Ann Peterson Bishop and Bertram C. Bruce
Learning in Communities Studies of learning and human-computer interaction have often focused on settings and practices that are relatively fixed and well-defined, such as a college-level course, a workgroup in a company, or a museum exploration. These studies have contributed much to our understanding of the potential and the problems of incorporating computers into collaborative practice. They have also contributed to the analysis of how learning happens in a wide range of settings. However, such well-defined situations represent but a small portion of realities that are relevant to the field of community informatics (CI), which aims to understand how information and communication technologies (ICTs) are employed to help communities achieve their goals (Gurstein, 2004).
In their seminal monograph, Keeble and Loader (2001, p. 3), describe CI as a “multidisciplinary field for the investigation and development of the social and cultural factors shaping the development and diffusion of new ICTs and its effects upon community development, regeneration and sustainability.” Inherent in CI is the need to understand how knowledge is shaped and shared in communities, to investigate the underlying phenomena and processes of learning that we find when take “community” as our unit of analysis. CI research is conducted internationally in settings that range from inner-city neighborhoods to rural villages, exploring how individuals and institutions (e.g., schools, libraries, grassroots groups, health agencies, etc.) come together to develop capacity and work on common problems. It addresses questions of community learning, development, empowerment, and sustainability in the context of efforts to promote a positive role for computers and the Internet in society. A critical issue is presented when community members, particularly those who are socially excluded or marginalized, are conceived as passively bearing the burdens of illness, malnutrition, addiction, crime, illiteracy, and other social ills. Remedies to these ills, such as improving educational outcomes, providing counseling, delivering food or medicine, collecting information, closing the so-called “digital divide,” or managing development are likewise conceived as actions for well-meaning outsiders to perform. As a result of such top-down approaches, even when remedies succeed, their benefits are often short-lived because the community has made little progress toward developing a capacity for problem-solving and the power to direct its own learning.