The Challenge of Digital Ecologies

How can the concept of digital ecologies help us understand the challenges faced by older adults going online? In this second post from a series about the ACCESS project and how we went online with older adults during a pandemic, I will present the problem of digital ecologies. Or rather, digital ecologies are not a problem per se – today a majority of people have a network of devices and digital apps which are connected (or disconnected) in different ways. People who are digital nomads use this interconnectedness to get their work done regardless where they are for example. However, when introducing a new tool into this digital ecology, this became a challenge for us and the older adults when trying to meet together online.

The key challenge of hosting especially the first sessions (though this issue has been with us until now) has always been how to get the older participants online in the first place. That is because their ability to go online is closely connected to the digital ecologies. The problem of the digital ecologies is not only an issue of that people have devices but how they understand their own devices, the connections between them and what is possible to do with the different apps as well as what the older adults deem themselves capable doing with these tools.

The problem of the digital ecologies is not only an issue of that people have devices but how they understand their own devices.

Older participants have a range of different devices and apps laptops, smartphones, tablets or smartwatches. On these devices, they then may (or not) have a range of apps which they may or may not be able to use, especially for specific purposes. These can be for example communication (Skype, WhatsApp, email etc.), web browsers, navigation (Maps, GPS), various local apps. The older adults might also have different ways how to use apps. Especially when trying to introduce new digital tools to make the PD online work (such as Telegram and Zoom), all these existing aspects will impact the way the new tools will be appropriated.

The older adults do not often know detailed vocabulary enough to describe what way they exactly use to join the Zoom meeting (for example it was hard for them to distinguish Zoom link and Zoom ID); they are not aware of the possible connection between the applications and hence devices (if they have Telegram on their smartphone and their laptop they might not be aware of the possiblity to access information on both of these devices); as well as they sometimes struggled with how it is possible to interact with the different elements (clicking on a link in a desktop app). We summarized the challenge in the following way:

To sum up, all these different combinations of devices, programs and (learning) practices form the digital ecologies of older adults. To make this all work together in the context of online Participatory Design (PD), it is necessary to provide the older adults with support. However, to be able to provide them with support, we as researchers had to understand the particular ecologies. Since the older adults are often not aware of all the aspects of their own ecologies, it then becomes a challenge, how to incorporate it in the actual PD work.

To learn more our take on this topic and how we tried solving the possible problem of digital ecologies, have a look at our paper that this text is based on that we have published in ECSCW 2021 Making online participatory design work: Understanding the digital ecologies of older adults

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Katka Cerna, PhD, is a researcher interested in learning and participatory design currently within the sustainability area. She uses ethnographic and participatory approaches to understand learning and design to enable people to take the actions they need in the more-than-human world.