Monday, 25 October 2010

Eszter Hargittai's talk at Seminar 3

Eszter's slides and audio recording are now on the Lidu website at - sadly the audio is incomplete, as the recorder cut out inexplicably with 10 mins still to go. It did that with almost all the talks, in some cases (eg: mine) deciding to stop after just 5 mins (maybe it had heard enough). I've summarised the last part of Eszter's talk below, plus a couple of the questions from the audience.

Eszter's focus was on what she is calling the internet skills of US college students. By this she means what they know about it and what they can do with a computer connected to it. Her interest is to establish whether differences in levels of skill between people are random, or due to some systematic factor like gender, social background etc. (She has a nice graphic illustrating the cycle of skills->types of use->academic achievement ->life chances etc.)

The audio of her talk is split into two sections - about 15 minutes on her methodology, and then 10 on her findings. Under methodology she discusses issues such as the 'digital data paradox' (the Google fallacy: data about internet uses = data about users), and the realities of finding out what the 'wired generation' (95% of her student informants had access to the internet at home during their high school years, and they spend an average of 17 hours weekly on it not counting email, chat and Skype-type communications) can actually do. Eszter used observations, pen & paper surveys and interviews to rate informants' understanding of a range of internet terms ('download', 'bookmark', 'jpeg', 'Bcc', 'RSS' etc.) and their ability to carry out the procedures that these terms describe.

(I caught myself out wondering if I really do know what 'Bcc' does, even though I know what it means. I don't think I ever use it. I wonder if this affects my life chances?)

Under findings she provides some interesting (though not always surprising, if we think about it)data, for example:

  • Women consistently rate their skill levels lower than men do (there is no research domain, Eszter says, where this is not the case)..
  • ..however, where self-rating is equivalent between men and women, so are actual skill levels
  • There is a large skill/knowledge differential between Female/Hispanic students and Male/Asian ones
  • There is a differential between skill levels of students whose parents' education stopped at high school and those whose parents have college degrees
  • Most-used sites are Facebook, Youtube, wikipedia - only 18% use Twitter, correlating highly with interest in celebrities
  • Men upload content more
  • Women change their privacy setting more
  • 63% don't use mobile phones to access the internet (possibly because it's quite expensive and they all have laptops)
  • Some think that if Google found it it must be true
  • 25% don't engage with web 2.0-type activity at all
Eszter's conclusion is that there is non-random variation in skill level and that this may be indicative of 'digital inequalities' that should be addressed through education.

The audience threw a number of questions at her, particularly around the relation between her concept of 'skill' and the uses to which it is put, and the notion of 'practices' and the skills which they engender. She is clear about the methodological difference, but I sensed that some of the more social-literacies inclined people were not totally convinced that she is coming at this from the right direction!

For myself, I found her approach, her data, and her whole presentation convincing - she is finding ways to mine the responses of hundreds of informants, and if these studies can be satisfactorily replicated in other countries and cultures (which she says they have) I would think this is a really valuable 'other' dimension to the qualitative description of the practices of situated individuals. I wouldn't trust an educational policy-maker with this perspective alone, mind you - that 25% of non-engaged students might be doing something even more interesting while the others are online!

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