5 (and 1/2) Things We Learned from Teaching the Digital Principles
Jun 8, 2016
Over the last couple of years, DAI has developed the “ICT Corps”—a series of in-house training sessions for our teams around the world on how to integrate ICT into development projects, from using mobile tools to engage communities to using ICT-enabled solutions to gather data for decision-making. One of these modules is devoted to teaching the nine Principles for Digital Development. DAI has endorsed the principles and regularly uses them to guide technology design, but in using them as a training tool, we learned a thing or five.
1. The Digital Principles force staff to think critically about their entire project—not just the tech-focused parts.
Very few of the principles are solely applicable to technology. “Design with the user” or “build for sustainability”—these are things that any good development project should do. But by creating a training module that was focused on the principles, we created a useful pedagogical tool that forced staff to step back and think critically about their entire project, what they were going to do, and why.
1b. Look for windows of opportunity.
A sub-lesson related to the timing of the training: an important window of opportunity opens up just as a team gets past those first few hectic weeks of starting up a project. We recently trained one of our teams in Liberia during this phase. When we arrived, they had just hired all their staff and were beginning their work in earnest. They were coming together as a team and trying to shape a common vision for what their project was going to achieve. This proved to be an ideal time to deploy the Digital Principles training. Not only was the team energized, but they also felt that they had an opportunity to apply the principles to their work in real-time, as it were.
2. The Digital Principles help reveal the ICT champions on a team.
The Digital Principles training showed us who had the interest and energy to design and implement ICT activities, and who could actually take them across the finish line. We’re part of a small team within a large organization, and no ICT-related work is going to actually happen or sustain itself without these local champions. The training modules helped us identify who those champions would be, what their skills were, and what made them tick. To our surprise, these champions were often different from the staff whom the Chief of Party or team leader might see as having the most aptitude for ICT—very often, it was an under-utilized IT coordinator or monitoring and evaluation specialist. So, from a project execution and staff retention point of view, this training had real benefits.
3. The Digital Principles are a great entrée into other ICT-related training modules.
Over the years, we’ve played around with the sequence of our various ICT Corps modules, but we found that using the Digital Principles as a starting point really helped walk those who might consider themselves luddites or nontechies to being more comfortable with ICT. Most of the principles aren’t necessarily tech-related, so they really show staff how well-aligned the principles of good technology design are with the principles of good project design.
4. We need to work harder to make the Digital Principles relevant to people in the field.
Taking the Digital Principles training “on the road” to various countries showed us just how obfuscating some of the language we use in the ICT4D field can be. Some of these disconnects are obvious—explaining concepts like “open source” and “interoperability” can be tough in any context. But we also found more fundamental problems. For example, in Liberia, the “Design for Scale” principle was met with blank stares from all around the room. And we soon realized why: in some parts of the world, the word “scale” refers only to a ruler or a weighing scale. The notion that the word “scale” was referring to the ability to reach larger groups of clients didn’t occur to the audience.
For better or worse, the Digital Principles currently speak to a Western audience that’s based in Washington, D.C., London, or Geneva. That’s understandable for two reasons: (a) The Principles were written so that they’d receive broad-based buy-in from the leaders of large donor and implementing organizations. (b) Some of the principles touch upon technical topics that we can currently only explaining using equally technical language. The next challenge for us is to translate the language we use in the principles to the language used by the people we’re trying to serve.
5. The Digital Principles can trigger a virtuous cycle (we hope).
If you’re part of an ICT-focused team—whether in a donor organization, nongovernmental group, or implementer—odds are that your team is pretty small as well. There’s no way we can diffuse the principles throughout our organizations, let alone the broader development field, one training at a time. Our hope in creating the Digital Principles training is that these lessons will stretch beyond our first engagement, creating the beginnings of a true corps of ICT-enabled development professionals who can incorporate these ideas into their next project, next job posting, etc. And that’s why it’s so critical for us all to find those ICT champions and make sure these principles speak in their language and address their needs. This will ensure that the Digital Principles live up to their full potential and trigger a virtuous cycle in which good tech design creates good development projects.