Not ‘Natives’ & ‘Immigrants’ but ‘Visitors’ & ‘Residents’

As part of the JISC funded Isthmus project we have been taking a close look not at whattechnologies our students use but at how our they use them. We found that our students could not be usefully categorised as Digital Natives or Digital Immigrants. I.e. This distinction does not help guide the implementation of technologies it simply provides the excuse that “some people ‘just don’t get it’ which is why your new approach has failed so badly…”

Anyway, our students appropriation of online services did not seem to follow a simple pattern based on skill level. It seemed to depend on if they saw the web as a ‘place to live’ or as a collection of useful tools. This underlying motivation led us to outline two main categories of distance learning student.

The ‘Resident’

The resident is an individual who lives a percentage of their life online. The web supports the projection of their identity and facilitates relationships. These are people who have an persona online which they regularly maintain. This persona is normally primarily in a social networking sites but it is also likely to be in evidence in blogs or comments, via image sharing services etc  The Resident will of course interact with all the practical services such as banking, information retrieval and shopping etc but they will also use the web to socialise and to express themselves. They are likely to see the web as a worthwhile place to put forward an opinion. They often use the web in all aspects of the of their lives; professionally, for study and for recreation. In fact the resident considers that a certain portion of their social life is lived out online. The web has become a crucial aspect of how they present themselves and how they remain part of networks of friends or colleagues.

The ‘Visitor’

The Visitor is an individual who uses the web as a tool in an organised manner whenever the need arises. They may book a holiday or research a specific subject. They may choose to use a voice chat tool if they have friends or family abroad. Often the Visitor puts aside a specific time to go online rather than sitting down at a screen to maintain their presence at any point during the day. They always have an appropriate and focused need to use the web but don’t ‘reside’ there. They are sceptical of services that offer them the ability to put their identity online as don’t feel the need to express themselves by participating in online culture in the same manner as a Resident.

In effect the Resident has a presence online which they are constantly developing while the Visitor logs on, performs a specific task and then logs off.

This is of course not a polar distinction. There is a spectrum of which the Resident and the Visitor represent two extremes (Watch this space for a couple of possible sub-categories). It is a useful distinction because it is not based on gender or age. While our data would indicate that the portion of the population over 55 is predominantly made up of Visitors there are examples of Residents in this section of the demographic. Similarly it is the case that not everyone younger than 25 is a Resident.

It is not always easy to spot who is in each category as the level of sophistication with which a Visitor might use any single service might well be greater than that of a Resident. Again, this is not a skill based distinction. In fact I know of at least one ed-tech researcher who considers himself to be a Visitor out of choice.

The Resident is likely to have arranged some sort of system to manage the relationship between services and the flow of information through their browser but this does not mean that they will be any more effective at researching a specific topic than a Visitor. This is why data from a survey that simply asks what online services a group of students use is next to useless.

This Visitor, Resident distinction is useful when considering which technologies to provide for online learners. For example if your learners are mainly Visitors they are unlikely to take advantage of any feed based system for aggregated information you may put in place. They are also unlikely to blog or comment as part of a course. The Resident will expect to have the opportunity to offer opinions on topics and to socialise around a programme of study. In fact they are likely to find ways of doing this even if they are not ‘officially’ provided. We offered membership of a facebook group to our students as they left their online courses. The majority signed-up without question as they wanted to stay in touch with fellow students and continue discussions. The remainder saw the group as pointless and a possible invasion of privacy. Both sides of this argument are correct… It’s a question of approach and motivation, hence Visitors and Residents.

Some of you might also be interested in our paper on Visitors and Residents:

Visitors and Residents: A new typology for online engagement
by David S. White and Alison Le Cornu.
First Monday, Volume 16, Number 9 – 5 September 2011
http://www.uic.edu/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/viewArticle/3171/3049

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Philosophers Philosophise in Second Life

What happens when you take 6 online philosophy students with and average age of about 50* and attempt to run a discussion session on ‘identity’ in Second Life after only two short orientation sessions that not everyone could attend?

Well against my expectations they actually spend the majority of the time ‘really doing philosophy’ (to quote the tutor) and then 4 of them arrange to continue the discussions on a regular basis after the official ‘Open Habitat’ project pilot has finished. General enthusiasm all round and many constructive comments on how future sessions could be organised and formatted.

So the initial question I ask myself is not “why did this work?” but “why did I think it wasn’t going to work?” The answer can probably contains an number of things that I didn’t consider until it was clear that the sessions were going ok.

  1. The majority of the participants were experienced philosophers. They did not have to grapple with the environment AND the subject. Once they had learnt how to text chat, move and sit down (an activity they all seemed to enjoy) the rest was home territory.
  2. The tutor involved was enthusiastic, had experience of teaching online distant students via a VLE and had a clear understanding that Second Life was going to be different and required a new approach.
  3. I was on hand through the sessions to IM anyone in difficulties and more importantly I was in the same RL room as the tutor who was also new to Second Life.
  4. We were flexible with the teaching format and adjusted activities to fit the flow of the discussion and the speed of response from the students.
  5. The participants who signed up for the pilot self selected as those willing to investigate a possible new format. This was not a mandatory part of a course. In other words they were open to a new experience.

Philosophising as the sun sets

The debate begins

One of the most successful aspects of the sessions was breaking into small groups. We had placed simple breakout areas within view of each other but just out of the 20 meter range of local chat to avoid cross talk. The tutor could wander between groups much in the same way she would in RL. It was a format that the participants could relate to and it utilised the socio-spatial nature of the environment.

Small groups

The ‘red’ group with the ‘blue’ group in the background.

Another interesting technique was circulating a transcript of the chat after the session with annotations from the tutor. I could see this working very well for a rolling discussion over a number of sessions.

It wasn’t all plain sailing, some of the participants found the flow of the text chat too fast and too ‘bitty’. By the time they had formulated their thoughts things had moved on and a paragraph of text in the flow of a text chat can appear self indulgent. Of course this is a problem inherent in text chats as a format rather than an SL specific issue. The other major challenge seems to be facing in the right direction when sitting down or, at one point, sitting in a seat that has not already been taken.

Have we met?

Have we met?

We now have a lot of data to sift through and many more questions to answer but my initial reaction is that this could become a very effective part of a distance programme blended between VLE and SL. The SL part providing a social underpinning to students who never get the chance to meet face-to-face.

Sunset discussion

The setting lends a noble atmosphere to the discussion

As to ‘technological barriers’ and ‘SL pain barriers’ it’s true to say that one of the perspective participants simply could not get into SL at all (a victim of SL graphics card brutality). However, with a little hand-holding the participants who could get in didn’t have too much trouble using the environment to philosophise and did not seem to get tied down by the platform as a technology.

 

*This is not meant as an ageist comment as I think the Prensky-esque notions of the digital native generation are a misnomer (by that I mean “completely wrong”). My point is that these participants are not ‘high tech’ nor are they ‘tech geeks’. They will only use a technology if it aids them in moving their learning forwards.

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