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Paola Ricaurte Quijano: Using Global Connections for Learning and Problem-Solving

Paola Ricaurte Quijano, Professor and researcher in the School of Education, Social Sciences and Humanities ITESM at University Tecnológico, Monterrey, Mexico – a huge private university with 90,000 students at more than 30 campuses -- does not subscribe to the “digital natives” theory that device-savvy young people are innately knowledgeable about social media: “I have found that while students are expert at using smartphones, gadgets, and apps, they do not necessarily understand today’s learning beyond communication among their peers and they don’t use technology as a real resource for better learning beyond the classroom.”

Dr. Ricaurte, who earned her Ph.D. at Mexico’s National School of Anthropology, told me that her students are highly connected – they are students at a technology university, after all. They have high speed Internet connections, smartphones, tablets, laptops. But they don’t use their devices to full advantage when it comes to learning. So Dr. Ricaurte’s goal is to prove to the students that learning goes beyond their classroom, their face-to-face peers, their institutions, city, and country: “They can gain a great deal for their lives, not only for their professions and vocations, when they learn that the world is their real learning environment, that they don’t have to put up barriers for themselves based on traditional educational models. They don’t have to think of themselves just as a group of students in a university. They should understand themselves as learners in general where the world beyond their university is also a resource.”

For example, Ricaurte’s students write Wikipedia articles (and argue for their inclusion when Wikipedia editors question the articles). They also work locally on public space projects, such as community gardens. “This is a project where students have an opportunity to improve the physical community, to connect with their geographic neighborhoods and neighbors, but also to use global connections to solve problems. Because local community problems are not just theirs alone – they have their setting and context locally, they also have the world, and others who are addressing similar projects and solving similar problems.”

Ricaurte tells her students to think about technology as an ecosystem: “So if everything is connected, and we are all connected, they have to solve problems in a holistic way. First they have to analyze problems in their physical and political settings, but they also have to think about solutions and problem-solving in terms of producing digital content, developing communication or media strategies, social media plans. And they have to publish their results in open learning places.”

Students do not hand in physical, printed assignments. They are required to build their e-portfolios, pages, or blogs in open digital environments “so they can get feedback from people in their communities and from everywhere. They have to document their learning, think about problem-solving to accomplish their projects, they have to publish it openly. It can be a blog. It can be a collaborative document for the project, or a digital album.” According to Ricaurte, her students are good at producing content – taking pictures, making videos. But they need to work on embedding their content in writing that is both scholarly and public.”

Why the emphasis on publication open formats? “It’s part of making these connections with the world. One of the courses I teach is about open knowledge and peer production, so I explain that the course is not about a theory or subject matter, it’s about understanding digital culture in practice. So we don’t just talk about peer production, we try to produce everything openly and collaboratively. For me, the most important goal of that course is to help students understand why it’s important to adopt these values and principles for the good of their communities and for the production of valuable knowledge in the commons.”

Ricaurte also insists on producing content in both Spanish and English, because there is disproportionately more content in English than Spanish, and because it is part of trying to find equilibrium in the world of knowledge. “We need more Latin Americans to become aware about this lack of equilibrium and to address it by producing more Spanish language content.” She cites the Oxford project on Information Geographies that illustrates the gap between the first world and the global south in the production of public knowledge.

I met Ricaurte, appropriately, through an international knowledge-production collective, the Peeragogy Project. When I initiated the project in 2011, Ricaurte was one of the first of the volunteers from around the globe to show up, stick around, and dig into the work. Now, four years later, I’ve stepped back and Ricaurte is among the regular peer leaders who meet online weekly to discuss, learn, and edit the ongoing resource. She studied journalism, gained a Masters in Latin American Studies, then pursued a PhD in Linguistics, and throughout the process became interested in technology, the connected world, and digital cultures. “I have been trying to use technology for social causes, so I have been involved with an NGO that works for the defense of digital rights in Mexico and work closely with citizen collectives to defend our free Internet and digital rights, but also to connect education with research and service. For me, my work is to connect these three areas, to make sure they don’t remain fragmented or closed. You cannot be a teacher if you are not trying to improve your society. And you cannot do research only in the abstract or theoretical – you have to connect your research, your studies, your teaching practice, and service to your community.”

Images provided by: Paola Ricaurte Quijano. Originally posted to ConnectedLearning.tv on October 12, 2015.

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