Dear colleagues, I am very honored to open the discussions of these coming days. This contribution is modest, I am not an information specialist, but I will share with you the experience of a Farmer University in Brazil which I followed during several years, during my doctorate. I will use it as an example through which to understand how information can contribute to innovative learning processes. I will start presenting the challenges we face today. I will then bring some theoretical elements into the discussion to show how the links between information and learning can be understood. And finally, I will share some insights from the Farmer University.
In my sense, one of the big issues we face today is what I will call the “paradox of knowledge” we have never had as much scientific production, with increasing budgets and increasing research staff : for example, agricultural sciences have contributed to the gene revolution, to biotechnologies, to precision agriculture But the results of this science and its efficacy are being questioned by society, as the results don’t always bring the change expected. One of the difficulties is that we have the challenge of sustainable development, with the difficulty to deal with contradictory objectives, between production, preservation and social equality, defended by different actors… in fact, we don’t know what information we need for what innovation? This questions the role of scientific and technical information : the whole globe has access to new communication technologies, and through them, to huge quantities of information… but we don’t know how to use it in decision processes
In fact, several problems are pointed at : - Information is often unadapted, which makes it difficult to transfer and apply technological solutions to different contexts Moreover, relevant information is often crushed by the quantities of information : actors feel disabled with so much information, blocking their action. Finally, science is often still considered in a utilitarian perspective : it must bring immediate solutions, but it is rarely involved in helping actors think globally and define their projects Facing these problems, we need new ideas… Diversity must bring us to think according to our needs and the challenges in each situation Complexity requires us to learn to define a direction, a meaning, so we can sort through the quantities of information and know what we are looking for Uncertainty compels us to define a societal project, with all stakeholders, soliciting science to help us define this project
The issue isn’t only about quantities of information, but about how information is used to create knowledge which can be used by the stakeholders. This features a change of paradigms… in the 1990’s, focus was put on information and its transfer, but more recently, we talk about a « knowledge society » : information is external to actors, whereas knowledge is aquired by actors through learning processes. This means that information is not just to be transfered and duplicated, it becomes useful only when associated to a learning process, which allows knowledge to be build. Our hypothesis is that it is the learning process which must give meaning to information and not the contrary, when the information available orients the learning.
So how to make better us of information, to help us to face these challenges? It seems to me like several key questions must be addressed : Is information usable? Is it available, easy to use? This question is much adressed by information sciences, it implies efficient information technologies. But it can not be the only question… The next question is : is this information relevant, useful for the stakeholders? Answering it supposes involving the actors in deciding what information they need… this is a challenge any information system designer faces, to make the potential users express their needs, and also involve themselves to bring the system to life and make it theirs. This brings us to the third question : can the actors then have the capacity to mobilize the information ? This means that they must build the capacities to use information, and also to create new information. However, capacity is not always enough. This leads to the last question : Do their environments (the context they are in, the institutions which surround them) give them the opportunity to use the information? Do they have the freedom to use this information? So how to encourage a learning process, in which stakeholders build meaning? There is no pre-determined recipe. However, different theories can provide a better understanding of these processes.
Let me develop rapidly how different theories view the role of information and knowledge within learning processes. At a simplest level, a person receives information and acts upon it. He can also develop a cognitive process, internalizing this information, creating knowledge, that he can then use later to act. When he acts, he can also learn through his errors, reflect and adapt his knowledge and practices to the context : this is what we call a competency, its the capacity to act in a given situation. These competencies can then be used to analyse information and act accordingly, to search for the information required, or to create information. In this process, the actor « frees » him from existing information and becomes capable of producing the information which is necessary to his action.
What I just presented is a learning loop : it occurs when people reflect upon their action, draw conclusions and change their behavior accordingly. There are different levels of learning loops : When information is applied « automatically », almost by reflex, this is a zero-loop. When, as I mentioned before, competencies are created, this is a single-loop learning. When, within a group, actors change their perceptions and values to solve a problem, this is called double-loop learning. And finally, at a societal level, when actors develop new frameworks and references, changing paradigms, this learning is called triple-loop. The interest in this theory is that it enables to understand what type of information can be necessary in a given situation. zero loop : involves « codified information », recipes, which can be mainly transfered and imitated : it can be technical information, laws or regulations single loop : involves information which is progressively adapted to a context and which enables to act according to this situation : information on contexts, practices, know-how double loop : involves information which enables to define a common strategy, to structure relations in a group, to build a project. we call it « framing information » : it can be a common language, a scientific referential, understanding different points of views triple loop : involves information which can help to think about the future, we will call it « exploratory » information, such as prospectives, visions, wishes
Let me illustrate these ideas with the example of the Farmer University to see how information was integrated in the learning process. This experience was carried out in the Nordeste region of Brasil. It is a semi-arid region, which is still often dominated by traditional elites, where information is seldom adapted to local contexts, and where local, traditional knowledge is often looked down upon by the technicians who were trained to use « modern » knowledge.
This Farmer University was a project developed between 2003 and 2006 with the objective of training community leaders, in order to enable them to develop their own projects, and also to become involved in local policies to influence their future. The initiators of this project defined different guiding principles, which were to emphacize the importance of a « peasant identity », encouraging a pluriactive and diverse livelihood, and learning through co-constructino of knowledge, in which teachers and students exchanged points of view and shared their experience, following a method called « problem-based learning » . Discussions and learning was oriented by questions such as: who are we? What do we want to do? How to do it?
The learning process followed different steps. The first year, the students got involved in the learning process by becoming aware of the potentialities of their region. They mapped their region, visited different properties to see how people coped with the semi-arid region. Through exchange amongst themselves, they developed trust and became a solidary group, initiating a double-loop learning, based on framing information, such as a common language, trust, knowing other points of view. The second year, they carried out research on their territory, identifying issues in their own reality, questioning models which previously seemed obvious. This continued the double-loop learning, they defined common values within the group. By discovering exploratory information, on the trends in their territory, they started thinking their future, what projects they wanted to do. The third year, the students conceived projects, for themselves and their communities, learning farming techniques, project assessment. They applied some codified knowledge, such as farming techniques, accountability methods. But they also carried out experimentations, creating new knowledge, in single-loop learning, adapted to their reality. After the formal training process, the students organized themselves as an association and involved themselves in local policies, defending their project within their territory, and entered different networks, for example on agro-ecology. However, they had a hard time being accepted at the beginning, as other NGOs weren’t so willing to give them space. This opening towards new actors requires them to develop together new frameworks in which they will be able to exchange. They must develop common framing information for this, as well as new exploratory information to share visions on their future. If they succeed in this triple loop learning, they could progressively create a new learning group, at the scale of the territory this time, and continue with a larger learning process.
Let’s come back to the questions I put forward at the beginning to see what were the conditions brought by this experience. Was information usable? Yes it was made available through the exchange between students and teachers. Was it made relevant to their needs? Because it was co-constructed with the actors, adapted to their own contexts. Did the actors develop the capacities to use the information? The actors developed a new perception of information: discussion about their projects helped them to determine which information they wish to use, how to develop new information, Finally, do their environments enable them to use this information? This is the main limit of the Farmer University… it did not offer enough contact within the territory, making relations with other actors more difficult following the training period… This shows the importance of being recognized by other actors and of getting involved in public action. Of course, this experience had limits. But it’s assessment has enabled us to develop a better understanding of how information can be used to enhance the learning process, and how the learning process determines the perception actors have of information and of the ways to mobilize it in their own innovation processes, helping them to find new ways towards sustainable development.
How can information contribute to innovative learning processes?
How can information contribute to innovative learning processes? I nsights from a Farmer University in Brazil Emilie Coudel Jean-Philippe Tonneau (CIRAD)
The paradox of knowledge for sustainable development <ul><li>A paradox </li></ul><ul><li>Science has never been so productive </li></ul><ul><li>But its efficacy is questioned… </li></ul><ul><li>This questions the role of S & T information </li></ul><ul><li>Huge quantities of available information </li></ul><ul><li>But we don’t know how to use it in decision processes </li></ul><ul><li>The challenge of sustainable development </li></ul><ul><li>Difficulty to deal with contradictory objectives </li></ul><ul><li>Which information for what innovation? </li></ul>
In a changing world, we need new ideas… <ul><ul><li>Unadapted information: difficulty to transfer technical knowledge to diverse situations </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Relevant information is crushed by the quantity of information, blocking action… </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Utilitarian science: bring « solutions », not global thinking… </li></ul></ul>We need to learn to give meaning, direction We must think according to needs and challenges in each situation Complexity Diversity Uncertainty We must define our societal project
<ul><li>It is the learning process which gives </li></ul><ul><li>meaning to information </li></ul><ul><li>and not the contrary. </li></ul>Our hypothesis Information society (1990’s) Knowledge society (2000) Information is not just to be transfered and duplicated, it becomes useful when associated to a learning process which allows knowledge to be build.
How to make better use of information? Key questions : <ul><li>Is information usable , available? </li></ul><ul><li>Is it relevant, useful for the stakeholders? </li></ul><ul><li>Do the actors have the capacities to mobilize this information ? </li></ul><ul><li>Do their environments give them the opportunity use this information? </li></ul>
Information and the knowledge cycle information knowledge practices action internalizes uses receives analyzes competencies chooses reflects adapts searches creates
Learning : a need for various types of information competencies strategies, values frameworks, references Zero-loop single-loop triple-loop double-loop information action Adapted information Framing information Exploratory information Codified information information knowledge practices action competencies
<ul><li>Monopoly of traditional elites </li></ul><ul><li>Information is seldom adapted to the context </li></ul><ul><li>Local knowledge versus “modern ” knowledge </li></ul>Paraiba State Territory of the Cariri Knowledge for marginalized regions The Nordeste Region Brazil
<ul><li>A pilot project: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>2003-2006 </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>35 students (all partly farmers) </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>During week-ends </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Objective: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Training community leaders </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Enabling actors to develop their own projects </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Guiding principles: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Emphacize the importance of « peasant identity » </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Co-construction of knowledge (through problem-based learning) </li></ul></ul>The Farmer University
2. Researching 3. Conceiving their own projets 4. Enlarging their project 1. Getting involved Mapping the territory, visits Research methods, identifying issues Farming techniques, project assessment Networking, involvement in policies Questionning reality double loop Framing information Experimenting Single loop Codified information Opening towards new actors, new frameworks triple loop Exploratory information Exchanging amongst various actors double loop Adapted information
Insights brought by this experience <ul><li>Is information usable , available? </li></ul><ul><li>Is it relevant, useful for the stakeholders? </li></ul><ul><li>Do the actors have the capacities to mobilize this information ? </li></ul><ul><li>Do their environments give them the opportunity use this information? </li></ul>Made available through exchange and co-construction of knowledge Because the students constructed and adapted knowledge to their local context New perception of information and how it can be mobilized Limit: difficulty to interact with other institutions… importance of being recognized by other actors
Perspectives <ul><li>In rural development issues, the actors often need very contextual information. </li></ul><ul><li>It is not the information itself which counts, but the knowledge the actors build and the way they can generate new knowledge. </li></ul><ul><li>What can be generalized ? </li></ul><ul><ul><li>The information, the training method, or the conditions to make the learning process happen? </li></ul></ul>