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Digital Divide Narratives

Ross Priory, Scotland.
Up next here at ICE 3 are Debbie Holley and Martin Oliver. They begin by highlighting the notion of the digital divide, which appears to be based on a notion that media access is inherently a good thing: if the digital divide problem is solved by providing access for all, then society will be better off. This question of access is positioned as the basic issue, but is ultimately only a superficial one - behond this, there are also divides in relation to people's skills and literacies, to their levels of motivation to exercise their skills (they may have skills, but choose not to use tem), and further, there is a divide between what are seen as 'normal' high technology uses on the one hand, and disruptive effects of complex technologies on the other.

But what does access actually mean, to different groups of participants? Debbie and Martin present a study from London Metropolitan University, a widening participation access university where blended learning is in use. Previous studies generated responses mainly from successful students (who could be considered to have solved the access problem); this new study utilised what's called the biographic narrative interpretative method model, or BNIM, which suggests that the observation of free behaviours (without direct communicative feedback by the researcher) reveals to the researcher the current structuring principles of the particular behaviours being expressed. This minimises (for as long as possible) the interviewer's concerns in order to maximise expression of the interviewee's concerns, by conducting a fairly free-form and undirected interview starting from general questions with minimal feedback from the researcher, thus enabling the interviewee to construct a lengthy narrative of their own choosing.

Much of this is about interpreting the interviewee's statements, of course, and about soliciting a longer narrative from the interviewee, while focussing in analysis and reporting on those aspects of the narrative which are relevant to the research question; this can, however, sometimes also take on a counselling-style format which could lead to researchers overstepping the boundaries of their role (or finding out rather disturbing details about the interviewee's life), and usually generates quite a large amount of information which may need to be unpacked over a long period of time and could contain only a small amount of relevant information after all.

Such interviews start from a single question aimed at introducing narrative (SQUIN); the analysis of this narrative compares the facts of the interviewee's life with their told story, examining their choices for teling the facts of their life in this particular way. Narratives are coded on a description, argumentation, report, narrative, evaluation (DARNE) model - that is, different sections of the interview transcript are coded depending on what function specific elements of the narrative serve. (Debbie and Martin now describe the cases of two students they interviewed using this approach.) Applied to e-learning initiatives, this form of research makes it possible to draw out participant narratives and understand the various barriers which create digital divides.

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