Topics: Immersive Learning, College of Sciences and Humanities

September 30, 2010

MUNCIE, Ind. – Installing computers with Internet access in Romanian public libraries was designed to support positive social change in this eastern European nation whose information infrastructure is still under construction, but it's also spurred online dating, comparison shopping and social networking, says an analysis by Ball State University.


The preliminary findings result from a research mission led by Ball State cultural anthropologists Jim Nyce and Gail Bader, who took a student team to rural Romania to examine the impact of free Internet access in several small villages. The group spent several weeks in Romania in early summer 2010 as part of an immersive learning project.


"We knew people would use computers and the Internet once they were installed, but the law of unintended consequences suggests that you can't often predict what the outcome will be," Nyce said. "What our group saw was that computer and Internet use both reflected and at the same time improvised on some issues familiar to members of most cultures.  Among these were family, kinship, love and even shopping."


The research team examined the impact of Biblionet, a nationwide effort to install computers to provide free Internet access in more than 1,500 community locations. Today, only 20 percent of Romania has Internet access, and the cost of a personal computer can be half of a family's annual income.


The International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX) is implementing Biblionet in Romania with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The project will also provide training for more than 2,500 public librarians. The Gates Foundation started the Global Libraries initiative in 2006 to bring the Internet to isolated and often economically disadvantaged communities around the globe.


Technology opens doors

During the research mission, team members observed people of all ages learning how to use computers in local public libraries. They found that computers changed how library patrons thought about and used technological resources but not in ways that were originally considered.


"We observed several widows and widowers visiting dating sites to search out potential companions both in nearby communities and around the world. We also found people searching for items online in order to negotiate a better price in a nearby store," reported Nyce.


The study also found that by placing computers in libraries, the project:

  • Created springboards: Resources and training have helped public libraries and staff provide news services, reinventing the libraries' role and changing how information is used in the community.
  • Developed occasional users: People acquire just enough technological skill to get a particular information task done and then often pass the knowledge along to family members and friends.
  • Led to "information bleed": For the first time, library patrons — and by proxy their friends and family members — were able to make use of both print and digital resources, applying newfound digital knowledge in their daily lives.
  • Embraced social media: Just like people around the globe, Romanians are joining Facebook, chatting via Yahoo Messenger and accessing other social media platforms.


"It is not surprising that Romanians have taken to social media because so many of them have either left their home villages or towns or the nation altogether in search of work. With access to e-mail, instant messaging and technologies like Skype, family members can now locate and communicate with relatives in Europe and North America, " Nyce said. "This could lead some Romanians to rethink the meaning of family and kinship."


E-commerce on the way

Bader, Nyce and their multidisciplinary student group are currently reviewing hundreds of hours of observations of local residents information behavior both in libraries and elsewhere throughout Salaj County in northern Transylvania, a historically rich but remote portion of Romania.


"The Internet has the potential to bring most of Romania into the 21st century, creating opportunities for e-commence that do not exist in many rural areas," Nyce added. "For our student researchers, we visited a part of Romania that they perceived as resembling the rural Midwest of their grandparents. It will be interesting to see how the this part of the country, as well as the rest of Romania transforms itself over the next decade as information technology and e-commerce becomes more prevalent."


The project will result in a report to IREX and the Gates Foundation as well as a number of joint faculty and student peer reviewed papers. Plans are already under way to bring Apple's iPads to Romania when Nyce and Bader return with students in 2011 to conduct further research on modernization, innovation and technology.