Editor’s Note: Ricarose Roque (@ricarose) continues this month’s theme of ethnography in education with a lovely piece about some unexpected results of qualitative focus groups she ran with groups of parents as part of her research. Ricarose is a doctoral student in the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab, where she works with families in communities that have limited access to resources and social support around computing. We are thrilled to have her as a guest author at Ethnography Matters.
In designing our research projects, we weigh which methods can contribute (or not contribute) into our research questions, but how might these methods benefit the people we study?
I found a surprising outcome in a recent series of focus groups I conducted to understand parents’ perceptions of computing in their lives and their children’s lives. Parents play an important role in their children’s learning ecology, from encouraging their children at home to brokering relevant relationships and resources for children beyond the home. As technology proliferates to every part of our lives from how we connect with one another to how we can learn, I’ve been interested in how parents are negotiating technology use with their children, especially among parents who do not have a history or background in computing and engineering. (I use parents loosely here to mean any adult caretaker.) I used focus groups to interview multiple parents in a familiar setting (their local community center) and to leverage the dynamics of groups to gather shared perceptions or contentious points.
In the hour and a half we shared together, I would discuss with 3 to 5 parents their personal and children’s use of technology and its influence on their lives. And at the end of each one, I noticed that parents seemed to enjoy the experience. They thanked me for putting this together. And then they thanked each other. Some suggested doing “this” again. Parents exchanged contact information. There was a feeling that we went through something special. And I only made sense of what that was through iterative readings of the transcripts.
I found that parents connected over their sometimes overwhelming anxiety around computing and how it influenced how they saw themselves, their children, and their relationships to their children. For example, they agreed that there were benefits to using computers and mobile devices in their lives, but at the same time, they shared questions about what was being lost or given up with their use. With cell phones, they could get in touch with their children immediately and at any time. With Facebook, they could keep in touch with relatives still living in the countries they left behind. But when someone grows up with communication done through text-based mediums and interactions mediated through devices, how do they connect with people emotionally and deeply in real life? How do they develop their sense of what is right and wrong? One mother asked about technology: “How — not even how does it benefit him — how does it benefit other people? How does what you do [with technology] help someone else?”
For every question I asked, parents illuminated their responses with stories. One dad shared his disappointment with how technology has complicated reading with his son, and even replaced him as his son’s reading partner.
You hit on a word [on an iPad reading app] and it says the word for you. I was a little offended, I thought I would be a great reader for them, but they preferred to have the, whatever the person who had been paid by the company to read to them, which I’m still bitter about.