The digital divide is alive and, well, a huge challenge in places like Ethiopia

I have just returned from a six-week research trip, the last portion of which I spent in Ethiopia. My work there entailed exploring possibilities for research collaborations with colleagues at Addis Ababa University and Bahir Dar University. Primary challenges facing these institutions are knowledge access and building research capacity. In regards to the former, print materials are scarce and the infrastructure is not yet in place for reliable delivery of digital materials (there is more bandwidth coming into my home, for example, than there is to Bahir Dar University with 16,000 students, and there are regular lengthy power outages that often prevent digital delivery even in places where the Internet is somewhat reliable). And so we are considering possibilities for knowledge diffusion and mixed-mode instruction that take account of these challenges.

So my first task for the day is updating my record of this project here:

The most recent post, in which I write of visits to rock-hewn churches and examining the vellum manuscripts therein, may be of interest to book historians in the DH community. There is material for a thousand theses in the collections housed in the remote rock-hewn churches of the Lalibela region.

Preservation and identification of Lalibela manuscripts

I spent the morning sorting through images I took last week of vellum manuscripts written in Ge’ez that are located in the less accessible rock-hewn churches in the mountains near Lalibela, Ethiopia. My task this morning was to add some of these images to the project blog, which apparently has a garnered a following. Some of these images may now be found here:

I am not a book historian (my work in Ethiopia through February and the first part of March centred on knowledge diffusion, education in multilingual contexts, and ways of implementing digital technologies as a means to improving both of the former); nevertheless, the matter of the manuscripts is endlessly intriguing. Clearly some have been catalogued, although I was unable to discern who completed the work (and when) while in Lalibela. This is a task for the upcoming weeks.

The matter of preservation is a particular challenge in this instance: these fragile manuscripts are housed in damp, remote churches and are handled with rather less care than humanities scholars might anticipate given their historical and literary value. And yet, they are integral to the day-to-day activities of active community churches (in Ethiopia the dominant religion is Christian Orthodox). UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre must work to balance global concerns about preservation of world heritage sites with local concerns about preservation of contemporary cultural practice that is centred around the rock-hewn churches and their extraordinary relics. Some of their work, including the erection of temporary coverings over some of the Lalibela churches to prevent further erosion, is documented here:

Of course, the 11 churches of Lalibela mentioned in the UNESCO materials are only the tip of the iceberg. The manuscripts of which I speak in this post are found in churches accessible only on foot located high in the mountains at altitudes ranging upward of 3,200 meters. It is unclear as to whether any preservation initiatives are planned for these sites.

From the sublime to the mundane

This afternoon I have been tending to some administrative tasks.

The first involved contemplating recommendations concerning how teaching and research related to digital media and learning should be positioned across the Faculty of Education at the University of British Columbia. Currently the area is somewhat contested and territorialism prevents the development of innovative interdisciplinary programmatic initiatives. We are keen to see increased collaboration between units in relation to both research and program development in an area that might broadly be construed as “digital media, culture, and pedagogy.”

The second task, which I undertook in my capacity as Director of the Digital Literacy Centre housed in the Department of Language and Literacy Education at UBC, entailed drafting a list of possible speakers for the 2010-2011 lecture series.

The Last Post

This afternoon and evening have been packed with back-to-back meetings following the extended research trip I mentioned in the first two entries, and so unfortunately I have had little opportunity to post to Day of DH. Here follows a summary of some of my recent activities.

Late this afternoon I met with a doctoral student, Chelsey H., who I am co-supervising with Mary Bryson (a colleague who does excellent work in the areas of technology, feminist studies, gender, sexuality, cultural studies, media, and semiotics). Chelsey came to us with an MA in Media Studies from the New School, New York. Apart from her doctoral studies, she does humanitarian work three months a year with Plan International in Nicaragua. She has now confirmed that she will be able to gather data for her doctoral research on youth culture and media in rural Nicaragua. This presents another interesting opportunity to get a global perspective on matters related to the use of digital media for knowledge creation, diffusion and reception.

In relation to my “Reading and Teaching Complex Narrative” project, the UBC team today arrived at a simplified schema for semantic encoding of fiction for the purpose of plot visualization. This has been a long process, but the result seems promising. There are some wrinkles to iron out — most notably, we need to sort out how best to tag use of the second person (“you”) to distinguish between 1) direct address, and 2) the broader dissociative form that might be paralleled with “one.” Possibly we could adopt the practice sometimes employed with the two senses of ‘we’: ┬áthat is, ‘we: inclusive’ and ‘we: exclusive’. ‘You: inclusive’ appeals because it is a way of making a clear distinction from ‘one’. Shortly we will pass this schema (and its application with a Munro short story) on to Stan Ruecker, who is overseeing the programming work on the plot visualization prototype at UAlberta.

I find I’m still jet-lagged from the long journey to Vancouver from Africa, and so I’m off to rest. All best to my DH colleagues.