Is giving access the best way to address technology inequality?
Yesterday I gave a brief introduction to how I think about the research process.
Today I want to give a (briefer) overview of what that means for a particular study. I talked before about measuring ‘success’ in search engine tasks – and that’s one part of my study. But my main interest is in the reasons for differences in success, on a sociocultural level. So, rather than asking “does this group have access to information”, we also need to ask “can this group use the information they have, effectively”. Part of that will involve looking at skills, part about how they’re supported – by friends, family, professionals, part about structural issues for example, if they need to travel to a job interview, can they afford to do so.
Information retrieval - all a matter of access?
I’ll talk about my own research a bit more next week, but it’s basically to do with how children search for information on the web. We know that there are some skills involved in information retrieval, and that there is a digital divide related to income levels. However, it is less related to ‘access’ than we might think – i.e., just giving a computer to someone isn’t enough. So what we see is that the structural element may play a role, but it isn’t the whole story. Another part of the story is that those from lower income families are more likely to need to rely on professionals for assistance than they are family or peers. What I’m looking at now is whether the dialogue they engage in around information retrieval – the types of talk they use – is related to success, and how so. So I have my success measure, but I’m also looking at its use, in naturalistic contexts. Now, I don’t think any plausible outcome of my work could level every equality – we probably need the political will to deal with entrenched inequality to do that – but it does suggest an interesting possibility.
Access or accessibility?
The really interesting thing about this sort of analysis is that it might indicate that some of the best ways to improve use of technology, have relatively little to do with technology itself. It might also suggest that various interventions we could engage with, might have outcomes beyond the immediately obvious – for example, research shows that improving the quality of dialogue in classrooms has benefits not only for the subject the dialogue occurs around, but also wider educational and social benefits. These things are important.
Technology to support effective use!
I should emphasise that one of the fantastic things about technology is that even though the access may not be the crucial thing, technology is very well positioned to afford scaffolded support. So, in this case, one of the things I’m looking at is ways that technology could be developed to support effective dialogue, and in some cases to ‘imitate’ it. This is something various technology companies already do in marketing exercises (targeted advertisements, collaborative filtering etc.). But we need the theory, and the understanding of the context in order to understand how the technology should be used – access alone is not enough.