So how did this initiative come about and more significantly, how has the community of Pal become such a valued and respected member of the Swinburne University of Technology family, 6,000 miles away from Swinburne’s home of Hawthorn, Melbourne?
In late 2013, Louise Kellerman, previously Manager of Professional Placements Internships for Swinburne’s Faculty of Science, Engineering & Technology, and Sophie Edwards from CERES Global, a project of the not-for-profit CERES Community Environment Park in Brunswick East, Melbourne, explored potential opportunities for Swinburne students to work on short-term social impact projects in and around Pal. These projects would enable students to work in collaboration with CERES Global and Satpuda Vikas Mandal (SVM), an Indian NGO based in the region of Khiroda and Pal whose main focus is on agriculture and education – but who also work on broad community development initiatives, with women’s groups, on health issues, and environmental projects. Through links with SVM, CERES have been taking visitors to Pal and building relationships with the community for more than 20 years.
In January 2014, Louise Kellerman and Swinburne information systems academic, Chris Felstead, embarked on a 2-week journey to India with 4 IT students where they conducted technology audits of the village schools, fixed and installed computers and weather stations and began the process of outreach and engagement between Swinburne, CERES Global and SVM. While in Pal and Jamnya, Louise, Chris and the IT for Social Impact students crossed paths with Jon Wallace from Swinburne’s TAFE Croydon campus and his students from the Global Tradies Program. Started in 2013 with assistance from Swinburne International, the Swinburne Global Tradies Program has taken trades students to India, Cambodia and Nepal.
What was quick to emerge from this unexpected fateful meeting in remote India was an understanding of the significance of how Swinburne now had an amazing exemplar of multi-facetted collaboration; separate, yet complementary projects by higher education and TAFE, with local and global partners, combining to work towards improving the education and living standards of students and teachers in tribal India and a shared vision of the academic tour leaders in providing their students with the opportunity to see the ‘bigger picture’. In the case of the IT for Social Impact project students, to initiate positive change one ‘byte’ at a time.
My involvement with the IT for Social Impact India Project began in December 2014 when I travelled to Pal with a further 7 IT and business/information systems students to continue the technology audit (repair/install) process set in place by the previous student team, to conduct additional activities such as trialing ‘proof-of-concepts’ of two particular technologies (Kano and LibraryBox) to assist curriculum delivery for school teachers in villages with no or limited Internet and computing facilities, to running hands-on workshops with village students at schools in Pal, Khiroda, Mohamandli, Jamnya and Lohara and conducting a social/IT audit of Pal and surrounding village schools.
It was while on a visit to the village of Jamnya that the potential of Swinburne’s social impact for the community through the collaboration with the IT for Social Impact India Project and the Global Tradies Program became clear. Jamnya is a village located approximately 20 miles west of Pal on a dusty, bumpy road, best travelled in daylight by 4 wheel drive jeeps. The village has a primary and secondary school for 400 students and 14 teachers. The majority of students board at school, using classrooms as sleeping dormitories, while the teacher’s accommodation consists of small, dilapidated bamboo thatched structures. CERES, together with partners Environ Global, MODUS Architects and Norditech, have a vision of Jamnya of a safe, durable and comfortable living and learning environment for children and teachers, with a clean water supply and hygienic sanitation facilities for all students; and a school environment that is designed to provide an engaging and stimulating learning environment for all.
As I surveyed the infrastructure being built by Jon and the Global Tradies, I imagined a ‘connected’ Jamnya, with a computer lab, Internet access for the whole community. In mentioning this to Ben Walta and Noel Blencowe (CERES Global) we also imagined a not-so-distant future where primary school children from suburban Melbourne on an incursion to CERES in Brunswick East could be Skyping with students in tribal Jamnya. What I was seeing in Jamnya was a ‘greenfield’ IT project for digital inclusion and narrowing the digital divide; a project of amazing potential in making a lasting, positive social impact.
I continued to reflect on Jamnya when I returned home and upon the overall experiences I had shared with my student team while in India. What came through, apart from my unforgettable time in Jamnya, was the overwhelming level of hospitality shown to myself and particularly my students by SVM and the communities of Pal, Khiroda, Mohamandli, Jamnya and Lohara. From the time we were welcomed on arrival in Pal with a traditional greeting ceremony, to the time we made our sad goodbyes and headed towards Agra and New Delhi and back to Melbourne, we were taken care of, invited into homes, walked the streets side by side with villagers and were made to feel at ease in a setting so different to that which most of my students had experienced before. As I began planning for the next project visit to Pal, I began to consider how to make these visits financially sustainable and ongoing so that the ‘connect Jamnya’ vision could be realised.
Dr. Jason Sargent is a lecturer in Information Systems and co-founder of the DigiDoGood Mob at Swinburne University of Technology. His Doctoral research fieldwork was carried out on the Thai-Burma Border and he continues to work and research in the domain of social impact. Jason has lead the IT for Social Impact India Project since December 2014 and is working on a sustainable model of social impact through the use of technologies in collaboration with SVM, particularly in Pal, Mohamandali and Jamnya. Jason can be contacted via email firstname.lastname@example.org