Training Digital Divide Warriors

The nonprofit Geekcorps teaches businesses in emerging countries to use technology while providing service volunteers opportunities to share their skills in unfamiliar circumstances.

As we approach Geekcorps' one year anniversary of incorporation, it seems impossible that two waves of Geekcorps volunteers have already been sent to Ghana. Conceived as a Peace Corps for techies, this nonprofit organization has flung itself head over heels into the mire of conquering the international digital divide. Volunteers from the high-tech industry in the US and Europe spend four months helping businesses in developing countries—Ghana at the moment—to utilize ICT (information/communication technology) to improve their core operations.

So who wants to do this, and what kind of person does Geekcorps look for? When I interviewed Peter Beardsley last October for a volunteer position in Ghana, I thought “this guy would be great.” Peter grew up in Connecticut and went to college in New Hampshire where he studied programming. After discovering Linux through a friend, he worked on web scripting and applications for his college as an independent study project. Aside from his technical skills, what made Peter a great potential volunteer was his demonstrated interest in helping people out (fixing up old machines and turning them into servers and NATs for churches and community groups through his local Linux users' group) and his belief that technology can truly bring about social and economic change. Peter has both a love of technology and a willingness to make it accessible to everyone.

Geeks pose outside Geekcorps' headquarters in North Adams, Massachusetts before traveling to Ghana.

How does one train a guy like Peter to go in to an unfamiliar country and culture and transfer his skills (database development) to people whose knowledge of IT is often spotty? From the inception of Geekcorps, training has been an important component of the program. We had seen many projects where people were sent out unprepared and uninformed. Unlike the Peace Corps, our volunteers are only at their assignments for a relatively brief time. We do not have the luxury of providing weeks of cultural immersion and seminars on the politics and history of their host country. But because their stay is so short, we can't have them spend the bulk of their time in a state of disorientation. Our first two training programs have taken place at our offices in the US and have lasted about a week and a half. An additional in-country orientation focuses more on the practicalities of living and working and lasts about five days.

The Geekcorps training program is still (and will probably always be) a work in progress. We start from the premise that volunteers do not need subject-matter training (i.e., we don't go over programming or web design topics). What they do need is a hefty dose of cross-cultural training, discussions centering on technology and development, and training of teaching exercises and expectation management.

We have discovered that this last item is key. The training of our second wave of volunteers centered on our expectations of them, their expectations of themselves and their counterpart businesses' expectations. In most instances, volunteers have unrealistic expectations: “my counterpart company will be listed on the NASDAQ when I finish”, “having people approach me on a daily basis asking for money will not bother me”, or “I have a stomach of steel”.

Training skills have also turned out to be critical. At Geekcorps headquarters in North Adams, Massachusetts volunteers review adult learning cycles and learning styles and follow up with a hands-on training that involves teaching basic computer skills. Hands-on training gives volunteers the opportunity to re-examine their approach to training and learning, especially at the basic skill level. While their counterparts in Ghana are beyond the basics, their understanding of technology is often piecemeal or weighted in one specific topic. Volunteers need to transfer their skills thoroughly enough so as to be sustainable, and dynamically enough to keep people excited about the practical applications that will improve their businesses.

After they arrive in Ghana, training is taken up by our country director, Stophe Landis. Volunteers are no longer in their comfort zone and begin to understand what they have gotten into. This portion of the training focuses on concrete work and culture issues. An example is the scavenger hunt volunteers play on their second or third day in-country. Volunteers are instructed to find a place in Accra (the capital of Ghana) such as a landmark, restaurant or company, with incomplete information and little guidance.

To a great extent, Geekcorps volunteers are self-selected risk takers (“sure, I'll entrust you with my life!”), jacks-of-all-trades (“sure, I can make this laser pointer into a scanner that runs on biogas!”) and theory-oriented. Thus the training has to address the needs of this particular subset of traits. I realized this one afternoon when I was facilitating a culture exercise titled “Universal-Cultural-Personal”. The exercise is used to clarify what behaviors can be categorized under the above headings. I found myself entering into an argument that threatened to escalate into a screaming match because several volunteers claimed that eating on a regular basis can be construed as a cultural, not a universal trait. I realized that while this obfuscation of the exercise frustrated me, the volunteers really liked turning the construct around and looking at it from all angles. Why? Just because it seemed interesting from a theoretical standpoint.

What hopefully emerges out of the Geekcorps training is a volunteer who is more self-aware, more tolerant of ambiguity in every realm of his or her own life, better able to cope with things like no running water, able to live without T1 connectivity, able to help businesses achieve a solution that is appropriate to that environment and not afraid to engage with the people around them, no matter how unfamiliar.

You can read more about the training program, the work projects and sundry extracurricular activities from the volunteer's point of view at their web site (http://www.geekhalla.org/). You can also visit Geekcorps' web site (http://www.geekcorps.org/).

Ana Maria Harkins is the director of training and recruitment at Geekcorps. Prior to her current exalted status, she was a humanitarian relief worker with a refugee agency, a researcher for the Smithsonian Institution and a lackey at several other nonprofit organizations.

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