Interdisciplinary chaos

That load of skeptical, arrogant, jump-to-conclusions, narrow-minded bastards…

I’m mad now… News of a research project I’ve been involved in broke on Slashdot today. $3.3 million from the MacArthur foundation to research kids and technology. Everyone seems to misunderstand it:

Let’s see: $3.3M / 3 professors / 3 year study = $366K/year/each.

I wish I could make that kind of money to “discover” that kids use cell phones and e-mail to find out when to meet their “crew” at the mall.


My point is that we should probably take a look at fixing what’s actually broken before trying to play around with gee-whiz high-tech crap that does little/nothing to improve the basics of education.

The following distills the perspectives of our primary investigators Peter Lyman, Mizuko Ito, and Michael Carter, as well as the slew of students, professors, and other advisors involved in this incredible project. Of course, this is entirely my opinion, so don’t complain to them if you don’t agree or if I get it wrong.

I’m not going to respond to the insinuation that these amazing, friendly, funny, selfless, incredibly intelligent professors, one of which is my Master’s final project advisor, are going to do anything but the research they’ve been funded to do. You see, we ARE trying to find out what’s broken. One short version of our research is that educators are severely disconnected from the people they’re trying to educate — making poor choices about technologies to use, not taking into account the technology habits of the very people they’re trying to help among other gaps.

Saying they “use cell phones and e-mail” or that kids do childish things only shows that you’re assuming you know what they’re doing — that you’re holding them to your own ideal of childhood. They may think their activities are perfectly normal, so maybe we’re the ones who should change our habits. The reality is that we can’t be certain of anything because nobody has done the research.

What we aren’t going to do: We aren’t going to suggest they buy 10,000 AMD based, wireless networked PCs running Ubuntu Linux. We’re not out to create things and throw them into the wild to see if kids will use it, wasting the money and momentum of this project. We’re not here to pad our pockets with dead man foundation money, much like the uninformed soul above suggests.

The angry reaction to this story is probably due to the failure of the two other disciplines that focus on kids the most — education and marketing. Those fields treat children as brainwash-able vessels of information absorption, reflecting adults’ perspective about what the children should be and how they should attain their future status. For instance, this perspective has advocated bringing technology into classrooms and forcing kids to learn how to use them. This makes their lives better? Improves their education? This resembles what the kids do with that technology outside the classroom or in the future?

The failure is not understanding the problem from the perspective of the people it impacts the most — the children. This problem is the very reason ethnographic and other qualitative research methods exist. Someone out there has to speak for these kids but not in some disconnected, adult voice. We have to speak for the children in their own voice, in their own words, reflecting their concerns, habits, and preferences as best we can. This is more than understanding that “kids use cell phones and e-mail.” The real understanding will come when we know how and why kids have appropriated these new technologies for their own uses in and out of schools, what uses they’ve created, and using that knowledge to advance the use of technology in education.

Why is there such animosity when disciplines collide? Why do technologists hate social research? I think about my final project research — Berkeley freshmen and communication technology use — and how disconnected developers, educators, and administration are from the needs and habits of those students. I’m especially concerned because my ideas for future research are highly cross-disciplinary. Will my research be rejected outright simply because I’m trying to bring a new perspective into a field with different acceptable methods? That still won’t answer the question which inspired this writing: Why is the Slashdot readership so uninformed when problems don’t directly involve computers?

So for all you people who think this is money wasted, that you can think of better uses for it, that technology should be taken out of schools, or any other reflex reactions, you obviously don’t know a thing about what the goals of this research are. We’re incredibly excited about this research and hope it will solve your concerns as well as ours. At best, we’ll transform education and our understanding about how kids appropriate technologies in new and unexpected ways. At the very least, it will keep a dozen or so graduate students happily employed for three years, doing research and furthering their own education and research goals which, as a graduate student, is a damn good goal too.

Even though I’m leaving this research after I graduate in May, I know it will continue in the good hands of some of the best and brightest people I’ve ever known. And if you think that our PI’s are going to kick back, relax, and bask in their new found wealth, then I can understand exactly why they received the grant and you didn’t.

2 Replies to “Interdisciplinary chaos”

  1. You’re irritated, no doubt. I just find it interesting that you’d rant here and not on the page with the seemingly false accusations. It seems that the high-visibility sites (like slashdot or omninerd) is where you’d want to set people straight. Maybe you did post and I just missed it. Just a thought. I just happened to Google the topic and found your site.

    1. I hope my little diatribe fulfilled your information need. In response to your comment, I think that someday the slashdot and omninerd crowd understand the importance of social research and social aspects of technology. I don’t see it as my purpose to inform them personally, nor do I think a single post on that thread would change their mind (and no, I didn’t post). In time we’ll convince them, but for now they’re best left alone to blow off some steam.

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