A little over a year ago during a UKRI Future Leaders Fellow mock interview, I was asked about the kinds of events that could delay my project. If there was no electricity for days, for example, how would I continue the work? I answered the question (perhaps naively) with several examples of how I could indeed continue my research programme while minimising implications such delays would have. Not once did it cross my mind that about a week or so after I found out my proposal was successful the Government would get serious about the COVID-19 virus. As I’ve written previously, it became impossible to start field work when lockdown landed. I also had to rejig my work plan and am still modifying it to fit with the changing environment.
Now that I’m coming to the end of my first year on this project, I realise that no electricity for a few days was an obstacle that did not quite measure up to the impacts of the ongoing pandemic. Sometimes, when I look at my work packages and what I should have achieved by now under normal circumstances, I can’t help but sigh. While desk work and reading theory, or reviewing policies and making sense of new contexts have all been important in light of the project’s aims, the pandemic has prevented me from physically going into the field. I love being in the field. As an ethnographer, being in the field to collect data from connected populations as well as those who cannot connect is central to the project. But because of the pandemic, all field work has been suspended during lockdown. It’s been doing my head in.
The ethics process has also taken some time. As well as the steps I had to undertake in my previous university, I now must reapply for ethics clearances in accordance with my new institution’s rules and regulations. In short, I had to complete ethics documentation over again when I moved to Oxford which makes sense. That said, waiting for permission to resume in-person field work has almost come to an end. If I’m fortunate, I might be able to head out to Ghana in October to do two things I feel are important: 1) Meet my project partners at the University of Cape Coast in person. This has been something I’ve looked forward to doing for months, as being with people is central when forming trusting research relationships; 2) Start doing fieldwork in situ not just remotely.
Another aspect of this project that I think has taken up more time than not is the administrative piece, including the foundational processes involved in setting up a study such as this one. Many of the things I had to attend to were new to me. There were other back-end things that had I known about before would have made my life easier, but hindsight is 2020, isn’t it? One example is the process of setting up suppliers and another is setting up payroll for researchers who work and reside in other countries. It took months to have these things organised—sometimes I’d end up with a huge headache because of delays. I have also come to understand other processes such as recruitment and interview panels as well as internal finance and governance procedures that I did not know about previously. To be honest, there were times when I felt like I had been picked up and thrown into the deep end of the local swimming pool and told to swim. The aid of a floating donut, however, was not an option.
The situation in South Africa has also been a cause for concern. From a personal perspective, I worry about my colleagues in South Africa and hope they stay safe. From a project-related perspective, the WPs will have to be amended to account for current conflicts–these are some of the things I need to think about quite carefully over the next few weeks.
I’ve also mentioned previously that my intention for writing these updates is to offer a view into our goings-on and the challenges of running a project, including aspects we do not necessarily anticipate happening while we are in the midst of such an endeavour. With this in mind, I think it’s important to also be candid about the affective implications of life as an academic trying to manage a project during a pandemic. Over these last few months, I have sometimes felt that not drowning under pressure has been a primary aim of mine. The first months without my postdoctoral researcher were quite a challenge. I was doing my best to get the back-end of the project organised when I didn’t really know about or understand some of the internal processes and, specifically, bureaucracy and the amount of time it takes post-pandemic to get admin done. For instance, I found myself trying to learn about the basics of Intellectual Property because of the way the partnership contracts were being written at the time. Why did I do this? I felt that I had to understand what the contracts comprised given the nature of the algorithmic impact assessment which should be open and free when created.
Looking back, it feels as if a handful of months have gone by, not almost one year. What have I achieved? has been in the back of my mind the entire time. I’ve been worried about this and was fortunate to come across others who are in similar circumstances. I don’t mean that I obtained joy from their challenges–meeting these individuals made me feel less alone and we’ve been able to share ideas and best practices. Some of these people have been unable to appoint researchers while others have struggled with what to do next because of their own inability to be in the field. I count myself lucky that I was able to appoint a postdoctoral researcher who has been an enormous help making sense of the local context specific to ICT/AI and education. Despite our delays, we have been fortunate to be able to do any research at all.
There was also illness which delayed forward momentum, both myself and my mother. I was off sick for a while – I guess the pressures of life can take their toll when you least want them to. That said, I continued to work on my project despite being ill because I didn’t want to fall further behind. Trust me, if you do that you just get sicker. I did. It took me a while to start being compassionate with myself about being sick and remembering that these things happen, just as life happens… In retrospect, could I have done things differently? Perhaps. For now, though, I think it might be better for me to keep looking forward without pondering too much on the what ifs? of the past.
The good news is that since the last update, we’ve made huge strides with our survey instrument. The survey is split into three foci: principals, teachers and students. We have located three schools in which to pilot the survey. Piloting the surveys will allow us to identify areas that need adjustments. Upon completion of the pilot, it is our intention to deploy the survey to a larger base in order to make sense of ICT/AI access and use across regions. Hopefully.
We will pilot the survey instruments (online and/or hard copy) in three sample schools in the Central region of Ghana. Guided by the invaluable advice of the University of Cape Coast, we purposively sampled three schools with different socioeconomic characteristics. We also classified the schools into categories for analysis based on available ICT infrastructure and location with general exposure of students and teachers to ICT. For example, a grade ‘1’ school should have a functional computer lab or other ICT infrastructure that allows teachers to engage the students using digital tools. In grade ‘2’ schools, there may or may not be functional ICT infrastructure but we expect some form of exposure to digital technologies largely from the teacher’s own efforts. Grade ‘3’ schools are considered schools that lack basic infrastructure and may have students who have no knowledge base in ICT, least of all AI. The purpose of the pilot is to understand the ways we might need to amend the survey in order to be more meaningful to participants. The other motivation is to start making sense of the P3 initiatives potentially in place as well as gaining a comparative understanding of use and access across regions.
We are also in the process of identifying stakeholders to interview and to join the participatory design activities in WP3. In the third phase we aim to begin work on the algorithmic impact assessment, but that is not for a while yet. We feel it’s important to begin creating networks now of relevant stakeholders so that we can understand diverse perspectives sooner rather than later. Also, we’ve completed the first draft of our horizon scan paper that identifies key themes in the global discourse around AI in education and development. The initial scan will allow us to home into specific categories to examine for our next project output.
Last of all, as we wait for permission to resume fieldwork we are also thinking about holding a capacity building event in Ghana with the University of Cape Coast. I will provide updates on this as it unfolds.
Till next time!