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Adults with literacy/language difficulties, online information seeking, and the mobile Web

OK, so that’s not a research question or a title; it’s hardly even a topic; it’s a brain-dump of related topics. I’ll improve on it later.  This is one of the things I’ve been pondering. Does it make any sense?

Adults with low reading levels can experience great difficulty in scanning complex webpages, knowing where to look and what to what to ignore, to find what they need. When rendered on a smartphone screen, the equivalent webpages generally feature a much simpler layout. So, do adults with limited literacy skills find it easier to access information on the mobile web?

If so, does mobile web technology offer a way of reducing the inequality between information haves and have-nots, or does it just create a new digital divide between those who can only access the mobile web and those who can benefit from a richer experience on devices with larger screens?   I think many websites are developed under the assumption that a lot of people will sometimes use the desktop site and sometimes the mobile version and that the purpose of their visit is likely to be different when they’re on a different device, so some features are missing from the mobile version of some sites, or harder to find, depending on what the owners think they know about when, how and why people use the mobile site.   So mobile web users don’t necessarily get the same or the full experience.

What are the implications of this – for supporting non-users of the Web to get online for the first time? for people supporting other adults to use the Web (do tutors, volunteers, other informal helpers realise there’s a difference, do they understand enough to offer appropriate advice/support)? maybe for web users in developing countries that lack the resources and infrastructure to have widespread access to broadband and computers and where many people rely on the mobile Web?


5 thoughts on “Adults with literacy/language difficulties, online information seeking, and the mobile Web

  1. Vera Shcherbina says:

    Hello, Jo.
    I think, it could be a big question for Human–computer interaction research.

    The problem can be wider because a representation of the Web on mobile devices depends on a type of phone or smartphone or tablet, on an operational system, a browser and so on. Even a well-educated person sometimes isn’t to find the right way of using a website in different representation.

    But also I would like to draw your attention to the concept of “Learned helplessness” as a lack of a desire to learn new things — I think, it especially applicable for people in developing countries.

  2. Jo Dixon says:

    Thanks, yes, I thought maybe HCI – or UX? or Interaction design? But I shelved the idea for later as I wasn’t sure what each was exactly, where they overlap and what the differences are. I will look at HCI a bit more, it’s interesting.

    Certainly the problem is wider. It’s also a problem for educators: I wondered whether to focus on how much teachers need to know about the mobile web, responsive design etc, if they are going to effectively support people to use the Web. I think they are often unaware of the differences so not really in a good position to help learners.

    I think a lot of studies have focused on the barriers to getting online and a lot of the barriers are not something that education or web science can do much about, so it’s a bit depressing, so I want to look at something that could have a useful outcome – I can’t change a learner’s socio-economic status, but I could potentially change how I teach them.

    As to learned helplessness, that’s repeated failure leading to the belief that however hard you try, you won’t be able to manage something, right? Is that how you meant it? I think that’s a reason why some people don’t try to use the Web. I have to think a bit about how that might come into this… I’m not sure that I understand why that should affect people in developing countries in particular?

  3. Vera Shcherbina says:

    1) I suppose that UX is a part of HCI.
    2) Yes, that’s what I meant. I think, the life in developing countries is full of stress and unexpectedness, and not any person, especially elders and disabled, have a resource (time, health, emotional resources) that can be spent on learning something new. So they just give up.

  4. Maria Priestley says:

    Hi Jo,

    I think you’ve picked a very interesting and important topic.

    It seems that digital literacy gets taken for granted sometimes, even by organisations that are supposed to try and lessen the inequalities. I had a poignant experience of this whilst volunteering at a jobcentre. Many jobseekers got sent off to find vacancies on the Web, but their lack of digital experience meant that the websites were practically unusable for them.

    I think that there is definitely something in the idea of learned helplessness. The Web started off as being quite exclusive to particular demographics, and its spread to wider sections of the population is more recent. Perhaps some people have internalised the idea that it is something unfamiliar and inaccessible to them.

    …but I think that this helplessness can be unlearned, especially if there are simple resources (like the mobile web) to help them get started. Encouragement is also a big factor. My grandma (who is almost 80 and lived in Russia all her life) was initially very reluctant about using a computer. But we taught her to use skype and search engines, and now she’s very fond of the internet. It’s been interesting to hear about her progress (e.g. how she’s learning to ignore ads and to navigate websites). I would be very interested to see large-scale research on how adults learn to adopt the Web.

  5. Jo Dixon says:

    Thanks Maria. Jobseekers are in one of my other draft posts! I think that’s another issue in itself. I run an IT skills drop-in once a week at a local library and often people are referred for support with jobseeking. Because of the pressure they are under to apply for a certain number of jobs per week or risk losing their benefits, they are in a panic and don’t want to take the time to develop the underpinning skills and understanding that would help them do it themselves; they need someone to help them quickly meet the jobcentre’s requirements (eg apply for six jobs before your next meeting) so they repeatedly fail to get it and continue to require support. (There’s that ‘learned helplessness’). I don’t think mobile is any help in this case – I get people in who can access information on the web on their mobile but find their skills and equipment inadequate for job applications. So the mobile idea was more about information seeking. But I think the jobseeking situation is also really important and interesting. I’ve often felt it’s unfair to pressurise people into learning to use the Web to apply for jobs that often don’t require IT skills (because the people without these skills are often looking for low-skilled work – driver, carer, etc). IT skills might increase their skillset, improve their chances, but they need motivation and time to develop skills, not to be panicked into trying to ‘run before they have learnt to walk’ with online job applications. I’m not sure what sort of a study is buried in this idea somewhere…

    The elderly, again, another sector of the population with different motivations, different barriers… and increasingly buying tablets to get online rather than using computers if they’ve never used a computer before.

    But there’s something else I’m pondering too that’s kind of related: the language we use to talk to people about the Web (and this links to what you said about taking digital literacy for granted). The government has researched the sort of language people find encouraging/discouraging as part of their digital inclusion strategy (eg, apparently ‘get connected’ is more encouraging than ‘get switched on’, and they’ve used this to try to encourage organisations to use a ‘shared language of digital inclusion’ in their communications. But while directing this effort at people in charge of communications, they forget the influence of the people on the ground. The customer service assistant who says to a customer ‘no, sorry I can’t sort out your loyalty card, you need to do it on the website. It’s really easy.’ and hands someone a leaflet with a url on it. That someone may never have been online before. They get someone to help them access the website, and find that they need to set up an online account to manage their card. So they click through and one of the pieces of personal information they have to enter in order to set up an account is their email address. So they’re stuck until they’ve set up an email address… So by now they’re really frustrated because the well-meaning customer service assistant said it was really easy – so they must be really stupid. This is a real example from my experience – I’ve just omitted the organisation name 🙂 Errr… so where am I going. Yeah, the ‘shared language of digital exclusion’ maybe that a lot of people inadvertantly use all the time in assuming that everyone uses the Web, in contrast to the government’s ‘shared language of digital inclusion’.

    I have all these issues in my head from my experience with people, but am struggling to formulate something academic out of one of them…


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