Saturday, April 25, 2009

Grown Up Digital Research Methods

In Grown Up Digital, Don Tapscott makes some substantial claims about the Net Generation and its impact on business, education and society in general. He calls for major changes to our educational institutions and to how employers treat employees. His recommendations are based on the results of a $4 million research project. But how was that research conducted?

One of the ways we determine the quality of research is by examining the methods used. We want to be sure the research methodology is appropriate, that appropriate sampling and analysis techniques are used, that there is no bias and that the conclusions are supported by the evidence. But the research that informs Grown Up Digital is proprietary. In other words, it was conducted under contract for several businesses. As a result, only some of the "high level findings and main conclusions" can be shared publicly. This means the reader has little opportunity to assess the quality of the research.

While Tapscott doesn't provide the full details of his methodology that would allow for a proper assessment, he does share some of the methodology:
  • Data was gathered from a sample of 7685, composed of randomly selected Internet users, stratifed to avoid gender or socioeconomic bias.
  • Interviews were conducted using an online questionnaire.
  • Facebook group was used to collect over 200 stories.
  • Discussions on a global online network TakingITGlobal were conducted and analyzed
While the sample is large, and the sources varied, there is an obvious problem here. The data was gathered from people who are already engaged with digital technologies: Internet users, Facebook users and participants of an online discussion. This is a biased sample. One of the main goals of the research was to determine how engaged this generation is with digital technology and whether there are generational differences. Might the results have been different if people who aren't active users of the technology were sampled?

This highlights the value of academic research and why we need to be careful about how we use proprietary research. Academic research is subject to peer review and it requires transparency and openness of methods. With proprietary research, it is up to the sponsor to decide what to make publicly available.


Ton said...

While I agree on your distinction between 'open' academic research and proprietary research, I'm not sure I agree with your general point in this posting.
Isn't it already well documented what part of the population in what age-group in which country has access to internet and what part doesn't? Easily factored in, I'd say.

Of course for qualitative material you would go to places where you can find that. Collecting stories on-line in a regular hang-out of people (Facebook group in this case) is not strange. Anthropologists do that all the time, don't they?

If you want to know if there are differences in behaviour between different age groups on-line, of course you would do on-line surveys if you want a wide reach. And then it's no use asking those not on-line. It would be interesting to ask questions about off-line behaviour as well though. (I e.g. surveyed 550 kids aged 10-11 last year and they liked playing outside best, while 99% were active on the internet)

It would help to know the methods of the Grown Up Digital research better, because we're now both speculating I'd say. Why not ask the author about methods? That's what the (social) web is for. Why not ask Don Tapscott himself?

I don't think there's a NetGen/GenY, because it's a label and a set of expectations other people stick and project on 'them'. It's more often used to define NetGen as an out-group (so I don't have to change).

That internet and mobile communications as infrastructure have a profound impact on our societies I don't doubt one second however. That's the type of impact new infrastructure always has had in the past as well (railroad time, anyone?). It's affecting all of us, not just the on-line part of the population.
And in much more fundamental ways than people usually imagine. It is changing our view on workplace, organisational structures, collaboration, social environment, mobility, political parties, empathy, cities, etc.

Focussing on what tools people use, if they chat or skype etc, is largely irrelevant to me. The tools will be different in 1 year, if not 6 months. They're interesting as experiments, to find out what new affordances these infrastructures can give us that weren't originally designed into them. It's the affordances that change us. The tools are froth on the wave in that regard.

(end of Sunday morning rant ;) )

Mark Bullen said...

Thanks for this comment. I certainly agree that collecting stories online is appropriate if you are only investigating the behaviour of the people who use these tools and "hang out" in these places but as I understand it, Tapscott was trying to do more than that. He makes generalizations about an entire generation based on the data he collected. Surely if you want to get an accurate picture of how this generation uses and thinks about digital technology you must not only sample the heavy users of the technology.

Ton said...

@Mark I agree that painting an entire generation with certain characteristics is problematic in 2 ways. It is overly generalizing, and it ignores that the changes projected on this generation are taking place in other age groups as well, because they are general changes in our everyday routines/environment. Perhaps younger generations have less to unlearn, less ingrained behaviour to come up with novel uses quicker, but that's about it, I think.

Unknown said...

re. Grown Up Digital- while Tapscott makes (vague) reference to the research his firm carried out for (unnamed) clients, much of the book consists of anecdotes about his kids, Niki and Alex, and their friends. He over generalizes from their experiences and from his peers. Early on, comparing Net-Gen childhoods (his children) with Boomer childhoods (his own), he comments that the Boomers didn't have nannies. Maybe Tapscott hired nannies when his kids were young, and perhaps many of his well-off Toronto peers did too, but none of the (presumably Net-Gen) children I teach in a heavily immigrant Vancouver school come from families that hired nannies. Generational stereotyping like this is always wrong- whether Charles Reich's 1969 Greening of America or Don Tapscott's 2009 Grown Up Digital.

Unknown said...
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