Among the many things that make NIUs distinct, one of the most salient is how they learn. Where in the past, users gained digital skills primarily through exploration and discovery, new and novice users prefer to learn through instruction. From our interactions with NIUs in the last five years, we discovered that informal teachers — usually friends, family, neighbors, and even salespeople — play a pivotal role in their learning journey.

Over the course of our observation, NIUs reported needing or wanting assistance 75% of the time they tried something new, be it something as fundamental as powering down their phone or something more complex like making an online transaction.

The challenge arises when their informal teachers are unavailable. Because NIUs are more anxious about self-guided discovery, they often miss out on key learning opportunities, deciding instead to forgo whatever action they were attempting in the first place. And even when their teachers are close at hand, their lessons don’t always build confidence, as these are informal teachers whose teachings might be hindered by impatience, their own limited digital literacy, or simply being exhausted after a long day.

NIUs reported needing or wanting assistance 75% of the time they tried something new with their smartphone.

But when NIUs have good, patient instruction, it tends to stick. They can retain the learning, repeat tasks, and apply their learnings to analogous situations independently. When they’re taught effectively, NIUs can even pass their learning on, taking up the mantle of “teacher” themselves.

It’s important to note that the goal of the relationship between the NIU student and informal teacher figure is independence, and the goal is held mutually. While NIUs rely on their teachers, there’s also a sense of self-awareness — NIUs do not want to become a burden.

A common thing NIUs say is that they sometimes feel “embarrassed” asking for the help they need.

I want to do things on my own. I don’t like to ask others to do things for me. [My son] doesn’t have a lot of patience. He does things for me, but he doesn’t teach me.

Another NIU, a daughter playing the role of teacher for her mother, expressed the nature of this relationship supportively: “I don’t want [my mom] to be scared. I don’t want her to ask what this means. I want her to no longer feel afraid, [and instead] to feel confidence.”

As technology creators, we need to acknowledge the role informal teachers play in the learning process of NIUs. At the same time, we can supplement that role with product-based solutions designed to reinforce digital confidence. (See Upboarding and Designing for Confidence). At the same time, we can help facilitate the informal teaching process with training and mentoring programs like our Internet Saathi initiative in India. (See Women).

In an improved, more well-rounded learning ecosystem, NIUs will be set up for success to achieve digital confidence and independence, and eventually, they can pass their own knowledge along as well, which helps more people come online and leverage the many benefits of the internet.


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