Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Digital visitors and residents - some thoughts

I took part in an online seminar on the Digital visitors and residents project at a Collaborate seminar organised by the JISC last week. I think this is a useful metaphor to have in play, and the findings of the project which look extremely valuable in extending our understanding of what motivates students to engage in the digital environment. There are obvious links with the JISC Developing Digital Literacies programme: by helping explain what strategies students are using, the project can help us understand what educators might do to validate or further develop those strategies, or introduce others that might give students greater repertoire and fluency.

Some of the early findings obviously replicate work that has been done in the past to problematise the digital natives narrative, to demonstrate that personal/social skills with technology are not highly transferable to learning, and to recognise that students have many strategies for using technology to support their studies which do not necessarily coincide with what institutions see as 'good' study skills (the Learners' experiences of e-learning studies confirmed both of these).

I do have some thoughts about the metaphor itself, which I shared at the seminar. For example:
- Is the place vs tool metaphor one that the project is using, or one they are finding that participants use in thinking about the online space?
- How far is the metaphor a design artefact of the environment and how far is it a property of the individual's stance towards the environment? For example, 'windows' are intuitively spatial. Drop down menus are intuitively tool-like. Most software interfaces combine both to give different messages to the user about how to behave.
- We know that people's behaviour in online environments is very strongly influenced by those environments - arguably more than any innate factors including age, confidence with technology etc. At least, it is a question that can be researched: to what extent is behaviour in online environments an aspect of relatively stable aspects of the person and to what extent it is environmentally determined? This might vary depending on the environment in question (and even on the person??)
- I am assuming that the metaphor distinguishes behaviours and not individuals. i.e. we are all visitors and residents in different contexts.
- As described in the seminar, the visitors-residents continuum seems to combine a range of behavioural and perceptual aspect: the metaphors we use when we engage with technology; whether we are behaving as individual or social participants/learners; whether we are behaving as consumers, collaborators or producers of content etc. There is an empirical question here: to what extent are these different factors linked? Is this a question the project is trying to answer?

One of the dimensions along which visitors and residents were said to differ is whether their behaviour is 'instrumental' or 'networked'. For me, the web 2.0 era is essentially one in which to be networked IS to be instrumental. Asking a question of my twitter followers is me being instrumental. In exercising my agency I recognise the value of collaboration.

So, this post is meant to open a conversation that I hope will be a productive one!

11 comments:

David White said...

These are all very useful questions that contribute to what is an evolving idea.

My experience is that at the simplest level people find the V&R continuum helpful in coming to an understating of their own practice. Often it becomes a useful validation of Visitor style approaches (Yes, this is about behaviour and context) and counters some of the more damaging aspects of techno-evangelism that circulate.

In answer to the 'environment' question I find Google Docs is a useful example: When I'm using Google docs I tend to engage with it in exactly the same manner as I would Microsoft Word - to me it's a tool (I act in a Visitor mode). However, as soon as somebody else appears and starts to edit alongside me the tool becomes a 'space' and my engagement with it shifts (My mode of engagement becomes more Resident). So my notion of 'space' is somewhere-where-there-are-other-people. My 'Social Threshold' post goes through this is a bit more detail: http://goo.gl/b0il2

Your point about the possible stable aspects of a person vs environment is a tricky one because, for example, I will lurk in Twitter sometimes and sometimes I will be active. It depends on what I stand to gain and the context of the moment. So I don't think it's possible to develop a fixed model of person + environment = mode of engagement. It may be possible to develop the most probable mode of engagement given certain factors which is something I hope the project will be able to address.

Yes there are a lot of factors here and rather than become too entangled in them I try to cut the Gordian knot by always asking what the learner thinks they are trying to achieve - why did they choose to engage in a certain way? Having said that, I'm very interested in exploring possible links between Visitor and/or Resident modes of engagement and the way in which learners perceive the process of learning itself.

HelenB said...

Nice comment Dave, and thanks for adding more detail to the V&R analysis.

I like the nuanced metaphor you are offering and I especially like that it is a useable one (it is a tool for understanding what we do/who we are, therefore a Good Thing to have). But deep down I suppose I believe that the really important difference between people in all their spheres of action is one of capital/power. Despite all the rhetoric to the contrary, the internet's knowledge resources are no different from other resources of intellectual capital in this respect. If you are already reasonably well endowed, you perceive it as a tool, a space, a library, an extension of personal agency. If you are not, you perceive it as a place to shop and watch other people's home videos. Or perhaps you see it as frightening, disempowering, a labyrinth, a pit of immorality. Arguably, the internet just makes it easier for those who know what they want to know to find it, and those who already know who to know, to build their networks.

So how people behave - and the metaphors available to them for understanding their own behaviour - for me always have to be seen against that larger picture and the metaphors should not take on a life of their own.

Also I think we need to be aware of devices, interfaces and services as designed for use (design as a means of achieving power over the user as well as providing a service). They have designs on us, even though we can appropriate them for our own ends individually and collectively. So perhaps for me a sign of digital literacy development would be (a) an awareness of the metaphors we are being offered as users, as being the first step to a conscious adoption or resistance to them (b) a capacity to generate alternative metaphors as users, and (c) eventually a capacity to design new metaphors for ourselves and others by developing (co-developing) new interfaces, communities, networks, and uses. I'm not sure how this trajectory maps to the visitor-resident continuum.

Seb Schmoller has this evening drawn my attention to a nice article on the digital divide in Scientific American

HelenB said...

Sorry, link for the SA article is http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2011/12/14/digital-divide-and-social-media-connectivity-doesnt-end-the-digital-divide-skills-do/

David White said...

The learners we have been interviewing are predominantly driven by convenience, this is their primary reason for engaging online even when they know that what they might find is only going to be 'good enough' and that other sources or places might be 'better'. It is interesting to consider how much power we are prepared to give up to devices and services in the name of convenience.

I agree that it's important to make visible the age old power/capital situations which are being mirrored online. In my opinion learning how to 'see' media and the internet in these terms is an important literacy. This, I think, is especially important for those looking to gain credibility or power via Resident style approaches. Having said this I don't see the value of focusing directly on inequalities online. I can attest to the fact that it's much easier to get to the information in Wikipedia than it is to get into the Bodleian. What makes me suspicious is the denigration of extremely accessible forms of knowledge online by those who currently hold positions of intellectual power. - My point being that the web is in some ways so empowering that we occasionally find it culturally unacceptable or perhaps we find it difficult to adjust to the new ways in which power can flow.

The Visitors and Residents metaphor is a relatively basic tool for unpicking the complexity of our engagement with technology and, possibly more importantly, our engagement with others via technology. As with any metaphor it can only be taken so far before it fractures but it is proving to be a useful lens for coming to an understanding of how learners are appropriating (and being pushed around by) technology. It has also been useful in understanding why certain institutional technological interventions/services fail even though their web based counterparts are highly successful.

I have seen the metaphor appropriated in a variety of ways and had useful conversations around the different contexts it can be used in. For me it's value is the understanding it facilitates.

Martin Oliver said...

"How far is the metaphor a design artefact of the environment and how far is it a property of the individual's stance towards the environment?"

...presumes a neat division exists between the two, whereas elsewhere in the post (e.g. in relation to visitor in one context, resident in another) the two intertwine in a much more ANT-like way.

I tend to wonder, how much is the metaphor recognisable to an individual, given their previous experiences - and is it so recognisable that they fail to notice it? So - like some of the other learner experience work - I'm really curious about the way biographies shape our ability and inclination to read and use what we encounter.

Really liked the point about the Internet as tool/space/shop/scary labyrinth. As you say in the original post, being really 'digitally literate' could or should include being able to read such metaphors in a critical way, and even construct alternatives. I was in a digital literacies meeting today (http://blogs.ubc.ca/newliteracies/) where Mary Lea made a passionate plea not to loose that critical tradition in digital literacy work - a plea made because it seemed to be getting lost in the more skills/cognition take on digital literacies that was at the fore in several of the presentations.

BTW, in relation to the presentation - it may just be me worrying unnecessarily, but I really hope that the interest in demographic prevalence analyses doesn't re-create the native/immigrant binary by the back door.

HelenB said...

Thanks Martin for adding your voice to this exchange. I don't think I disagree with anything David is saying: I think it's just a matter of emphasis. Yes, 'it's much easier to get to the information in Wikipedia than it is to get into the Bodleian', but let's not elevate this to a 'new pedagogy' or imagine that it abolishes other inequalities of access. Critical thinking and acting requires more than information. Universities are not the only source of critical thinking in/of/about digital media, perhaps not even the most influential but FFS let's define what Universities ARE good for in this age of information. For my money it's public/open scholarship plus developing digital literacies of the critical variety.
For a fabulous example of both, here's a web site/activist project/geography programme at Exeter that I'll be learning more about tomorrow. I can't wait:
http://www.followthethings.com
http://www.followthethings.com/FIY.html

David White said...

I use the Visitor and Resident metaphor as a method of understanding what is going on out there in terms of practice. I try not to be too prescriptive about the actions that could be taken having gained a better understanding (although I'm happy to make suggestions :)

For me the skills/cognition route is an odd one given that we are supposed to be 'higher' education. It hints a an underlying learning-technology-as-a-machine mindset. This is where I think the 'web as a space/place as well as a tool' idea can be useful in encouraging a critical approaches.

@Martin I'm trying to avoid a demographic based analysis by talking about Educational Stages not age. It's complicated by the fact that most undergrads are between the ages of 18 and 21 so the notion of educational context and age tend to be coupled. Ideally I would like to extend the project to investigate a wide range of lifelong learners. This should lead to results which break the educational context - age link. Within the current project we have tried where we can to interview a-typical students within the educational stages but our sample is quite small so I'm not convinced this will be enough to counter the problem.

@Helen What is interesting me is the extent to which learners are developing their own literacies and the extent to which they can access information outside of traditional contexts. Much of what is happening isn't new in essence (as we so often find once we decide that something being 'digital' doesn't automatically make in 'new') but the scale of activity has powerful implications.

Overall the message is very encouraging. Time and time again learners indicate their desire to be taught and to improve their critical thinking. There is a huge respect for the idea of the university and for the expertise that it represents. It reminds me that while the sector should understand it's position relative to the web and the 'network' it needs to hold true to it's tradition of critical thinking and of disrupting lazy world views.

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