Breaking the Digital Divide: Using Technology to Improve the Lives of Older Adults

Posted on: July 13, 2017

Shelia CottenAs we age, our ability to learn and retain new information diminishes. So much so, that by the time we reach our 80s and 90s, a skill picked up easily by a toddler – like tapping and swiping on a mobile phone - can seem too daunting to undertake. Frustrated and defeated, many older adults simply give up trying to learn new skills.

That’s where Shelia Cotten, Ph.D. steps in. A professor in the Department of Media and Information in the College of Communication Arts and Sciences (ComArtSci), Cotten researches technology use across the life course. Her goal is to improve the lives of older adults by closing the digital divide and helping them learn to use technologies to improve their lives.

Training Older Adults

Elderly man using computer tabletIn a recent study, Cotten and her team spent 5-years working with 19 different assisted and independent living facilities training older adults to use computers and the internet. The training lasted for 8-weeks in each facility, with 2 training sessions per week plus an additional office hours session.

The team started with the basics – from turning on a computer, to conducting an internet search, to sending an email.

“A lot of times, older adults have had no experience with computers in their lives,” said Cotten. “So, we have to start very basic. We started early teaching them to use email because findings from our prior work showed that older adults really enjoy that one-to-one communication/interaction.”

The participants also learned how to search for health information, and to critically evaluate the information they found.

“Because a lot of older adults have more health problems than younger aged groups [the question is] ‘How do you find information on the latest prescription that you’ve been given?’ and ‘Is there a conflict with some other medicine that you’re taking?’ We try to help them to be more critical consumers of information,” said Cotten.

Improving Quality of Life

The team also observed the mental health and quality of life benefits the residents received while working with the research team, including impacts on depression, isolation and loneliness.

“A lot of times as people age into their 80s or 90s, their partners or spouses have died, their children may be living far away, their health tends to decline… the combination of those factors

leads them to be more isolated, have higher rates of loneliness, have higher depression levels as they move into older adulthood,” Cotten told us.

According to Cotten, more opportunities for interaction and exchange of social support often lead to more positive outcomes for older adults. Because of that, Cotten focused her study on training older adults in a face-to-face environment, teaching them ways to use technology to connect with their present as well as their past.

“We found the interaction is very beneficial for older adults in general,” said Cotten. “But, over and above [we found] that the training and technology usage had positive effects. Teaching older adults how to use computers and the internet had positive impacts on their quality of life.”

From finding their childhood homes using Google Street View, to watching their favorite classic television shows or listening to music from earlier generations on Hulu and YouTube, the participants were able to see that many of their memories still live on.

Findings of the Study

At the end of the 5-year study, Cotten and her team found that their work was a success.

“We saw very positive effects in terms of teaching older adults in these communities to cross the digital divide and use computers and the internet successfully,” Cotten recalled. “They had reduced loneliness, better social integration, and lower depression. And many of the positive results tended to persist over time.”

The group even wrote a book on designing technology training programs for older adults in continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs). The book is intended to help additional facilities work with their residents in the future, continuing to improve their quality of life.

Cotten said the team wrote the book “To provide the latest research- and design-based recommendations for how to design and implement technology training programs for older adults in CCRCs. Our approach concentrates on providing useful best practices for CCRC owners, CEOs and activity directors, as well as practitioners and system designers working with older adults to enhance their quality of life and educators studying older adults. Although the guidelines are couched in the context of CCRCs, they will have broader-based implications for training older adults to use computers, tablets and other technologies.”

More to Come

Cotten has dedicated her career to exploring innovative ways to use technology to improve people’s lives and just finished her fourth year at MSU. This summer, she is conducting a large-scale survey of older adults across the U.S. about different aspects of technology, including digital assistance and even autonomous vehicles.

“You know Alexa? And Siri? We want to get their perspectives on these technologies. There isn’t a lot known about these new technologies coming out and older adults’ perceptions of them and how they might use them to improve their quality of life,” said Cotten. “Autonomous vehicles have such a huge potential for older adults who have mobility problems and can’t drive anymore… Using autonomous vehicles has the potential to significantly impact their independence and have positive impacts on their quality of life.”

In addition to research, Cotten also teaches classes in ComArtSci, is the Director for the Sparrow/MSU Center for Innovation and Research, the Director of Trifecta and was recently promoted to MSU Foundation Professor.

“I love being in the Department of Media and Information and being at MSU; my whole department is focused on how can we use media and technology to improve people’s lives and the larger world. It’s a great opportunity to be in a very interdisciplinary department and have great collaborators who are all interested in different aspects of technology, media, or information. I love it here,” said Cotten.

View more of Cotten's work >> 

By Nikki W. O’Meara

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“Just One More Episode”: ComArtSci Professors Research Binge-Watching

Posted on: June 14, 2017

We’ve all been there: cozy on the couch, our favorite show on Netflix, telling ourselves that this is the last episode we’ll watch. But before we know it, we’re five episodes in and can’t seem to stop. We’ve just fallen into the trap that is binge watching.

Morgan Ellithorpe, assistant professor of advertising and public relations, partnered with Allison Eden, assistant professor of communication, to conduct research on the effects of binge watching. The two presented their findings at the 67th Annual Conference of the International Communication Association (ICA).

A lot of people engage in binge-watching - that is watching more than 3 episodes of a show in a row,” said Eden. “But it is relatively new in terms of being available to everyone, due to streaming technology like Netflix. We are trying to understand if there is something different about binge watching than other types of viewing behavior, and if it can have an impact on your health.”

Allison Eden2

Allison Eden

What They Found

Ellithorpe and Eden’s research found that binge watching can have an impact on a person’s health.

“Our research suggests that binge watching is associated with detrimental health behaviors such as foregoing sleep in order to continue watching, selecting unhealthy meals, unhealthy snacking and sedentary behavior (i.e., sitting too long, less exercise),” said Ellithorpe. “Other researchers have found similar effects, including a possible link with heart disease.


Morgan Ellithorpe

Though their data points to negative health effects, the researchers acknowledge the positive effects as well.

“Entertainment can do a lot of positive things for you, beyond just laughing and enjoying it in the moment,” said Eden. “It can keep you company when you feel lonely, help you recover from a long day of work and take you outside yourself to experience another character’s perspective. We see a lot of these positive effects generally when studying entertainment.”

Interestingly enough, these positive effects are even stronger after one has been binge watching.

Importantly, we see some evidence that these positive outcomes of media entertainment – enjoyment, immersion and character involvement – are stronger after binge watching than they are after watching TV the traditional way (i.e., one episode per week),” said Ellithorpe.  

Both researchers point out the fact that binge watching is not to be confused with problematic television use. Ellithorpe notes that problem viewing has elements of behavioral addiction, indicating continued viewing despite sometimes serious consequences. This may include issues such as inability to cut down on TV time, displacement of other activities, withdrawal and continued use despite knowing that the activity is causing problems. Ellithorpe makes it clear that although binge watching can sometimes touch on some of these behaviors, it does not generally make it to the level of problematic viewing.

“We have some evidence that although on the face of it, binge watching for hours on end seems like a potentially negative behavior that is almost akin to an addiction, it actually is not the same as problematic, addictive television use,” said Ellithorpe. “Problematic television use is worrisome for the way it impedes other aspects of one’s life – from social contact to mental health. It is important (and relieving, given its popularity!) that binge watching is different from problematic television use.”

One Step Further

Ellithorpe and Eden are interested in the overall effects of media, and more specifically how it can affect a person’s health. In terms of binge watching, they realized what a common practice it has become, and wanted to further their research in the area.

“From an entertainment standpoint, it’s a really interesting question to ask if the form of media consumption can alter the response and effects,” said Eden. “Of course, from a personal perspective, many of us have certainly struggled against the desire to watch ‘just one more’ episode of a show. Also, with Morgan’s interest in health outcomes from entertainment, and my past work on guilty couch potatoes, it seemed like a natural next step to take.”

Eden adds that their research was welcomed by many at the ICA conference. Since binge watching has become more popular over the past few years, thanks to streaming sites such as Netflix, many people were able to relate to their findings.

“It’s a common practice,” said Eden. “So people were pretty interested in finding out how best to manage this behavior and if there are any negative effects.”

Next time you’re tempted to binge watch, remember that although it may be good for your mood, it could also be detrimental to your health.

By Katie Kochanny

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ComArtSci Professor Honored with Gene Burd Outstanding Dissertation Award

Posted on: June 8, 2017

RM Award WideRachel Mourao, assistant professor of journalism at ComArtSci, received the Gene Burd Outstanding Dissertation Award from the International Communication Association (ICA) this year.

“It’s very special,” said Mourao. “You spend a year working on a project, exclusively working on a dissertation, so it’s nice to know that in some way you did good work. It’s a nice way to finish a cycle.”

Mourao was a journalism P.h.D student at the University of Texas at Austin when she met Gene Burd, an associate professor emeritus. She studied under Steve Reese, the associate dean for academic affairs for the Moody College of Communication.

Mourao’s dissertation research focused on a wave of protests in Brazil from 2013-2015, which started out small, but evolved into massive right-wing demonstrations with elite support. She studied how journalists navigated this transformation to cover the protests, what influenced their work and how they made sense of the political strife.

Mourao’s findings contradict literature gathered in the U.S. and Europe that found news portrayal of protesters to be negative.

“The stories focus on spectacle and violence, and some argue that comes from an ideological resistance that journalists have to protesters,” Mourao said. “The story I found was different— it was the opposite of that.”

The majority of the reporters in Mourao’s study were against the demonstrations, especially in 2015, yet their coverage was supportive of the protests.

“It’s really indicative of Brazil— what really drove negative or positive portrayal of protesters was how aligned the protesters were with official sources,” Mourao said.

For example, if there were official sources, meaning elected officials or those appointed by elected officials, that were supportive of the protesters, the coverage of the demonstration would be supportive, regardless of the journalist's personal views.

From Reporting to Research

Mourao was born in Brazil and worked there for several years as a reporter, where she witnessed many of the problems she has encountered in her research. She said her research is a way for her to give back to Brazil.

“I knew I wanted to write something that would shed light on some of the issues faced by the press in developing countries, which are sometimes different and sometimes similar to issues faced by the press in the United States and Europe, where most studies focus,” Mourao said. “My main goal was to show that some of the processes that we take for granted here or that seem really evident in the literature produced in developed countries do not always work the same way in less developed nations.”

Mourao said there is lot of criticism of the press in Brazil, such as claims that the media self-censors and their coverage is against those under the poverty line. As a journalist, she did not see this criticism reflected in the newsroom. Now, her research aims to explain why and how journalists’ coverage reflects the beliefs of those in power.  

The Next Step: Broadening the Research

Mourao used content analysis to examine the way the mainstream press covered the demonstrations and compared that to survey data she gathered from journalists. She also has a third element that she hasn’t used yet— the journalists’ tweets.

“I want to know if the coverage they sent on social media is different than what they produced for mainstream newspapers,” Mourao said, “If it is, then there are different norms and expectations of social media. If you are producing a type of content for your employer, and then you are putting out something else for your personal brand, then there are some influences there. So that’s what’s next for me.”

Mourao’s studies focused on the mainstream press, elite journalists and big newspapers from the urban centers of Brazil. She hopes to expand her research by studying how journalists in the poor regions of Brazil cover protests.

“We don’t have a lot of access to [the journalists],”said Mourao. “I have a lot of access to them via survey, but the stories they write are harder to get.”

Mourao said she is still working on dividing the dissertation into smaller studies. She presented two of the papers at the 67th Annual Conference of the ICA. She will be presenting one more at the 2017 Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC).

By Rianna N. Middleton

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ComArtSci Professor Researches Media’s Influence on Teens

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Morgan_Ellithorpe_WideMorgan Ellithorpe, assistant professor of advertising and public relations at ComArtSci, partnered with colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania to study how risky behaviors portrayed in the media, such as alcohol and tobacco use, sex and violence, are repeated by teenagers.

Take for example, shows like Empire, Narcos and Game of Thrones. Ellithorpe said teenagers see their favorite characters drinking alcohol, doing drugs and/or being violent in multiple episodes and come to think that this is normal behavior.

“My job is to figure out which adolescents are more likely to repeat the risky behaviors they see in the media, what kinds of media are more or less likely to influence behavior and what we can do to decrease the likelihood that these kinds of things will transfer from media to adolescent behavior,” Ellithorpe said.

Media Consumption Differences Across Racial and Ethnic Lines

Ellithorpe and her colleagues have published several research papers on the issue and she presented on the topic at the 67th Annual Conference of the International Communication Association (ICA). Ellithorpe said their research has shown that there are racial and ethnic differences in media consumption.

“We know that black, Hispanic and white adolescents watch different kinds and amounts of media, and the media they watch portrays different risk behaviors to different extents,” Ellithorpe said.

For example, Ellithorpe and her colleagues have found that black youth watch more media than their Hispanic or white counterparts and the shows they watch are more likely to include black characters, who are more likely to be involved in sex and alcohol use than white characters. Despite these facts, the team has found that black teenagers seem to be less influenced by media than white teenagers.

Ellithorpe said that, in the past, similar studies did not include media that was relevant to black teenagers, such as television shows with black characters. However, even with the inclusion of this type of media, she has found that black teenagers still show lower levels of media influence than white teenagers. Ellithorpe challenges future research to confirm these findings and help solve the puzzle.

Research Findings Consistent with the CDC

The researchers have also found that drinking alcohol before or during sexual intercourse is common among adolescents and young adults, which is consistent with similar findings by the CDC.

The combination of alcohol use and sexual behavior is the most common behavioral risk combination in television and movies,” Ellithorpe said. “We know that drinking alcohol before sexual behavior increases sexual risk taking and susceptibility to accidental pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, so it is really important to understand the who, when and why of this behavior.”

Hope for the Future

Ellithorpe hopes that her research will positively impact the lives of young people.

“I hope that stakeholders in adolescent health and wellbeing —  from policy-makers to health organizations to physicians and parents — will be able to use this information gleaned from our research to reduce the negative impacts of mediated risk on adolescent behavior,” Ellithorpe said.

In the future, Ellithorpe hopes to explore the role of social media on influencing adolescent behavior.

“Adolescents and young adults are very often posting on social media about television content and we are exploring the possibility that this social media posting could be a way to intervene in the negative influence of television risk behavior,” Ellithorpe said.

Additionally, Ellithorpe hopes to see more research in the area of media targeted at specific racial and ethnic groups, such as Spanish-language programming.

“This is a growing area of scholarship that really needs more research to understand how this media is different from mainstream media, who is watching these kinds of media and the influence exposure to this kind of media has on cognition and behavior,” Ellithorpe said.

By Rianna N. Middleton

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Are Men Better at Video Games than Women? Research Gives Us the Answer.

Posted on: June 16, 2016


It’s a fact: men and women are different. But at times, the reasons behind those differences aren’t purely biological. Instead, they can often be attributed to social bias. For example, when it comes to video games, do you think that men or women advance faster when playing, and if so, why?

That is the question Rabindra Ratan, assistant professor in the Department of Media and Information at ComArtSci, along with first-author Cuihua Cindy Shen at the University of California, Davis, and other co-authors, tried to answer with their recent research.

Inspired by the stereotype that men naturally excel at video games more-so than women, the research team set out to examine the difference in video game advancement between men and women. They used player data pulled from two massively multiplayer online (MMO) games - EverQuest II from the United States and Chevalier’s Romance III from China - to test if the stereotype held true, and if so, why.

After reviewing the data pulled from 2007 MMO logs, the research team found the same pattern for both the United States and China: women advance just as fast as men.

“We found that if you do not control for the amount of time that they have played or other aspects of game behavior (such as guild membership), then it looks like men level up faster than women. But, when you do control for such factors, then the statistical difference between men and women goes away,” said Ratan. “This suggests that the perception that women are not as good at video games as men is simply driven by other factors besides gender, such as the fact that they tend not to play as much as men.”

Indeed, gender bias exists across many cultures for a variety of reasons, and many have social implications that go unnoticed. According to Ratan, while the stereotype that women aren’t as skilled at video games as men isn’t necessarily true, it does have a social impact.

“The irony is that one of the reasons women do not play as much as men might be the perception that they do not play as well as men. So this is a vicious cycle. There is an effect called stereotype threat, which says that when you know about a stereotype that applies to you, it affects your behavior. If women know about the stereotype that they do not play well, then this might actually reduce the likelihood that they play well,” said Ratan. “This is consistent with other research that I have done which also supports the case that stereotypes about women in video games are self-reinforcing.”

The research completed by Ratan and co-authors has shown that video games are part of an important social dynamic between men and women. The implications go beyond gaming itself, ultimately reinforcing the need to promote gender equality throughout our society. “Playing video games leads to many positive cognitive, social and psychological outcomes, like increased persistence in challenging tasks and enhanced emotional management skills. Video games are also a gateway to STEM fields,” said Ratan. “If we want to promote gender equality in these areas of our society, then we must recognize that the stereotypes about gender and video game performance are not only false but are also harmful outside of gaming contexts.”

Read the full case study and learn more about the research findings.

By Nikki W. O'Meara

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Research Showcase Honors Eight CAS Scholars

Posted on: January 14, 2014

research-mattersThe College of Communication Arts & Sciences' research showcase on the main floor of the CAS Building has eight new honorees.

The college started the research showcase in 2012 as a way to recognize the outstanding work of our research faculty. Each semester, eight new honorees are selected from all departments and their portraits hung in the research showcase on the main floor of the CAS Building, serving as an inspiration for our students, as well as other faculty, staff, visiting alumni and friends.

Congratulations go out to the 2014 spring semester research showcase honorees for their outstanding research and scholarly achievements:

  • Daniel Bergan, Associate Professor, Communication
  • Shelia Cotten, Professor, Telecommunication, Information Studies and Media
  • Karl Gude, Graphics Editor in Residence, School of Journalism and Media Sandbox
  • Eric Hunter, Associate Professor, Communicative Sciences and Disorders
  • Anna McAlister, Assistant Professor, Advertising + Public Relations
  • Bruno Takahashi, Assistant Professor, Communication and School of Journalism
  • Brian Winn, Associate Professor, Telecommunication, Information Studies and Media
  • Susan Wyche, Assistant Professor, Telecommunication, Information Studies and Media
Daniel Bergan, Ph.D.

Dan BerganBergan's main research interests involve the influence of advocacy efforts on public policy. He has conducted field experiments evaluating the effectiveness of different advocacy efforts on public policy, and in particular, the influence of constituent contacts to policymakers on health policy outcomes.

In a recent study funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Bergan, along with (then Ph.D. student) Genevieve Risner, tested the influence of issue ads about health reform on attitudes about reform. He also has explored public attitudes on tobacco policy and anti-bullying.

"My main results so far have shown that legislators' voting behavior is influenced when people contact their legislators. This is encouraging for people who have thought about contacting their legislator or for citizen groups that rely on their membership to influence public policy," Bergan said. "In future work, I will be trying to better understand these results by exploring when, and under what circumstances, constituent contacts and other forms of advocacy influence policy outcomes."

Shelia Cotten, Ph.D.

Sheila CottonCotten's research examines how people use information and communication technologies (ICTs) and the health, social and educational impacts of this use for people in varying generational groups. She also focuses on how larger scale social and digital inequalities affect ICT use and a range of health and quality of life outcomes.

One of her current projects, funded by the National Institute on Aging, examines how computer use impacts the quality of life for older adults. In this randomized controlled trial, approximately 300 older adults living in assisted and independent living communities have been trained to use computers and the Internet.

"We have found that using the Internet reduces depression, reduces loneliness, increases contact with social ties, and increases both the quality and the quantity of contact with friends and family members," Cotten said. "Participants in this study also have learned how to overcome social and spatial barriers that are present in the types of communities in which they reside."

Karl Gude

Karl GudeGude currently is working on a project funded by the National Science Foundation to disseminate understanding of phylogenesis, the evolutionary development and diversification of a species or group of organisms, and the tree of life that is used to visualize the various categories that all life falls into.

Working with students and outside professionals, Gude and his team are using a variety of social media to inform the public and scientific community about their educational site. They also are building awareness for a larger, connected project being conducted at other universities to build an online tool that scientists can work with to conduct and share phylogenetic research. Additionally, Gude is involved in building an educational website to engage and teach the public about the science behind the tree of life.

"There are a variety of online efforts to explain the evolutionary tree of life, but they fail to engage and inform the user because they use standard, text-heavy web designs. Very few contain interactive graphics that can pull the user in and explain the science, and those that exist are simple and don't go far enough," Gude said.

"Our site will be text-light and highly visual using interactive graphics that will compel the user to explore the content. Deeper explanations for the different parts of the tree will be revealed as you mouse over different parts of the graphics. This approach to science education is seldom used, and our site hopes to raise the standards for all science education sites, not just in the field of evolutionary biology."

Eric Hunter, Ph.D.

Eric HunterHunter's principal research area is on individuals who use their voice as a primary tool of the trade, or occupational voice users.

"I explore what environmental, physiological and social factors might increase the risk of vocal health issues in these population of workers. Using this information, we are developing strategies to reduce increased incidences of vocal health problems," Hunter said.

In one of his current projects, supported by the National Institute On Deafness and Other Communication Disorders of the National Institutes of Health, he aims to quantify gender-specific voice accommodation strategies used by teachers and call center workers (as compared to non-occupational voice users) in occupational settings and acoustic environments.

Another area of his research explores how the voice changes with age.

"Traditional studies of the aging voice compares two populations of voice users (young, elderly). However, my research uses databases of speeches from single individuals, allowing me to examine how the voices of these individuals change over nearly 50 years of recordings," Hunter said. "Through longitudinal data, we can more accurately observe what are normal or abnormal changes."

Anna McAlister, Ph.D.

Anna McAlisterMcAlister's research focuses on consumer behavior, child development and public policy. She is especially interested in understanding how very young children (e.g., 3- to 5-year-olds) learn about food and beverage brands and subsequently develop taste preferences.

"My research is helping parents, teachers, caregivers and other child advocates to understand the ways in which children are targeted by advertisers and marketers. This provides a step in the right direction for leveling the playing field where marketing to kids is big business. Parents frequently express frustration about not knowing how their children come to be 'addicted' to brands at an early age," McAlister said. "Given the rapid expansion of technology, parents are raising kids whose access to commercial media is almost unlimited. The current generation of parents is struggling to understand marketing practices that barely existed during their childhoods."

One of McAlister's current projects, funded by Cornell's Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition, investigates children's responsiveness to a school lunchroom intervention program where healthy menu choices were promoted using child-friendly themes (e.g., in the dinosaur-themed week children saw a lunch menu on which the healthier items were listed as the "triceratops picks" for the week).

Bruno Takahashi, Ph.D.

BrunoTakahashi's research focuses on environmental communication, environmental journalism practices and international news.

"Most of my research has an international or intercultural component. For example, I have been analyzing climate change communication in Latin America, as well as comparative studies looking at media coverage of climate change between the U.S. and Canada, and about hydraulic fracturing between the U.S. and Spain," Takahashi said. "I think my research is helping to better understand how different groups (media, policy makers, public) in developing nations socially construct environmental issues, which allows these groups to better communicate such issues."

Takahashi currently is conducting research on news decision-making about environmental issues in Spanish language media in the United States and is starting work on crisis and risk communication of environmental issues through social media.

He also is completing a study that looks at New York farmers' risk perceptions related to climate change. That project is funded by a grant from the Environmental Finance Center with funds from the United States Department of Agriculture, Rural Development.

Brian Winn

Brian WinnWinn researches interactive media design, including game design, digital game-based learning and interactive health communication. His expertise is in designing engaging serious games that balancing learning, pedagogical and gameplay objectives.

"As a new media and game designer, my goal is to use the power and versatility of interactive media technologies to have a positive impact on the world. This is accomplished through both the entertainment and learning games that are created and played by various audiences around the world, and from the knowledge generated from my work that helps advance the field of game design and development," Winn said.

One of his current research projects, funded by a three-year, $1.2 million grant from NASA, aims at keeping astronauts motivated to exercise during space flight through use of virtual workout partners.

Susan Wyche, Ph.D.

Susan WycheWyche's research focuses on human-computer interaction, information and communication technologies and development.

The goal of her current research is to provide technology developers with an empirically accurate understanding of technology use in sub-Saharan Africa to improve design and to motivate other innovative and creative technological interventions. Wyche conducts fieldwork in Kenya, studying mobile phone and social media use in Nairobi's informal settlements, in rural cyber cafes and in off-grid villages.

Wyche aims to make understanding and designing effective information and communication technologies (ICT) in sub-Saharan Africa a more integral part of human-computer interaction.

"Understanding rural Africans' ICT needs and practices opens up possibilities for improving on existing initiatives and developing entirely new types of interventions that have the potential for widespread and long-term impact. This knowledge can also inform and motivate environmentally sustainable and innovative design for users in industrialized nations," Wyche wrote in her research statement.

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Researchers Study Incentive-Based Environmental Conservation Programs

Posted on: December 10, 2013

Maria-Lapinski-Tibet-mainA team of MSU researchers, lead by Maria Lapinski, College of Communication Arts & Sciences' Associate Dean for Research, recently traveled to the Tibetan plateau. The focus of the research team is to study the effects of short-term financial incentives on the social norms of two kinds of behaviors: poaching patrols for protecting large mammals, including the snow leopard, and modifying grazing patterns to protect the grasslands for species conversation and water quality.

The interdisciplinary research seeks to provide new information and insights to help make the next generation of incentive-based environmental conservation programs more effective.

"The ultimate goal is to look for ways to make these programs more successful," Lapinski said.

Besides Lapinski, the research team includes Jinhua Zhao, Professor of Economics and Director of the Environmental Science and Policy Program, and John Kerr, Associate Professor in the Department of Community Sustainability.

The project is supported by a three-year, $600,700 grant through the National Science Foundation Interdisciplinary Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (IBSS) competition.

In many countries, there is a movement towards incentive-based programs to promote environmental conservation, vaccination, school attendance and other socially desirable behaviors. However, most of these incentive-based programs are government or donor funded, with budgets subject to political processes and availability of funds. That makes them vulnerable to elimination and raises the question of what happens when the incentives stop.

Basing their work in Sanjiangyuan, a Chinese region in southern Qinghai Province on the Tibetan Plateau, the researchers are trying to answer that question and to better understand the linkages among communication, monetary incentives, social norms and behaviors.

Sanjiangyuan was selected as the study region because of the strong existing conservation ethic among the Tibetan people and the potential introduction of a large-scale payment-for-ecosystem-services program.

The research team is using interviews and surveys, and conducting a series of field experiments as part of the study, which began in October.

In the end, they team hopes to improve societal understanding of how financial incentives and social norms interact to influence behavior. By offering possible policy modifications and a better understanding of their effects, the research could help improve the design of incentive-based environmental conservation programs.

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Crowdsourcing Games Focus of Study

Posted on: November 26, 2013

casey-odonnel3Crowdsourcing, a term first coined in June 2006 where large groups of people come together to help solve a common problem and which is responsible for the success of Wikipedia, has started to be used by biochemists to solve scientific problems. One Media and Informationfaculty member is now studying how biochemists are using this research tool.

Casey O'Donnell, Assistant Professor in the Media and Informationdepartment, received a two-year, $156,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to examine how collaborative games and puzzles are being used to solve problems in biochemistry and molecular genetics.

"The grant is really to try to unpack what is going on with crowdsourcing science and why games have been the focus," O'Donnell said.

Two crowdsourcing games, FoldIt and EteRNA, that simulate protein and RNA folding are the focus of O'Donnell's research. These games harness the knowledge of crowds to decipher the three-dimensional structure of a protein or a nucleic acid.

The primary goal of the research is to examine the socio-technical architecture of FoldIt and EteRNA to gain new knowledge about the processes of crowd knowledge and scientific discovery in networked computer-gaming platforms.

"This research is important because large numbers of players are collaborating to solve very complex problems through games. It isn't simple, but it is a very different kind of science and we need to understand the broader implications," O'Donnell said.

The results of the study have the potential to contribute to fields of communication, information studies and game studies in its theorizing about computer-mediated communication, the politics of platforms, and the role of gaming systems in biochemical research endeavors. The findings also may be used by game designers and scientists in the development and design of future crowd-science collaborative game platforms.

"By using games and players to solve scientific problems, we have shifted how science operates, and this research seeks to better understand the implications of those changes," O'Donnell said.

O'Donnell is working on the project with Hector Postigo, Associate Professor of Media Studies and Production at Temple University's School of Media and Communication.

"The research is primarily being conducted online and in person through a combination of virtual and traditional ethnographic methods. Participant observation, interviews and game play analysis are the primary data sources," O'Donnell said.

O'Donnell is associated with the Games for Entertainment and Learning (GEL) Lab where innovative prototypes, techniques and complete games are designed for entertainment and learning. The GEL Lab's research is aimed at advancing the knowledge about social and individual effects of digital games. The lab, located within the College of Communication Arts & Sciences (CAS) Building, is comprised of game research and design faculty and students at MSU, primarily in CAS.

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