Noora Hirvonen: Research should give voice to young people

Information Studies professor Noora Hirvonen discusses Artificial Intelligence, improving the well-being of young people, and how values guide her research.
Noora Hirvonen
Noora Hirvonen was recently appointed full professor in Information Studies at the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Oulu. In the GenZ project, Hirvonen has been working under the co-evolution cluster.

Hirvonen's journey to becoming a researcher in Information Studies

In 2005, Noora Hirvonen began her university studies, majoring in Information Studies. What initially caught her interest in information studies was the wide-ranging array of theories and methods present in the field, borrowed from other fields. Before entering university, Hirvonen had thought about applying to study psychology and sociology, and she was happy to notice that theories from these fields were also visible in information studies.

Hirvonen, who was recently appointed full professor in Information Studies at the Faculty of Humanities, explains that Information Studies examine phenomena related to the relationship between humans and information. How people acquire, organise, and evaluate information, and what kinds of organisations have been established around these practices, are examples of questions that the discipline addresses. Information Studies is a relatively young discipline, and it can place emphasis on both strictly technological as well as deeply humanistic approaches.

Hirvonen mentions that people who graduate from Information Studies often end up working as information specialists at public libraries or university libraries.

After graduation and while writing her doctoral thesis, Hirvonen herself worked as an information specialist in a psychiatric department. There, she was part of a research group, and she oversaw the conduct of systematic literature searches for systematic reviews and meta-analyses. Hirvonen also worked as a part-time researcher at the Department of Sports and Exercise Medicine, Oulu Deaconess Institute. In 2015, she defended her doctoral thesis.

In her doctoral thesis, Hirvonen investigated the link between young men’s health information practices and their actual measured health. Hirvonen’s research was carried out as a part of a multidisciplinary project, which aim was to both examine young men’s health and implement ways to improve the well-being of young people. The data was quantitative, and it was gathered at military call-ups, where young men filled out surveys. The survey data was then complemented with physiological measurements.

Values guide research

After having defended her doctoral thesis, Hirvonen started working as a substitute university lecturer, and was applying for grants at the same time. She received funding from the Academy of Finland, and her research of the time was related to health information.

Health and young people have carried on as Hirvonen’s main research topics. Hirvonen says that she is interested in people’s well-being and raising a teenager of her own also inspired her to choose young people as a topic of research.

“I am also interested in different kinds of subcultures, and how young people influence the formation of these cultures. New phenomena are often born out of young people’s doings,” Hirvonen says.

Investing in young people’s well-being is both beneficial and crucial. Youth is a critical stage of development, and at this stage, young people make choices that have impacts on their adulthood. Young people need support as they are still developing. Hirvonen wants this value of caring for young people to reflect from her research.

“I am interested in societal issues and promoting equality and the well-being of people are important to me. It would be amazing if my research could generate meaningful societal impact,” Hirvonen adds.

Young people and AI

In the GenZ project, Hirvonen and her research group are working under the strategic profiling theme ‘co-evolution,’ and their research focuses on practices related to AI (Artificial Intelligence) literacy. This research topic was inspired by the GenZ project, and the directions of their research of AI have further been influenced by GenZ.

Currently, Hirvonen’s team consists of two doctoral students, Ville Jylhä and Yucong Lao, and postdoctoral researcher, Tuula Nygård. Jylhä is examining AI-based recommendation systems, and how these systems shape young people’s information practices. Lao’s research, in turn, focuses on young people’s perspectives on ‘deep fake’ videos, which are synthetic videos created using AI. Nygård has previously researched the role of teacher as an informational authority, and she is now developing a pedagogical approach to AI education with Hirvonen.

Hirvonen and her team view technology as a tool that is embedded in the everyday lives of people. In their research, technology is not the primary focus, but instead a surrounding factor that influences everyday life.

“For long, I have been interested in how technologies mediate people’s actions. How technologies both enable and disable certain things in interactions and in the transmission of information. Thanks to GenZ, my research has drifted to AI, and I now understand that various modes of machine learning are ubiquitous in our everyday lives, and they guide the ways in which we interact with other people and information,” Hirvonen explains.

For instance, the content that a user is exposed to on social media platforms is largely guided by systems based on machine learning. According to Hirvonen, these systems have huge impacts on the worldviews and identities that young people develop as consequences of having been exposed to particular types of social media content.

“Of course, you must understand something about the technical side of AI, but my interest lies in the consequences that AI has. For example, the recommender systems used on social media platforms expose people to certain types of content. Consequently, that content becomes normalised in their worldviews. It may be difficult to perceive that some users might be exposed to completely different types of content. What does this mean regarding our abilities to communicate about certain things, if we do not have any points in common?” Hirvonen comments.

Hirvonen also notes that social media platforms benefit from content that is somehow provocative, because people tend to be drawn to that kind of content. Currently, the commercial benefits gained from the views, likes and shares outweigh people’s well-being, and in some ways, developing addictions to social media content can even be beneficial for the social media platforms.

This is why human-centric approaches to digitalisation are needed. Hirvonen thinks that more research is needed on the potential role of technology in hindering the well-being of young people.

“My view is that we do not know enough yet about the effects that technologies have on young people’s development. Not the technologies per se, but rather how they shape interactions and such. There is some quantitative, correlational research done on the influence of technology on well-being, but the primary causes are still to be investigated,” Hirvonen clarifies.

GenZ’s mission harnesses the collective strength

According to Hirvonen, the power of the GenZ project lies in its multidisciplinary nature, and the fact that a larger group of people have collectively attempted to advance the GenZ’s mission – to integrate humancentric perspectives into digitalisation.

In particular, Hirvonen has enjoyed taking part in conducting a multidisciplinary study, organised together with GenZ assistant professor Jonna Malmberg, associate professor Marianne Kinnula, and coordinator Lotta Haukipuro. Hirvonen says that this study has enabled her to grasp the approaches used by her colleagues with backgrounds in different fields.

In their study, ninth grade students were recruited to complete their work practice week in the LeaF laboratory, which is a research infrastructure situated at the University of Oulu. Throughout the week, the students completed groupwork related to AI and other technologies. The data was collected by videotaping the interactions and by interviewing the participants. Hirvonen’s group’s focus was on the ways in which young people talked about AI applications and their experiences with AI applications. Jonna Malmberg and her group, in turn, examined learning and interaction, while Marianne Kinnula’s group investigated the ideas for AI business development.

Research should give voice to young people

In the near future, Hirvonen is looking forward to starting the full professorship and being able to do long-term planning for her research. She wants to do research that holds true societal impact and can help change the world for the better.

She would also like to conduct participatory research with young people - research that gives voice to young people.

“I would like to orient the research methods and topics to the aspects that young people find meaningful. These aspects are not necessarily what us researchers would consider to be of primary importance,” Hirvonen points out.

Participatory methods would also entail a particular type of power shift in the research, making the research subjects more active in the process. Although no research method is free of power dynamics, participatory methods would help to shed light on new perspectives and phenomena, voiced by young people themselves. This is the way in which Hirvonen hopes to advance the overall well-being of young people through research.

Read about Noora Hirvonen’s research here

Read about ‘co-evolution’ in the GenZ white paper

Last updated: 1.9.2022