This week I gave a talk at Northwestern in the School of Communication. Part of my talk was inspired by some of my past work and my evolution in how I consider and see Digital Knowledge and Learning. In this blog post I touch on an element of this story, the professional socialisation of digital knowledge and learning and why ‘social context’ of ‘learning about’ and ‘using’ digital technology, is important in life and therefore in technology research.
Considering the Social Context!
Think about how and where you learn about digital technology, say the Web/Internet. Where usually are you – in work, at home? Why were you learning or using it – for work, personal reasons? Where you expected to use the technology by your employer, school or friends? What influence do you think the social context, such as work has on you, your view of the world, and of digital technology?
The evolution in digital technology is not only altering user/consumer expectations of their interaction with the technology in general, but also placing extra demands on our confidence – ‘what we think we know about technology’ – and it’s value to us for effective participation. One thing that requires more exploration is on knowledge of digital technology, is the moderating effect of the social context within which we ‘learn about’ and ‘use’ [are socialised] about a given digital technology.
In a paper under review, my co-authors and I profile the moderating effect of the social context of ‘learning’ and biological context of the ‘user’ on the knowledge-value relationship with digital media. As such, does my confidence in my knowledge of technology X, influence the value I place on using technology X, any differently based on a) the social context within which I learn’t about/user technology X (professional/work vs. personal/non-work) and b) my biological context of being male or female.
The Professional-Personal Social Context
Our interest here, is especially the professional-personal context in how we are socialised to think, feel and use technology. Often in mass survey research about technology usage and literacy this social context is ignored or in the least not captured. But the social context of learning is very important. For example, the difference between mandated [where usage is explicitly expected] and non-mandated [where usage is more about free choice] usage contexts such as education, professional [work] and personal contexts.
Education Context: In educational institutions we often ‘expect’ students to use email, the universities intranet system (or virtual learning environment), the library catalogue, or access journal articles through electronic databases. So if one then conducts a study on knowledge, perceptions and usage of these systems, well the data is inherently biased by this being a mandated context for usage.
Professional Context: Similarly in a work-context, the profession you have and do, might have more or less expectations with technology usage and the types of technology. For example, a web designer has a very different social context of learning and technology usage than say a creative director of an arts organisation or a plumber, school teacher or university professor in Chemistry science.
These social contexts of ‘learning about’ and ‘using’ technology, in my belief are important considerations in our study of technology knowledge, perceptions and usage, and our expectations of them. In short, “I am a factor of the environment within which I live, work and play, as is my environment of me!” … Interdependent, co-evolving and emergent in how we see and are in the world. So we decided to consider it.
The Professional Context of Technical Web Design
For sample of 2077 web users we survey and profile three core things:
- How confident the users are in their knowledge about how to use the technology and how easy or valuable they find it for specific tasks;
- The technical/mandated social learning context within which they use or have learn’t to use the technology. We use a ‘web design’ or ‘no web design’ proxy here; and
- Their biological context, given our belief that men and women are socially conditioned differently from a very young age and throughout their working lives when it comes to digital technology.
The results highlight the importance of the social context of learning and sex in explaining why some knowledgeable users find the web more (or less) easy or useful to use. The results suggest that this ‘professional’ and ‘technical design’ social context within which web usage occurs, be it work-related [mandated] or personal [non-mandated], and how men and women are socialized towards technology over the course of their life has implications for the development of their beliefs about how much they think they know about the web and how this knowledge influences their perceptions of the web’s usefulness. To summarise:
- Confidence in ones knowledge of the technology has a positive impact on perceptions of usability;
- Users with design experience have more self-belief in their knowledge of technology; and their perceptions of usability become more focused on the web’s utility for achieving their goals—how effective it is for the task at hand—and less on how easy it is to use. i.e., how a web designer sees the digital world, is much different to a non-designer of the same channel – this gives increased focus on the importance of talking to non-technical users of a system in digital channel design, especially if designing for less experienced users].
- Past Research has identified that women use the web less, are more focused on social (not instrumental) cues, and report lower levels of confidence and knowledge and take less risks on the web, than male consumers (Garbarino & Strahilevitz, 2004; Rodgers & Harris, 2003). However when they have design experience, this profile is altered with rising levels of technical web knowledge confidence than the average female web consumer. In fact, the effect of confidence on technology perceptions was stronger for female web designers than male designers.
Situated Digital Technology Knowledge & Learning
Our results reveal the importance of the social context within which men and women learn about and use web technology in professional contexts and what we expect of them. Often the rationalization of conflicting male/female technology usage results focuses on the ‘length of usage experience’ each group has, as opposed to the social context within which their ‘learning’ and ‘usage’ takes place. So lets avoid stereotypes about men and women and digital media – it depends!
Furthermore, when coming from a digital technical design perspective, be it male or female, we need to recognise that we [designers-more technical users] do see the world differently to many other users of technology. As a result, we will learn about and use the technology differently, but we will also design, talk and expect different things of the technology and ourselves [and potentially others].
This study gave rise to my interest in understanding more the ‘situated’ or ‘social contexts’ within which we learn about and use technologies, and the perspective of knowledge and learning about digital technologies, being situated within practices, processes and people … the ‘doing & using’ of digital technology, as opposed to just confidence and technical competencies.
p.s. This paper entitled: The Social Context of User Web Knowledge and Web Usability, is under review, but am happy to share copies of the draft manuscript, so just DM me on twitter with your email address: @drkellypage