


An increasing amount of peer-reviewed academic literature is available online. This availability has the potential to help level the playing field between the resources available to elite research-led institutions and those institutions with less of a developed research culture. Accessing these resources online has become an essential skill for academics and students at many institutions, but many—particularly in the global South—are not in a position to take advantage of the opportunities provided to them. In the case of Africa, international schemes have made large numbers of academic journals available to institutions for free or at a significantly reduced cost. Yet usage rates by staff and students remain very low, particularly outside of the elite African institutions. One of the primary reasons for this is that staff and students lack the knowledge of what materials and available to them, and they do not have the skills to access the materials.

This article is based on my experience teaching at Saint Augustine University of Tanzania (SAUT), in Mwanza, on the shores of Lake Victoria. SAUT is a large, secular, private university, owned and operated by the Catholic Church. SAUT is one of the largest examples of the new private universities that have emerged since the liberalization of Tanzania’s higher education sector in the late 1990s. While playing an increasingly important role in educating Tanzanians, these universities have yet to develop a strong research culture. They stand in contrast to the research-centered elite public institutions such as the University of Dar es Salaam. Working alongside a colleague, Stephen Kerr, we developed and taught a series of workshops on accessing online journals through JSTOR and publishers’ websites. These workshops were designed for postgraduate students in a variety of disciplines across the social sciences and humanities, including history, mass communication, and linguistics. These workshops covered the process of accessing these repositories, including logging in, browsing, searching, accessing an article, and downloading PDFs. Each workshop lasted around two hours and was highly practical in nature, with students using their own laptops and cellular modems.

In this article, I make the case that accessing journals online is an essential part of stimulating research and knowledge production in institutions such as SAUT. This is not because these Northern-authored texts provide the sole source of academic knowledge, or that the information presented was not open to challenge. Rather, the academic debates presented in journals provide an opportunity for the students to consider competing theories, paradigms, and epistemological positions. With the weak research culture of the institution, the goal was to help students critically engage with the academic debate, and perhaps develop their own positions. A similar ethos informed aspects of the pedagogy of the workshops, as we made the decision to work with the students’ own experience of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). This experience not only benefitted the teaching through bringing the teaching closer to students’ own experiences of ICT, it also proved to have practical benefits for combating the issue with Tanzania’s infrastructure.

The Digital Divide and Online Journals

Much of the work done on ICTs in Africa focuses on development, with a primary focus on the economic impact of these technologies. The underlying epistemological assumptions behind many of the existing approaches can be challenged, however. In an analysis that is useful for this project, Robin Mansell (2014) draws a distinction between exogenous and endogenous models. The former is the type of top-down approach favored by institutions such as the World Bank, in which “knowledge is like light” (World Bank 2011, 1). This approach, however, privileges the knowledge produced in the “advanced” North over the global South. Endogenous approaches, on the other hand, are bottom-up and emphasize the local production of knowledge, recognizing the existence of multiple knowledges and perspectives. Mansell (2014) argues that an endogenous approach in the policies surroundings ICTs for development would provide a greater chance for the technologies to be used for human development.

If an endogenous approach is to be welcomed, does this not present a problem for teaching online journals? Given that the vast majority of material in even Africanist journals is produced in the North, is using these journals not a clear example of privileging Northern knowledge? Through the teaching of the workshops, I strived to ensure that this was not the case. As described in this article, the research culture of a university such as SAUT is extremely limited, dominated by a single, positivist research paradigm. By placing journal access within the pedagogical context, these workshops stimulated debate and illustrated the different paradigms and research methodologies present in the broader literature.

The differences in access between the global North and South has been described as a “digital divide,” yet this is a concept that has been critiqued. David Gunkel (2003) observes that the term “digital divide” inherently creates a dichotomy between two binary opposed options: the “haves” and “have-nots”. Furthermore, it creates a hierarchy between these categories. The example of access to online journals supports Gunkel’s critique. The global situation is more complex than the single division that the “digital divide” suggests. Globally, there is a great variation between institutions, and indeed among students, in the use of available online resources. In Tanzania, usage is low: as outlined below, on average there is less than one download of an online journal article for every instructor or student in Tanzania. Within Tanzania, however, there is also a great deal of variation between institutions, not only in the technological infrastructure but also the training and knowledge of library staff, academics, and students (Manda 2005). Even within the global North, the experiences of institutions differ. For example, a study of universities in the UK (Research Information Network 2009) reveals that per capita usage of online journals varies greatly between institutions. In research-intensive institutions, per capita usage was almost three times higher than less research-intensive institutions.

Our concern in teaching these workshops was on the use of online resources by students. This stands in contrast to much of the existing research on the digital divide that has, as Jan A.G.M. van Dijk (2012) observes, focused on physical access to computers and the Internet (64). Indeed, this concern for the infrastructure is present in most discussions of Internet literacy in Africa (Belcher, Gwynn, and Rosenberg 2006, 120; Manda 2005, 271-274; Harle 2010, 17-23). Much of the research focuses upon the negative aspects of Internet access in Africa. There are, of course, challenges to using the Internet in Tanzania. The quality of Internet connections at African higher education institutions is frequently very low; a decade ago, they averaged the same bandwidth as a domestic broadband connection in Europe, and cost 50 times the price paid by educational establishments elsewhere in the world (Gakio 2006, iii). New developments bring new issues: “[T]he advent of electronic journals generated new problems, specifically the need to upgrade ICT facilities and infrastructure, to secure good internet access, and to invest in training and familiarisation” (Harle 2010, 4). Programs to develop the teaching of online materials have been limited by unreliable Internet access and an irregular power supplies (Wema 2010).

Yet the focus upon the difficulties and problems surrounding Internet access does not get us far in developing a pedagogical approach to accessing online journals. The approach of our workshops was not to teach within university computer labs, but to make use of the students’ own laptops and cellular modems. We initially created a workshop that encouraged as much real-world use of the materials as possible. That approach had an interesting side effect in revealing the fact that students had already developed strategies to combat the difficulties of being online in Tanzania. Laptop batteries could help students survive through the country’s frequent power cuts, and cellular modems provided far more reliable Internet access than what was available in university labs. Working with the students’ knowledge of the limitations of the Tanzanian infrastructure was not only valuable in improving their learning. It also had practical benefits for ensuring that the workshops ran smoothly, and were not interrupted even if there were power cuts or outages.

Accessing Academic Journals Online in Africa

The value for African universities of accessing peer-reviewed journal articles has been addressed at the international level. There are schemes in place to give African institutions access to a large amount of scholarly material, two of which will be highlighted here. JSTOR, perhaps the most important online journal repository, has an African Access Initiative: universities, colleges and secondary schools in Africa can apply for free access to JSTOR’s massive archived journals collection (JSTOR n.d.). Thus, African universities have free full-text access to the back issues of over two thousand journal titles. Another organization that has given attention to the issue of African access is the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications (INASP) and their Programme for Enhancement of Research Information (PERI).[1] Among other research development activities, PERI negotiates with a broad range of publishers across many disciplines to organize reduced fees or free access to their journals. All of the major academic publishers are involved with this program, including Oxford University Press, Springer, and Taylor & Francis. The decision over which subscriptions will be purchased is arranged by country-level consortia of universities and colleges. This means tat all universities in Tanzania have access to the same titles through PERI (Hanley et al. 2012). INASP has also been organizing training for librarians since 1999 (Belcher, Gwynn, and Rosenberg 2006, 116).

Through PERI, JSTOR, and other initiatives, African institutions have the potential to access a vast amount of scholarly material. For example, a Tanzanian student or academic has access to over 6,400 full-text titles (Hanley et al. 2012, 5) via PERI, with an additional 2,000 through JSTOR. Looking at the top 20 titles across 15 disciplinary areas, Jonathan Harle (2010, 11-13) finds that African universities have access on average to 79 percent of the top journals.

Furthermore, there are other positive aspects of these schemes. The schemes recognize some of the realities of working in African universities. Access to online resources from most Northern institutions is secured through the IP address of an institution. This is also the case in Africa’s more elite research institutions, including the University of Dar es Salaam (Harle 2010, 23). However, many institutions in Africa lack the infrastructure to reliably provide access through a stable IP address, so in these cases access is provided via a password and username. SAUT is in this category. Each publisher has a different username and password, and most change annually. The impact of this system will be discussed further below. Country-level consortia for negotiating access also have the potential for levelling the playing field between institutions within a nation. While the reality of access varies between institutions, a researcher at SAUT at least has the potential of securing access to the same journals as a researcher at the University of Dar es Salaam.

Despite all of these positive initiatives, these resources are barely used by Tanzanian academics or students. In 2011, Tanzania downloaded 65,000 full-text journal articles from journals made available through PERI (Hanley et al. 2012, 5). At this time, Tanzania had around 85,000 students in higher education, and around 4,500 academic staff (The World Bank 2014).This means that a mere 0.7 articles were downloaded per student or academic.[2] Tanzanian students and academics are clearly not making use of the online resources available to them. As Harle (2010, 22) says:

[The] availability of scholarly information can no longer be claimed as the primary problem. …If the theoretical availability of scholarly content is now much greater, and if the sustainability of these access models can be assured, the problem may need to be redefined. It seems necessary instead to consider the ways in which available journals are or are not being accessed and used. In doing so, attention is focused on the barriers which prevent or discourage academics and students from making use of scholarly materials for research. [emphasis in original]

Exploring these barriers, I argue, allows us to understand deeper issues surrounding research culture and knowledge production at African institutions.

The existing literature on accessing online journals, quite understandably, devotes a great deal of attention to the role of libraries and librarians (Lwehabura and Stilwell 2008; Harle 2010; Manda 2005). While undoubtedly libraries and library staff have a key role to play in improving access to online materials, the focus on librarians alone does not ensure that the training is mainstreamed into the curriculum. I argue that the exploration of these issues goes beyond the libraries into an understanding of the broader issues of knowledge production in Africa. It also goes beyond the interests of librarians or mainstreaming information literacy into the curriculum; it is instead an issue key to understanding the research culture of the institution. It is first, however, necessary to understand the educational context in which a university such as SAUT exists.

SAUT: A Private University in Tanzania

The education system in Tanzania has undergone considerable changes since the end of British rule in 1961. The father of the nation, Tanzania’s first president, Julius Kambarage Nyerere, is referred to in Tanzania as Mwalimu – teacher. Nyerere studied at the University of Edinburgh, becoming the first Tanganyikan to achieve a degree from a British university (Molony 2014). While Nyerere placed great emphasis on education in his time in office, his focus was very much on primary education.

The Arusha Declaration of 1967 heralded Tanzania’s move toward socialism, one of the key consequences of which was the policy of Education for Self Reliance introduced in 1968. As Nyerere (1968 [1967], 290) said, “The education provided by Tanzania for the students of Tanzania must serve the purposes of Tanzania.” Primary education was a goal in itself, not preparation for further academic study (Wedgewood 2005, 7). The policy was a success in terms of primary school enrolment, reaching 97 percent gross enrolment by 1981 (Buchert 1994, 112), but only 3 percent of those finishing primary school went on to secondary school (Cooksey 1986, 184). The principal university at that time – and, indeed, to this day – was the University of Dar es Salaam, established in 1961 as a University College affiliated with the University of London. According to the Dar es Salaam website it became a full university in 1970.

By the 1980s, Tanzania’s economy was close to collapse. Nyerere left office in 1985, and there followed a series of economic and political liberalizations (McHenry 1994), eventually affecting the entire education system. The 1995 Higher Education Act established the provision for private higher education institutions and their regulation, while the National Higher Education Policy of 1999 encouraged their growth (The United Republic of Tanzania 1999, 1995; Ishengoma 2007, 87). Higher Education is now regulated by the Tanzania Commission for Universities (TCU), which accredits institutions, programs, courses and qualifications.

There has been a rapid expansion of the number of students attending Tanzanian higher education institutions. As it stands, Tanzania has 28 universities recognised by TCU, 11 public and 17 private. Below these are a another 23 colleges, centers, or institutions operated by one of the institutions, 7 public and 16 private (TCU n.d.). World Bank figures reveal that in 2012 there were 166,000 registered students in tertiary education, up from only 23,600 a decade prior. In fact, from 2010 to 2012, student numbers almost doubled (The World Bank 2014). Thirty years ago, even reaching secondary school was a rare educational achievement; nowadays, the rate of students entering higher education is increasing rapidly.

SAUT is part of this rapid expansion, and is one of the largest private universities in Tanzania. It is a private, secular, non-profit institution, owned and managed by the Catholic Church. SAUT’s origins lie in the Nyegezi Social Training Institute, established by the Catholic White Fathers in 1960, close to Mwanza, Tanzania’s second largest city. With the liberalization of Tanzania’s higher education system beginning in the mid-1990s, the Catholic Bishops of Tanzania began the process of changing the institute into a university. SAUT was established in 1998, and has expanded considerably since its origins. In addition to the main campus of the university in Mwanza (where I was based), SAUT has opened, or is soon to open, centers in other cities, including Bukoba, Dar es Salaam, Arusha and Mbeya.

SAUT is not unusual in being run by a mainstream religious domination, as most of the other private universities are run by Christian churches, including the Lutherans, Anglicans, and Moravians. Even though Christians and Muslims exist in close to equal numbers in Tanzania, only two universities–the Zanzibar University and the Muslim University of Morogoro–are run by Islamic organisations. None of these denominational universities limit student enrolment or staff recruitment below the management level to members of a specific faith. This is, in part, a legacy of Tanzania’s success at nation building, with the importance of national identity making forbidding political mobilization on religious grounds (Heilman and Kaiser 2002). At SAUT, senior management, at head of faculty level and above, is limited to Catholic priests and nuns. Yet it remains a secular institution, as its stated mission emphasizes. A large proportion of the funding comes from the state, in the form of the tuition of undergraduate students paid for through the student loans system.

SAUT has faculties across the social sciences, including faculties of linguistics, mass communication, and sociology, as well as law and engineering. I was based in the faculty of Education, the largest in the university, covering not only school teaching methodologies but also geography, Swahili language, and my own discipline, history. Undergraduates in the faculty studied for bachelor’s degrees in Education, mostly looking to become secondary school teachers within Tanzania. Class sizes were large, with lecture classes of 800 not uncommon and no tutorials or seminars for undergraduates. The faculty had recently begun to expand into two-year postgraduate master’s programs. The Masters of Arts in Educational Management and Planning was very popular, attracting over 100 students a year. These student numbers proved a challenge for undergraduate and postgraduate teaching, particularly when it came to supervising the student research projects required of undergraduates and postgraduates.

As is the practice in Tanzania, undergraduate classes were usually taught by assistant lecturers, teachers who held a master’s degree but not a Ph.D. A Ph.D. was required to teach postgraduate programs. This background to the staff may have affected their own knowledge of accessing online journals. Research in the UK (Research Information Network 2009) illustrates a vast difference between access by undergraduates and teaching postgraduates, and those taking research-led postgraduate programs. If there was a similar pattern in Tanzania, then staff at the assistant lecturer level would have little experience of accessing these resources themselves.

Considering that, thirty years before, few could expect to be educated in Tanzania beyond primary school, there has been a considerable and rapid change in the country’s education sector. These rapid increases have led some Tanzanian commentators to worry about the quality of education being offered by the private higher education sector. Bayreuth-based Tanzanian academic Victoria Makulilo (2012, 65) is concerned that private universities in Tanzania lack the necessary human resources and are looking to increase the number of graduates without regard for their quality. Johnson Ishengoma (2007, 104-5) from the faculty of Education at the University of Dar es Salaam argues that the rapid expansion of private education has more to do with religious institutions looking to expand their influence rather than the provision of quality education. A report on the widening access to higher education in Tanzania notes that “There were numerous complaints … about quality and standards in the private university—particularly in relation to lecturers, lack of facilities, support, accommodation and services. There was little sense of student entitlement to quality in pedagogical and academic practices” (Morley et al. 2010, 49). The report does emphasize that this is not only a problem in private institutions, but also in public universities as well. A particular concern of mine is the quality of research conducted at institutions such as SAUT, and it is to this area that my attention now turns.

Research at SAUT and the Need for Online Journals

SAUT does not have the reputation of being a research-led institution. I argue that developing a research culture is important for universities even if teaching focused. First of all, both undergraduate and postgraduate students are required to produce a research-based dissertation. A large amount of time is spent by faculty on research supervision. The second reason that a research culture is important at SAUT is that many members of the staff are looking toward the opportunity provided by further study, for example a holder of a master’s degree looking to study for a Ph.D. At the time I was there, SAUT did not offer a Ph.D. program, but many members of the staff were preparing proposals for study in other institutions within Tanzania or abroad. There have been attempts to develop the research culture at the institution by producing faculty journals and seminars. Yet there remain serious issues with the research at the institution and with the future of social research in Tanzania.

At SAUT, I supervised dozens of undergraduate and postgraduate research projects, mostly in the field of education. I examined many dozens more. With only a handful of exceptions, the research projects were framed within a positivist research paradigm, employing either a quantitative or mixed-method research design. Furthermore, the majority of the projects were very narrow in scope and ambition. For example, a typical project would apply an old theory such as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs—a hierarchical ordering of motivations first proposed in the 1940s—to the motivations of teachers working in the school district closest to the university. There is certainly scope for an exploration of Northern theories in the African setting, yet the work did not engage critically with theory, offering little in terms of insights into either the theory or Tanzania’s education system.

As I am from a qualitative, Africanist research background, I found this troubling. A colleague of mine, Stephen Kerr, has more than five years’ experience teaching research methodologies to students in Tanzanian universities. He concludes that the almost complete dominance of a positivist research paradigm in Tanzania’s research institutions “severely degrade[d] our intellectual landscape, narrow[ing] the field of social inquiry, and stunt[ing] the development of new theory” (Kerr 2013, 1). The use of the positivist paradigm even extended to research in history. A piece of research on historical social change in Mwanza region, for instance, could be based on research gathered through questionnaires containing mostly closed-ended questions. While both Kerr and I accept that positivist social research has a role, the dominance of this paradigm over all others has serious consequences. The research at SAUT was generally very narrow in scope. “The constant borrowing of other people’s ideas or theories to test and re-test is a little like the washing and rewashing of mitumba (second-hand clothes) bought in the market. Not only does it cheapen the academic endeavour, but also the theory can become worn out and threadbare very quickly” (Kerr 2013, 4).

Kerr traces the dominance of the positivist paradigm back to the earliest developments in academia in Tanzania following independence: “This first wave of Tanganyika based intellectuals knew only too well that all eyes were on them waiting for them to fail, and therefore ensured they complied with international standards by buying into the dominant scientific episteme of the era. Very quickly, conducting social ‘research’ became synonymous with carrying out ‘scientific’ experiments” (Kerr 2013, 1). Dependency theory—in which the Dar es Salaam-based academic Walter Rodney (1973) played a key role—was the dominant theory in both the North and South. Yet as intellectual fashions in the global North changed, dependency theory was increasingly being rejected. As Nugent observes, postmodernism became more fashionable in the humanities and social science in the North: “Although the … fashion gripped North America and Europe, it passed most of Africa by” (Nugent 2009, 6). An institution such as SAUT is also very influenced by the dominant paradigms in the University of Dar es Salaam.

The aim of teaching online journals was not so much to get researchers at SAUT to become followers of the latest Northern academic fashions. Nor is it the goal of increasing the power differences between institutions through privileging the Northern-produced information in Northern journals. Rather, the hope was that using online journals would be part of the development of new research approaches and theories.

It is also important to use the teaching of the journals to illustrate the power of academic debate. Journal articles are an excellent way of illustrating these debates. With each point supported by a reference or evidence, journals illustrate how critical debates operate in academia. As SAUT students rarely—if ever—witnessed the cut and thrust of an academic presentation or seminar, it was through the debates presented in academic journals that they would be exposed to this aspect of academic life. It was probably too much to expect students to challenge the prevailing set of research orthodoxies in the North. However, I did hope that the students would use their existing knowledge to pick up on errors in established academic texts, whether these were a mistranslated text or another inaccurate detail in the published work of a Northern academic. This did not occur, but hopefully students will learn the skills not only to point out errors, but also to critically engage more broadly with academic debates.

An understanding of the academic discourse that is published in Northern institutions is essential for academic debate. As the Sri Lankan academic Suresh Canagarajah puts it:

I believe that it is a necessary evil that periphery scholars should use center publications even to resist their dominance. Given the power, spread, and currency of center publications, it is foolhardy to not use them to further periphery knowledge and interests. Since these are the established channels of academic communication, we cannot help but use them even for oppositional purposes. Furthermore, periphery scholars need to negotiate their interests and knowledge with center scholarship. This is important for challenging the limitations of mainstream knowledge, disseminating periphery knowledge effectively, and eventually contributing to the enrichment and democratization of international relations (Canagarajah 2002, 12).

Whatever one’s view of the debates generated, use of academic journals is essential to engaging with the international research process.

Yet further to Canagarajah’s argument, working in SAUT also led me to reflect upon where the “center” lay in center-periphery debate. From the perspective of a university such as SAUT, I increasingly grew to believe that the center to which SAUT and other universities is peripheral to is made up of the Tanzanian public universities. “Center” is not synonymous with “North”; neither is the South necessarily the periphery. In the case of the field of history, in particular, the history department of the University of Dar es Salaam looms large. This department has probably been the most intellectually influential academic department in Tanzania’s post-independence history. To the extent that there was genuinely a “Dar es Salaam School” of history, it has been understood as referring to histories that are nationalist in viewpoint, aimed at uncovering African initiatives in Tanzanian history (Denoon and Kuper 1970). While much work was done by expatriate historians such as Terrence Ranger[3] and John Iliffe, it was a 1969 volume edited by two Tanzanians, Arnold Temu and Isaria Kimambo, A History of Tanzania (Kimambo and Temu 1969), that marked the compilation of a coherent history of Tanzania (Denoon and Kuper 1970, 332). In turn, it is this history that became the basis for the Tanznaian primary and secondary school history curricula.

In many areas, the study of Tanzanian history by Northern historians has been a response to the nationalist history produced by the University of Dar es Salaam. To take one example that I found useful in the teaching environment at SAUT, consider the study of Maji Maji Rebellion. This was a major rebellion in 1905-7 against German rule in the south of the colony. This is a particularly good event to teach because it is an accessible example of an academic debate. The University of Dar es Salaam produced a nationalist interpretation of the event as a proto-nationalist struggle that led directly to the independence struggle (for example, in a chapter by G.C.K. Gwassa in A History of Tanzania [Gwassa 1969])). More recently, there has been a response in articles published in Northern research journals, including by Jamie Monson (Monson 1998) and Thaddeus Sunseri (Sunseri 2003). These responses critique the nationalist approaches of the Dar es Salaam School, through an exploration of the social roots of the conflict that went beyond it as a proto-nationalist anticolonial struggle. It was through the debate occurring in Northern academic journals that students were able to explore themes related to a nationalist historiography that originated in Dar es Salaam. There is the potential here for students to engage critically at the national level, within the global South, facilitated by the Northern academic journals.

When thinking about ideas of the center, it is more complex than only exploring the divide between Northern and Southern institutions. It is necessary to also explore the power differentials between institutions within countries. Access to online materials produced by the global North is one way in which those newer periphery institutions can hope to catch up with the older Southern institutions that enjoy more developed research cultures.

Use of ICT by Students at SAUT

If the approach to exploring Information and Communication Technology (ICT) use in Tanzanian universities focuses purely on the ICT provision of the institutions themselves, then the picture for SAUT is not positive. There are a number of computer rooms across campus; these include machines open to all at the main library, as well as computer rooms in various faculties and the US-government funded information resource the American Corner. However, the total number of computers is tiny compared to the number of students. The additional problem is the unreliable electricity supply experienced across Tanzania: it could be expected to have one full day without power every week, as well as many other shorter power cuts. While there is a generator that provides power to some buildings, this does not cover the library, nor many staff offices. In terms of Internet access, the connection provided by the university is also slow and unreliable. Wireless Internet is available in the central library, but this is often slow and goes down for weeks at a time due to technical problems. This compares to the University of Dar es Salaam, which has always stood far above other institutions in terms of student-computer ratios and the speed of Internet access (Manda 2005). One important way in which the IT infrastructure is notable at the University of Dar es Salaam is that a list of resources is made available on the library website. This means it is far clearer for students and staff to know what resources are available to them. Yet, in comparing this university to an institution such as SAUT, it should be remembered that all institutions in Tanzania have access to the same online journals.

There have been a number of studies of the use of ICT by students in Tanzanian universities (Manda 2005; Lwehabura and Stilwell 2008). There is, however, more to the use of ICT than the rather pessimistic picture of provision of Internet access by the institution. The use of ICT, and the Internet in particular, is a fast-changing landscape in Tanzania. I have been involved with ICT in Tanzanian education since the late 1990s, working in a large state secondary school near the town of Moshi. At that time, computer skills were limited, and use of the Internet in any capacity was rare. By the mid-2000s, computer skills and Internet use had increased dramatically, with access primarily through Internet cafes. The greatest growth in the last few years has been the growth in mobile Internet, with access to the Internet through mobile phones or through cellular modems attached to laptops. It is these technologies that we utilized in the provision of the online journal workshops. In the future, no doubt the technologies will change further. For example, during one workshop, a student asked if they could access journals on their mobile phones. Any future design must take into account the use of mobile phones and tablets for accessing these materials.

Even though formal provision is weak, ICTs are an increasingly important part of the student’s academic lives at SAUT. Students are expected to have access to computers—undergraduate and postgraduate research papers were expected to be printed, for instance. At the request of my undergraduate students in my lecture course, I started to give out lecture notes in PDF format as well as paper copies. The reason that students requested materials digitally is probably so they could save the money they would have spent on photocopying paper materials.

Importantly, students at SAUT already used the Internet for research. In their research projects, the use of some Internet-based sources was universal. Wikipedia was a popular source of information, perhaps because it tends to be high up on the page of Google results rather than an understanding of the particular nature of this resource. In many respects, students were naïve users of ICT. For example, some of their behavior left their laptops at risk of viruses and other security breaches. This included installing potentially hazardous browser toolbars, and the use of USB sticks in multiple machines without antivirus software. The bigger problem was the lack of critical reading when encountering material online. This was a skill that we aimed to develop throughout the students’ studies, not least through the reading of academic journal articles.

As Jan A.G.M. van Dijk observes, having the motivation to use digital technologies is an essential requirement before any of the additional hurdles to getting online can even be approached (van Dijk 2012, 62-65). It is clear that students were motivated to use the Internet for research, and, moreover, that they saw Internet-based sources as appropriate for their academic work. This was an essential first step in teaching the course. As it turned out, the level of enthusiasm of students in the workshops was high, as described in the next section.

Teaching Online Journal Workshops

The workshops were designed to help combat some of the weaknesses in the research culture at SAUT and to develop an understanding of the nature of scholarly sources. A concern raised by Harle’s research is that Tanzanian academics can lack this understanding and fail to comprehend the academic landscape in which articles reside(Harle 2010, 29). As part of the broader teaching during master’s programs, the workshops at SAUT aimed to combat these problems. Familiarity with the scholarly landscape can only come with time, but the workshops aimed to give students the first steps in this direction. One way this was done was through talking about and explaining academic journals and the peer-review process in both the workshop and preceding classes. This broader recognition of the nature of academic sources and academic debates must be an essential part of such training. It is only through this knowledge and understanding that students can hope to follow an emerging academic debate and understand the importance of critical engagement with published material.

In the workshops, we taught accessing, downloading, browsing through journals, and finally how to use online search. After teaching the basics of logging onto the repository using the username and password provided by the institution, the focus became giving the students some idea of the breadth of material that was available in an online repository such as JSTOR. Students were encouraged to browse, to see the wealth of journals available across a broad range of academic subjects. As it turned out, one of the most important issues was teaching students how to return to the homepage of each journal in case they got lost in the site. We also highlighted the difference between articles, book reviews, and review articles.

Students were then taught how to reach a specific article in a given issue of a journal, as in the case that they were searching for an article on a reading list. Browsing through a website in this manner is probably not the most efficient or easiest way of accessing academic material. A British study, for instance, found that researchers at elite research-led British institutions spent only a short amount of time on publishers’ websites (Research Information Network 2009). Yet from a pedagogical perspective, it was important to reinforce for SAUT students the nature of academic journals organized into volumes and issues. If the students had been familiar with accessing academic journals offline, and had experience using the long shelves of bound journals in a university library, then this would be less necessary. I hoped that understanding the structure of academic journals would improve the students’ understanding of the academic debate. I also felt that recognizing the structure of journals would encourage the use of proper referencing, to ensure that the volume and issue numbers appeared in students’ bibliographies.

Given that the students were not skilled in many aspects of IT use, I produced a printed handout for the class that outlined click-by-click the steps required to access the journals. Every step was accompanied by a screenshot. There are risks with preparing a static handout to cover dynamic media such as websites. Indeed, three days before the workshop, JSTOR introduced a major redesign of their website. Not a mere cosmetic change, the redesigned site required an additional step to be performed. This required a late-night redesign of the handout before the class. The workshop also taught the downloading of PDFs, so that students could have their own library of documents for offline use. This was a particularly useful skill to have in this educational context as many of the students would be accessing these resources at an Internet café. It was, however, probably the least straightforward part of the workshop to teach, given the broad range of browsers and computer settings.

While the ability to easily search repositories is one of the most powerful functions that online resources offer, in the workshop we decided to teach that at the end of the session because once the students are introduced to searching, there is no stopping them! They do not need prompting that they should use search to explore themes from their research projects. It is extremely rewarding to see the enthusiasm with which they delve into the available articles. This can also be depressing: it demonstrates the lack of access to academic sources that they have had throughout their scholarly career. Searching is more of an art than a science, and it is here that the utility of the click-by-click handout ended.

There are many powerful tools for research that the workshops did not touch upon. We did not discuss the use of software that can aid referencing and bibliographies, like Papers and Endnote. The workshop also did not discuss the use of broader search engines, such as Google Scholar. There were a number of reasons why the teaching of these would have needed extra care and attention. First of all, it would have been necessary for a strong differentiation to be made between ordinary Google and Google Scholar, to make sure that students understood the difference between the two. The main problem, however, was that it is not always easy or straightforward to gain access to the articles found on Google Scholar. Students at the University of Dar es Salaam reported similar issues; even for the sites for which the university does have access, students are often unaware of this (Harle 2010, 28). The concern was that the students would turn to the material that was one simple click away on Google Scholar, frequently materials such as master’s theses, and other non-peer reviewed material. While this material may be of use to the experienced researcher, students lacked the scholarly experience to differentiate the valuable material from those of less academic value.

These issues highlight perhaps the greatest drawback of the current infrastructure surrounding online journals at SAUT: the lack of some form of centralized list telling students which resources are available. For a student or academic to know which resources are available, they have to have a certain amount of familiarity with a range of websites and have an idea which publisher’s website offers access to which journals. This makes searching for a specific journal problematic. Anders Wändahl notes that, while Northern universities can afford to employ dedicated librarians to compile lists of online resources available to students, few African universities have access to this level of resource. He does conclude, however, that more resources than might initially be thought are available, it just takes more effort and knowledge for the scholar to access the resources compared to a Northern scholar (Wandahl 2009). Ideally, scholars should have that level of knowledge of the academic landscape that enables them to find the resources they need without a centralised list or database. There is a degree where this lack means there is a pedagogical opportunity to teach a deeper understanding scholarly landscape, to foster a deeper understanding. Yet, overall, the lack of a centralised database of available online journals is a major hindrance.

Understanding the Digital Divide in Practice

The issue of locally produced knowledge also extends to how we utilize the students’ existing skills and experience. One of the key early decisions about organizing the workshop was whether it would take place in a library IT lab or using the students’ own personal laptops. My initial view was that the better option was to use a university lab. I thought that this would make the teaching more straightforward and effective, because every student would be using identical hardware and browser software. However, my colleague Stephen Kerr persuaded me that it was a better option to have students bring in their own laptops and cellular modems. This, he argued, would give a closer real-world experience by having students use of their own equipment. It seemed likely that, given the large student numbers and the small availability of university computers, almost all students would access the Internet through either their own laptops or at Internet cafés. We eventually decided that we would use the students’ personal laptops for the task, a decision that proved to be correct in a number of important areas.

A quick show of hands in the classes where the workshop would be conducted revealed that it was certainly feasible for students to bring in their own laptops, as they had a laptop per 2 or 3 students. Recall that access to journals is through password and username, rather than IP address offered in most Northern institutions as well as the University of Dar es Salaam. One of the effects of this was that accessing material would be the same from the students’ own laptops, at an Internet café, or a University lab. This is, of course, possible at institutions that provide access via IP authentication, through the use of proxy servers or VPNs. Yet this presents problems if the institution does not have a robust IT infrastructure.

IT training sessions in Tanzania are often hampered by poor Internet connections and an unreliable electricity supply. For example, the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications—the organisation that runs the program for providing African universities with access to online journals—has run training sessions for information literacy skills trainers. One of the principal problems they reported in running the workshops was intermittent Internet connections and power outages that lasted several hours (Wema 2010). By having students use their own laptops and cellular modems, these problems were largely alleviated. Using laptop batteries means that power cuts are not an immediate issue. While cellular Internet connections can go down, as students’ connections were spread across several providers, this meant that most of the participants still had access. The workshops could continue in the face of these challenges.

This experience convinced me that endogenous, locally produced knowledge of IT systems should be utilized in the teaching process. Apart from any epistemological issues, there is the practical point: my students lived with the practical issues of using the Internet in Tanzania every day, and so had developed strategies to cope with the limitations. This is the reason that laptops and cellular modems were widely used, as opposed to computer labs. From a purely practical perspective, working within the students’ own experiences means that the classes run smoother. This is an issue that trainers, librarians, and teachers working in any institution should consider.

Trainers, librarians, and researchers should be aware of the realities of how the Internet is used on the ground—and how this provides both problems and opportunities. If the physical infrastructure of the university is relied upon for training, this presents a twin problem: it presents the risk of power-cuts and Internet shortages, while at the same time it does not reflect the real-world use of IT by the students. Researchers should also be aware of the shifting IT landscape in Africa. Given that access to the Internet via mobile phones is increasingly widespread, for example, there are opportunities for new ways of working with researchers.

Undoubtedly, there are limitations to the use of the Internet for research in Tanzania. The available bandwidth is more than sufficient for accessing online repositories. But for other uses of the Internet, the available bandwidth poses difficulties. Viewing streaming videos online is often problematic. In my own research, I found the resources at www.archive.org to be a very valuable. In particular, this site scans out-of-copyright books from many libraries, making titles that were previously very difficult to obtain readily available from any computer with an Internet connection. I found this site very useful in my own research on the published accounts of 19th century explorers and missionaries. However, bandwidth issues often made this site difficult to use, particularly when downloading large PDFs of historic texts.

This bandwidth issue has wider implications for the role of ICT in African universities. At an institution such as SAUT, many staff and students are gaining access through their own resources—through Internet cafés and cellular modems. Furthermore, these private providers supply a better service than that provided by the institution. Many of the essential features of a university IT infrastructure in Northern institutions (institutional email addresses, access to resources via IP address, proxy servers) are absent in the South, with abundant workarounds in place and required. The role of the ICT infrastructure provided by the university seems to me to be fundamentally different from that in Northern institutions.

This leads to the question, how should a private university in Africa be seeking to develop its ICT infrastructure? If a university such as SAUT did introduce IP address-based authentication for online journals, the current infrastructure of the university would not be able to cope, and access would be compromised. In developing the infrastructure of the institution, it might perhaps be better for the institution to think about those services that only the university can provide: access to online journals, for example, through the proper distribution of the necessary usernames and passwords among staff and students. It is the training of scholars, and facilitating access, that is essential to encouraging knowledge production in Africa. Yet by shifting the burden of infrastructure to the students, it also shifts the costs to them as well. As access widens to include students from poorer backgrounds, this cost burden erects another barrier to higher education entry.


Teaching this workshop on online journals in Tanzania was an engaging process that led me to explore the ways the research culture and knowledge production at an institution such as SAUT could be developed. SAUT had a very underdeveloped research culture, and developing access to online journals proved one way to begin to change this. Broadening the students’ access to high-quality academic texts was one way to begin to get students to engage with academic debates. Even though journals are almost entirely produced in the global North, they can also be used in the context of academic debates originating within the global South. Yet in order for this to be productive in terms of developing a research culture, it is necessary to contextualize these journals in teaching that goes beyond the mere accessing of online materials. Rather, critical engagement with broader research paradigms must be developed.

From a pedagogical perspective, it is not positive to adopt an approach that relies on a fixed idea of how a workshop such as this should be taught. This is particularly the case when working in an environment where there are constraints to access, for example in terms of infrastructure. Rather, it is better to embrace the knowledge and experience of students—after all, they live with the problems of access every time they try to go online. This is not purely a way of making students engage more closely with the material. On a purely practical level it can also smooth over many of the technical constraints faced by teachers.

Compared to elite research-led institutions, the situation in the global South remains one where students and academics at institutions on the periphery have many more challenges to accessing information. Accessing online journals is only one step in the essential task of broadening the research culture in these institutions.


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[1] PERI ran in two phases from 2003 to 2013, the second phase of which was called PERii. It has recently been replaced by INASP’s Strengthening Research and Knowledge Systems (SRKS). Negotiating with publishers for access to online journals remains a key aspect of their work (INASP 2013).

[2] While a more detailed breakdown of these figures would be informative, the information is, unfortunately, not available. For example, as access is gained through University-level username and password, it is not easy to differentiate between faculty and student access. The reliability of the usage figures from INASP has also been questioned, as there can be a great deal of variation from year to year (Harle 2010, 16). As a result, the statistics are offered purely as a general indication of low online usage in Tanzania.

[3] Ranger (1971) himself strenuously objected to the suggestion that there was a single Dar es Salaam School of history. See also the response of Denoon and Kuper (1971).



About the Author

Dr. Tom Fisher’s research interests are on politics and ethnicity in Tanzania, focusing on the Chagga group from Kilimanjaro. He completed his PhD at the Centre of African Studies at the University of Edinburgh in 2012. He lectured in history at Saint Augustine University of Tanzania (SAUT) in Mwanza until 2013, and is currently a researcher for a UK-based road safety NGO.

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