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Rural road.

Understanding software learning in rural Canada

March 9, 2018 — 

The field of human-computer interaction investigates how people use computers. We design, implement and evaluate interactive systems to further gain knowledge on human abilities with regards to computers.

We can then use this information to build systems that are easier to use, or that help us complete more tasks. It is a multidisciplinary field, including computer science, psychology, and more specialized areas, depending on the application’s domain.

One group of people that we’ve been studying is Canadians in rural and isolated areas. There are unique challenges in these areas, such as lower quality infrastructure.

This could lead, for example, to unstable or slow internet connectivity. Of course, as technology advances, it becomes easier and easier for everyone to access these resources, but these upgrades are years away and there will always be some individuals in locations where it is unfeasible to offer infrastructure upgrades.

As a consequence, people in rural areas have mentioned that they can only access online services when the skies are clear, or that they have to go to a certain spot outside of town to use their phone, for example. We suspect the way rural and isolated Canadians learn software is similarly affected.

Patrick Dubois is a PhD student studying human-computer interaction in the department of computer science, Faculty of Science. He is a recipient of the Doctoral NSERC Canada Graduate Scholarship, as well as the Indigenous Doctoral Excellence Award.

Patrick Dubois is a PhD student studying human-computer interaction in the department of computer science, Faculty of Science.
He is a recipient of the Doctoral NSERC Canada Graduate Scholarship, as well as the Indigenous Doctoral Excellence Award.

Software learnability is the ability of users to learn how to use complex software. This can both be done through the software itself, or through some external resources.

Some popular methods to learn software include software exploration and experimentation, taking courses, using software manuals and accessing online tutorials. How people learn using these methods can inform us on how to improve upon both the design of software and of external resources.

Like Canadians in urban centres, rural individuals use complex software to operate businesses and to connect to online communities. However, they have adopted a different set of commonly used learning methods. For example, traditional classrooms are inaccessible to rural people, so they use online courses with a higher frequency, despite connectivity issues. Alternatively, some users prefer to use in-software documentation so that they don’t have to suffer through slow or unstable internet. Some rural people have also described a sense of mistrust of resources created by an online community, not seen with urban individuals.

Living in a rural area myself, I under-stand the frustrations of learning interesting software when resources are inaccessible. Some solutions will simply be to design applications tailored to rural users. However, the more interesting work will be to understand why some of these non-technological issues arise in the first place, such as the mistrust of online communities. In both cases, we will use human-computer interaction research methods to understand our users and develop solutions according to their needs and preferences.

I’m looking forward to exploring solutions with rural Canadians to develop more inclusive technologies.

Story originally published in ResearchLIFE Winter 2018 Edition. Read the full magazine online.

Research at the University of Manitoba is partially supported by funding from the Government of Canada Research Support Fund.

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