Friday, April 03, 2009

Class: The UNESCO Commuication and Information Program

Last night a student presented the Communication and Information Program of UNESCO to our seminar. She covered the organizational structure of the Secretariat, the program priorities and budget, the history of the program, the themes of the program, and the networks and partners involved in the program, with examples. She spent some time on the "New World Information Order" controversy that was cited in the decisions by the United States and United Kingdom to withdraw from UNESCO. She also described the UNESCO role in the World Summit on the Information Society and its followup.

The student remarked that she had been quite concerned in developing the class because it was difficult (if not impossible) to understand the program being described from the set of alternative perspectives available to her. She finally concluded that the differing perspectives were useful in helping people find the aspects of the program most interesting to themselves.

In thinking about the multiple perspectives, I was reminded of my engineering drawing classes decades ago. In those we were asked to draw orthogonal projections of three dimensional objects. It was hard to get the knack of representing a complex three-dimensional object in three two-dimensional views and to reverse the process of visualizing the object from its formal drawn representation. Having gained the knack, however, you could better understand the object from the multiple views than from any two dimensional picture. So too, I think the multiple views of UNESCO's program give a fuller understanding than any single view would allow.

A gifted teacher, our leader effectively used the classroom computer and internet connection as well as teaching aids and stimulated discussion from time to time with well chosen questions.

I was especially taken with her opening of the class with an exercise. Students were divided into groups, and each group provided with a package of paper cutouts representing the blocks of an organizational diagram for the program. They were told to race in sticking the blocks on the wall in the correct order. The effect was to get students fully involved in studying the organization managing the CI program; it was one of the most effective approaches I ever saw in getting students to focus on an organizational diagram.

There was a kicker. One team finished the complex diagram while the other had done less than half. Our leader asked why they thought that was true. After an embarrassed pause she revealed that she had provide a copy of the real organizational diagram to only the winning team. Her point: information counts, and the Communication and Information Program of UNESCO is important.

It is interesting that both groups were constrained by prior conceptions of what an organizational diagram should look like. Both sought a conventional representation although it would have been faster to stick the block on the wall in random order. Our leader pointed out that unconstrained by the model organizational diagram, students might have been more creative in illustrating the nature of the relationship in the staff responsibilities for program elements.

I was again struck by the disparity between the need for an intergovernmental body to provide leadership to the United Nations system with respect to the developing knowledge economy and the resources available to UNESCO for that purpose. The ICT Industry alone is more than $3 trillion per year, and the UNESCO CI budget (which focuses on much more than ICT) is some $36 million per year. No wonder that many of the program activity descriptions on the website seem to be sparsely populated.

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