They’re uniquely equipped to map how users interface with digital technology.

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Photo credit: Rodion Kutsaev

The tech industry has always had a curious relationship with social scientists. As a PhD student in sociology in 2010, I remember hearing professors discuss the “Xerox Parc days”: starting in the late 1970s, anthropologists helped technologists encounter their machines in more natural habitats beyond the lab. Since then, social scientists of all kinds — sociologists, economists, psychologists, you name it — began working alongside technology entrepreneurs. Startups who “made it” in the tech sector had done their research, so to speak.

As the industry reached another boom in the 2000s, perceptions of research in the tech sector started to change. Consider Silicon Valley, the HBO show many of us in the tech industry lament is often painfully on the mark. In one episode, the members of this startup were confused as to why people weren’t sticking around after trying their platform. So they held a focus group. The team watched behind a one-way mirror as people shared their opinions about using what they built. The CEO got so frustrated with the feedback that he left his hidden seat from behind the window and stormed in to try to convince them that they were wrong. …


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Schools that rely on remote learning during the pandemic are trying to ensure that all kids have the devices and internet bandwidth they need. While important, it takes more than everyone having comparable equipment and working WiFi for all children to get an equal shot.

In my new book based on the sociological research I conducted at three middle schools before the COVID-19 pandemic, I explain how even if all students could get the same hardware and software, it would fail to even the academic playing field.

I saw many technologies used in unequal ways. And I observed teachers responding differently to students’ digital skills depending on the race or ethnicity and economic status of most of their students. …


We designed our first online course that uses student videos as a driving feature of the class. The semester just ended. Time for reflection!

I’ve decided to write some reflections on running an online course on Social Inequality (Sociology) that I co-designed and taught with Andrew Penner here at UC-Irvine. After talking with colleagues, I realized that most people don’t know what online courses “look” like — it’s not so clear how they appear visually, how they are experienced day-to-day, and what the various opportunities and challenges are for online coursework using Canvas, a new learning management system. I hope to later write about various “lessons learned” from this instructional experience where students participated, both in real-time and asynchronously, in a video production-centered learning experience. …


So I’m going to preface this with the fact that I’m co-hosting an academic-ish hackathon on Monday at 1pm (PST). It will be wildly fun and thought-provoking and we will be crowdsourcing #alloftheknowledge. (Please join!) But why can these things be fun and helpful?

First of all, one of the things we talked about during our panel last week was that advisors and graduate programs provide a lot of helpful information — but they don’t teach you everything. Christo and I talked about how we learned the ropes for conducting ethnographic fieldwork through apprenticeship model with experienced researchers. Rena, Cassidy, and Adar noted that there are many “dots” that students learn to connect, be it for securing funding or managing a research project, through cultivated relationships we develop in our careers. But how on earth do those of us who are new to this world manage to connect those dots? …


I was super stoked today to help facilitate the inaugural unit for the Digital Media and Learning Commons’ Professional Pathways track. Some of my colleagues asked me what professional pathways are and why it might matter that we are running a four unit sequence this spring on it. I thought to live by the Blog Talk Garage Brothers’ and Sisters’ mantra and…blog about it!

For those of us just starting out as hopeful researchers, graduate students, and junior faculty, there are a lot more questions than answers about how to connect the dots, so to speak, about pursuing what we love while balancing the many demands of our work. For example: How does one start a research project? How do you get better at methods needed to pursue research? How do you publish your work, both within specific disciplines and in cross-disciplinary fields? …


The other day I met a friend’s extended family over dinner, including their two sons of about middle school age, and we all had a discussion about young people’s use of technology. Some pundits argue that young people do not have standards of privacy at all in the digital age. In spite of this, studies find that youth do care about privacy but perhaps in ways that are different from adults – for example, they prefer to be visible online to peers and some public audiences but not always to parents and other family members. Over the course of dinner, however, I realized that researchers occupy a complicated position between adults and the youth they study. …

About

Matt Rafalow

sociology phd. tech researcher. author. digitaldivisions.org

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