The power of digital technology lies in the hands of the people who use it. Understand the audience, and you can change their lives.
Barefoot College is a non-governmental organization that has been working to make rural communities sustainable and self-sufficient for more than 40 years. The College believes that for any rural development activity to be successful, it must be based in the village and managed and owned by the people it serves. All Barefoot initiatives, be they social, political or economic, are planned and implemented by a network of rural women and men who are known as ‘Barefoot Professionals’.
‘Barefoot solutions’ can be broadly categorized into the delivery of Solar Electrification, Clean Water, Education, Livelihood Development, and Activism. With a geographic focus on the Least Developed Countries (LDCs), Barefoot College believes strongly in empowering women as agents of sustainable change.
In 2012, Barefoot College participated in a three-month innovation lab hosted by Tomorrow Partners in partnership with the Skoll Foundation and Sundance Institute to address the challenges faced by the graduates of its Solar Engineering program upon returning to their villages.
A team of interaction designers, researchers, and creative directors from Tomorrow Partners then traveled to Tilonia, India, to engage users, key stakeholders and strategic partners for the program. Our goal was to conceive and design a digital tool that aids retention, extends learning and communication, and helps Barefoot College monitor success beyond the campus. We interviewed Barefoot Solar Engineers—60 women from eight countries—and their teachers in their learning environments and villages, paper-testing hypotheses and observing their interaction with the prototype tablet apps we had designed and developed.
Findings and design implications validated some of the empirical assumptions the Barefoot leadership team had about illiterate learners and technology. We uncovered many more needs and opportunities to improve the learning and professional experiences of engineers, both while at the college and after their return to their communities. We mapped technology recommendations and a roll-out plan that was vetted collaboratively in the field. Over 30 concepts covering the entire Barefoot Solar Engineer journey were sketched out and articulated.
These ideas culminate in the Barefoot Learning Platform, a suite of mobile applications that enables users to gain an education through audio, visual, and video content, in any topic area, without any previous technological literacy. This learning platform exemplifies Barefoot College’s philosophy that the very poor have every right to have access to, control, manage and own the most sophisticated of technologies to improve their own lives.
During his acceptance speech for the Global Citizen Award at the Clinton Global Initiative in October 2013, Barefoot College founder Bunker Roy committed to developing this access route to ‘knowledge transfer’ for illiterate people throughout the developing world, currently estimated at some 900 million individuals.
Our findings, concepts and roll-out plan have enabled Barefoot College to reach out to potential collaborators and partners to secure the funding necessary to embark on developing the platform. We expect to begin development in 2014.