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date: 23 February 2024

Ethnographic Methods for Researching Innovative Education free

Ethnographic Methods for Researching Innovative Education free

  • Karen BorgnakkeKaren BorgnakkeDepartment of Communication, University of Copenhagen (UCPH)


Ethnographic research in innovative education settings has shown the practical impact and conditions on both research and professional development of curriculum and teaching strategies.

Following the process of innovation in the educational sector, themes that are high on political and institutional agendas have included “information technology–enhanced learning” and currently show how organizational and pedagogical development also becomes a matter of digitalization. In online learning projects the curriculum development and the process of didactization are already digitalized and refer to the new digital learning culture.

Ethnographic methodology enables ongoing interpretation of educational development as reflected by professionals and teacher teams, thereby facilitating elucidation of changes and consequences. The general question can be expressed as follows: How can innovative education, associated online and/or offline learning processes, embedded digitalization, and the context be understood, described, and explored in a practical sense?

Against this background, ethnographic research is challenged to go beyond the rhetoric to explore the practical implications of the innovative process and associated discourse. The challenge has been approached in terms of research facing the innovative practice and renewing the ethnographic approaches across the spectrum from the policy and organizational levels to practical learning-level investigation. The challenge is also embedded in research contributing to mapping the field of practice or "mapping the paradigm” and cross-case studies covering different learning contexts.

The common highlighted theme is that changes in educational systems and practices are necessitating changes in ethnographic practices.


  • Education, Change, and Development
  • Technology and Education

Updated in this version

The title of this entry changed from the previous "Ethnographic Methods for Researching Online Learning and E-Pedagogy." The author has updated the text to include the impact of more recent events on the topic.

Facing the Main Challenge, Full Scale

In this article, ethnographic studies of innovative full-scale initiatives exemplify how the challenges for research include navigation in what can be regarded as experiments in the digitalization of educational institutions. In these experiments, all parts of involved organizations, at every level (school leaders, teacher teams, and students), are affected by, and must respond to, digitalization.

The main challenge seems to be posed by the new orders of magnitude. Initiatives range from the establishment of upper secondary information technology (IT) schools crammed with technology from cellar to ceilings (Borgnakke, 2012) to online nursing education programs providing net-based teaching and learning from start to finish (Borgnakke & Lyngsø, 2014). Digitalization affects not just one class, module, or academic subject but whole educational courses, full scale. When addressing the new full-scale magnitude of these experiments, it is necessary to consider not only a school or sector but trends and demands concerning the educational system as a whole. In such innovative and practical applications of the technologies, researchers can observe how the Internet, websites, and learning platforms become everyday tools for professional development of curricula and teaching strategies. Case studies and analyses also show how digital literacy or technacy of leaders and teacher teams is regarded as crucial for development of schools, education in general, and contributions to digitally oriented transformation (Borgnakke, 2011b, 2017b). Furthermore, shifts between the positions of educators as “teachers” and students as “learners” are also posing challenges in terms of description and understanding. As shown in close-up analysis (Borgnakke, 2012), the digital literate teachers’ and students’ roles and action repertoires must be described both as innovative IT-based and as conventional school-based. In the IT-based classroom, there is a double logic to be understand before ethnographic research can conceptualize the learning context in a practical sense (Borgnakke, 2021).

As discussed by Biesta (2005), the political discourse and “new language of learning” prevail in connection with the learning industry the modern educational positions. These positions are by critical analysts regarded as the dominant, but narrow technical and instrumental argument for information communications technology (ICT)–oriented learning (Haugsbakk & Nordkvelle, 2007; Player-Koro, 2012a). Further, the scale is widening, as broader socio-techno-politico-economic changes are necessitating critical reflections on the pedagogical issues arising from the increasing virtuality of the social world (Shumar & Madison, 2013). This is manifested in reflections on “the digital ages” and a challenge for attempts to understand technology-saturated society and its new media as a digital culture, or set of subcultures (Coffey et al., 2006; Dicks et al., 2005). It is also manifested in studies of issues associated with distance learning in medical education (MacLeod et al., 2015; Tummons et al., 2015) and development of bachelor’s and master’s degrees in dentistry and nursing (Gwozdek et al., 2011; Lyngsø, 2019; Springfield et al., 2012).

This background highlights the necessity of coping with both digital learning culture in a broader sense and digital technologies as learning tools in a narrow sense. At the same time, educational ethnographic researchers are challenged to go beyond the political and educational rhetoric to explore the practical implications and associated discourses (Borgnakke, 2015b).

When ethnographic researchers try to meet the challenge, the basic concepts of “the field, the context and the space” (Borgnakke, 1996a, 1996b; Marcus, 1995) have to be renewed without losing the classically ethnographic approach to fieldwork (Hammersley, 2006; Hernández et al., 2013; Webster & Marques da Silva, 2013). However, at the same time, in this article I also stress the necessity of moving beyond place-based ethnography. Leander and McKim (2003) identified this need and developed ethnographic methodologies for following the “moving, traveling practices of adolescents on- and off-line” (p. 211). The cited authors questioned not only conventional ethnographic approaches to issues such as place, identity, and participant observation, but also what they called “a common misconception of the Internet” as being radically separate from everyday life. Methodologies are underlined as ways of following connections and circulations in research “that travel across online- and offline spaces,” “tracing the flows of objects” and the multiple contexts. Tracing the flows of objects embedded in multiple contexts is important but not new.Indeed it is already integrated in the basic ethnographic framework (e.g., Borgnakke, 1996a, 1996b; Marcus, 1995).

Accelerating e-pedagogical developments have made Leander and McKim’s observations, published in 2003, increasingly salient. Ongoing projects mapping academic and profession-oriented learning contexts, have clearly confirmed that the Internet is no longer radically separate from everyday life, but a highly integrated element of everyday life at school, work, and home (Borgnakke, 2015a). For example, fieldwork in a project called NET education, designed to develop full-scale, innovative digital education in nursing (at VIA University College in Denmark) has shown that students are using the NET educational platform on a daily basis, integrated in both school settings and their own homes. They are also adding their own daily routines, using resources including combinations of the Internet, digital platforms, and mobile phones, for both working on their own assignments and networking with fellow students (Lyngsø, 2019).

In a broader sense, the daily routine for teaching and learning is confirmed as a mix of media used in situations that can be conceptualized as “mediated” (Hjarvard, 2008) and as a mix of online and offline situations where the flows of texts and multimodalities are in use (Borgnakke, 2015a, p. 14). If daily situations are highly technologized, as shown by fieldwork in Danish IT-upper secondary schools, digitization permeated all didactical teaching and learning phases, from curriculum planning to course monitoring and evaluation (Borgnakke, 2011b, 2012). In these cases, daily school routines are performed like living digital school life. . In other cases , the technologization is only high in specific professional training activities as observed, for example, in studies of cases in the healthcare sector. (Borgnakke, 2016a). In such cases, a physical space is set aside for mixed-media suites of “simulation-based learning” and the wide spectrum of IT-enhanced learning situations can be observed and related to the participative integration of students in healthcare teams and clinical practice. Borgnakke (2016a) analyzes this as an example of a mixed-media professional learning platform in a case study, called Case Canada.

Descriptions of the observed mixed-media situations as blended learning provide a needed overview of learning situations. Next, portraying the serial use of technological tools and platforms are important for rigorous ethnographic fieldwork and analysis. However, analysts of IT-enhanced platforms for either teaching or professional training in higher education face the same challenge: how can we conceptualize the platforms in practical use and contextualize the learning situation in terms of its authentic complexity?

I use the term “authentic complexity” in both general and specific senses. Generally, I suggest that we conceptualize learning as suchas learning processes situated in a practical (educational/work/professional) context. In an ethnographic study, the authentic complexity of this practical context is described in terms of (for example) “an ordinary day in the clinic,” by observing nursing students (and/or other participants) in their clinical practice ( Noer, 2016). “An ordinary day in the clinic” is filled with use of various healthcare technologies, procedures and interactions with other professionals and patients. It is, of course, also filled with different professional demands and positions as well as with emotional reactions. However, whatever the actors (or fieldworkers) choose to describe as embedded in “an ordinary day in the clinic,” it is still a part of “the authentic complexity” of the everyday context.

For example, a key element of the educational program at The Art Institute in San Francisco was “learning by participation in authentic artistic communities,” as highlighted by the program leader in an interview (Borgnakke, 2013b, pp. 40–42). Another example is related to the previously mentioned Case Canada, where the claimed “necessity of authentic complexity” was encapsulated by Dierdre Jackman in an interview regarding the Rural Medical Care project (Borgnakke, 2016b).1 She stated that you can have the best simulation technology, but “Unless you give them [healthcare students] the lived experience [of clinical practice] it makes no sense” (Borgnakke, 2016b, p. 7). From an ethnographic perspective, this provides a crucial reminder of the need to consider what IT-enhanced profession-oriented learning means in the practical context.

In relation to case studies in which IT-enhanced organizational frameworks are investigated, we are confronted with a mixed-media blended strategy already integrated in the organizational development of online learning. This means that both the group of teachers, students and researchers worked within thecommon framework, coping with innovations as digital everyday conditions (Innovation og Uddannelse, 2016). These are characteristics of the current innovative context, but as Hammersley (2006, 2018) points out, ethnography follow processes of developmental changes in response to (blends with and follows) developments. Thus, developments in their investigated contexts become characteristics of ethnography too.

From an organizational perspective, the ethnographic framework encompasses the complex sets and interactions of policy, innovation, and e-pedagogical practical issues. Hence, ethnographic methodology must cope with the aforementioned double logic between IT-based and conventional school-based teaching and cope with embedded new conditions that teaching as a process of didactization also is a process of digitalization (Borgnakke, 2021). In addition, it must cope with different political and institutional agendas and, as stressed in field studies of national and sectorial educational programs, with multiple interacting micro- to macro-level implications (Borgnakke, 2010a, 2010b). Policy and educational developments are no longer aimed at single schools or innovative interventions but rather at whole sectors across institutions, schools, and professionals. Thus, there are full-scale practical consequences (across the spectra of levels), and corresponding adjustments of ethnographic approaches are clearly required (as discussed in the special issues, 2015; Innovation og Uddannelse, 2016)

Summarizing the main challenge for ethnographic methodology, there is a need to clarify and to understand the double logic and the full spectrum of developments, their interactions, and the meaning of full scale in late modern educational terms. In terms of analytical strategies, empirical overview and detailed close-up analysis are required. In general this means thatethnographic methodology capable of responding to “the new orders of magnitude” is required, sharpening thick descriptions of the field with critical discourse analysis and analysis of the learning practices. Let me therefore start the clarification by reiterating that the basic aims and traditions of ethnographic educational research are oriented toward practice, as manifested by action research, ethnographic education research, micro-ethnography, and classroom research (see, e.g., Beach et al., 2003; Borgnakke, 2013a; Greenwood, 2009; Greenwood & Levin, 2007; Hiim, 2007; Klette, 1998, 2007; Larson, 2006; Lindblad & Sahlström, 2003; Nielsen & Nielsen, 2005, 2006).

Returning to Research Traditions Oriented Toward Practice

To understand practice orientation as a common feature, it can be emphasized thatresearch background and referenceshad interdisciplinary origins and practice-oriented aims. For example, in action research, rooted in Kurt Lewin’s thoughts and sociopsychological concepts, the American pragmatism propounded by Collier and Dewey, or the anthroposociological approaches pioneered by Foote Whyte, both the research strategy and object are strongly practice oriented (Nielsen, 2012). This also applies to Scandinavian “critical classroom research,” where research is linked with strategies for experimental and development work, maintaining constant focus on practice and exploration of “what is happening in the inner world of classrooms” (Borgnakke, 2013a).

Tradition-rich lines of Scandinavian contributions to ethnographic methodology and theory have also been informed by critical theory and the research strategy propounded by Habermas (1968, 1981, pp. 548–593). Subsequent extensions include the critical constructive action research strategy described by Klafki (1977, 2002), a major aim of which was to remain “close to the school practice”.. The objective of this practice-oriented strategy was Development of a critical constructive didactic, as stated in the title of a seminal article (Klafki, 1977). In Klafki’s research, the classroom research tradition was maintained side by side with the Habermas-inspired tradition of ideology-critical strategies for empirical analysis. This strategy has also been applied in critical communications analysis (Borgnakke, 1996a, 1996b; Mortensen, 1972, 1976) and can be considered a precursor to critical discourse analysis (Fairclough, 1995, 2005). Another seminal theoretical contribution, by Engeström (1996), focused on corporate development work and was strongly inspired by works of Lev Vygoytsky. Engeström’s work has informed action research addressing not only the education system but also business organizations, and organizational development more generally.

The cited research programs are not recalled simply to confirm the orientation toward practice and treatment of practical issues in previous decades. Rather, they are recalled to emphasize the need to broaden current orientations in empirical, methodological, and analytical senses. Klafki´s conceptualization of research challenges the narrow foci of current political agendas, such as “ICT and learning,” “learning styles,” and “class management.” Further, it reinforces the requirement to reestablish critical basic empirical research, encompassing the whole school environment and organizational development.

To renew Klafki’s critical constructivism in empirical research, the new broader spectrum of ethnographic methods and field studies must be applied. Furthermore, in educational ethnographic environments, interest in participating in the production of knowledge of “what works,” a key concern in political circles, can also be traced. In this context, interest is seen in efforts to develop so-called meta-ethnography in the form of empirical cross-case analyses, with results and practice-oriented contributions of practical value for politicians, administrators, and policymakers (Borgnakke, 2017a, 2021; Noblit & Hara, 1988; Uny et al., 2017; Hughes & Noblit, 2017).

Against this background, interest in research-based evaluation has been expanded, but methodical needs have arisen to implement case studies and empirical analyses at both the educational policy (macro-) level and practical, pedagogical meso-/micro-levels. Moreover, innovation and implementation of the new technologies are already important parts of the educational system’s “own experiments”. That range from the emergence of new learning resources to full-scale innovative institutions, like the Danish upper secondary IT schools and online learning–based professional bachelor’s degree programs.

The full-scale development efforts have a characteristic implementation process. Involving school leaders, faculties, teacher teams, and students, the common orientation toward practice is matched by an orientation toward practical implementation by different parties at different stages of work on curriculum design, teaching, and learning strategies. This reveals complexities that often can be missed in narrow analysisof specific issues or components . In the process of implementation all are part of the authentic complexity (to use the previously mentioned formulation), which cannot be properly grasped without considering the broader contexts.

Research being “oriented toward practice” is no longer sufficient, as there is a clear need to explore the practical processes, and different organizational levels and multiple actors simultaneously. Hence, there is a move from orientation toward practice to being consistent with the aim of exploring the field of practice, recognizing that “practice” and “practical actions” are continual processes at multiple organizational levels.

With such examples, the field of practice recalls the need for what has been characterized as multimethods and called multisited ethnography in research literature since the 1990s. However, regardless of the focus, the basic phrase “oriented toward practice” still requires clarification in terms of concepts, combination of methods, and framework. This clarification represents a new (or perhaps, more strictly, ongoing) challenge for ethnography. In attempts to meet it all, the fundamental ethnographic principles and methods are still applied, but they need to be (and are being) renewed and broadened as underlined in an overview by Beach (2017). Therefore, let me follow this section on lines of traditions with examples of how ethnographic researchers have responded to the renewal of traditions and conditions.

Ethnographic Methodology Renewed, but Still Focused on Field and Practical Context

In the process of methodological development, ethnographic methods in recent decades were expanded but still closely related to the classical approaches. For example, although the Malinowskian tradition was criticized and renewed, it was still commonly referenced in the research literature, both in anthropology, social science, and cultural sociology generally (e.g., Marcus, 1995; Willis, 2000) and in specific research areas like education (e.g., Borgnakke, 1996a, 1996b; Hammersley & Atkinson, 1983; Spindler, 1987; Walford, 2008; Woods, 1996). Looking back at these examples, despite differences in cited research, ethnographers engaged in a continuous dialogue about the basic methodological principles. These were highlighted as the principle of contextualization, exploration of the field, and the tradition of “long-term fieldwork.” These authors described and/or cited both new interpretations and new clarifications. For example, smaller formats of long-term fieldwork were specified, such as “intensive field work” (Woods, 1996), and new clarifications were linked to data and the question of validity. Notably, criteria such as a need for data to have “ecological validity” were highlighted (Borgnakke, 1996a, pp. 147–149; Hammersley & Atkinson, 1983) and data collection processes were clarified in connection with an extension of concepts of what constitutes “a field” and what “a field” means for the ethnographic framework.

In these examples, an empirical-analytical reflection and extension of what “a field” means for the ethnographic framework could be discerned. In addition, examples of a theoretical reflection and extension could include Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of “field” (French: champ), Michel Foucault’s discourse concept, and Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm concept (Bourdieu, 1994; Foucault, 1966; Kuhn, 1970). These contributions enable comprehensible reference to areas of research like “the medical field,” “the Western European Union discourse,” or pedagogical paradigms, like the “problem-Project based paradigm.”

Such extensions renew the tradition and broaden field research, while keeping classical fieldwork alive. In contrast, a new interpretation developed during the 2000s, so-called virtual ethnography or NET ethnography, tends to reject the contextualization principle and field concept (Hine, 2000; Landri et al., 2014; Webster & Marques da Silva, 2013). Focusing on the virtual, the contextual anchor is jettisoned, and the field concept becomes infinite and partially redundant. As in the previously mentioned statement by Leander and McKim, when moving beyond place-based ethnography, I follow the NET-ethnographic argument. However, I still maintain, with online education serving as an example, that for ethnographic education research neither requirements for contextualization nor the validity of the field concept have been revoked. Both are still essential. Indeed, an online education platform like the worldwide Coursera has a market-based economic context, an academic context and university site (e.g., Stanford), and practical contexts (e.g., students’ own homes, libraries, cafés, or trains). Thus, the Coursera platform, the Internet, work in front of the computer, and associated interactions are all elements of the learning context, which is virtual, physical, manual, and social (Borgnakke, 2015a).

Ethnographic studies in the previously mentioned online NET education project (Nursing Education) show how ethnographic fieldwork has to consistently perceive and follow these changing online/offline contexts, including observations of students studying at home. However, confirmation of the ethnographic contextualization principle is accompanied by a need to extend and sharpen the framework, in relation to both the broader field and the whole sector, in order to address the changes and diversity of contexts. For example, in large-scale Scandinavian educational research projects, the classical fieldwork approach has been developed to cover school communities, multiple educational sites, and intensively studied development projects in specific selected schools or educational projects (e.g., Beach & Dovemark, 2007; Innovation og Uddannelse, 2016; Ôhrn & Holm, 2014; Player-Koro, 2012b; Søndergard & Hasse, 2012).

In associated development of fieldwork methodology, participant observation, material/product collection, spontaneous conversations, and systematic interviews have been coupled, focusing on specific cases, innovative projects, or issues. In addition, empirical data and material related to the institutional or organizational levels involved have been collected, with explicit reference to:

Management level (policy materials, action strategy documents);

Employee/colleague level, teacher/teacher relations (curricula delivery plans, or innovative projects); and

Teaching and learning practice level, teacher/student-groups (courses and series of activities) (Borgnakke, 1996a, 1996b, 2013a).

The methodological challenge for ethnographic research is to cope with these levels and allocated activities while resisting fragmentation by maintaining a holistic view of the educational context and school life. This also applies to incorporation of specialized elements of ethnographic research, for example, organizational ethnography (Ybema et al., 2009) or institutional ethnography (Smith, 2005). Various inspiring methods to apply, and aspects to consider, in explorations of organizational contexts and leader/management-level phenomena have been published. For example, Tummons (2017) applied Dorothy Smith’s ideas on institutional ethnography, recognizing the value of document analysis in a study on information communications technology–based medical education. My previous fieldwork confirms the need to construct what I have conceptualized, in line with Smith (2005), as “the institutional text-corpus” and integrate “the authoritative texts”in ethnographic analyses covering the levels outlined here (Borgnakke, 1996b).

In case studies of higher education that started with fieldwork at IT schools between 2000 and 2007, the institutional text-corpus was even more important for the ethnographic process. Described in line with Darnton (1982) and Van der Weel (2001) in relation to the digital communications circuit, the text corpus and circuit was a multimodal digital version, including home pages with documents, pictures, and movies produced by the schools “about the schools” and learning platforms used in the classrooms. However, despite the importance of these text (and media) collections it should be stressed that the ethnographic principle of contextualization still encompasses a need to understand the embedded textualized and mediated interactions and relations between the involved institutional actors, such as professionals, leadership teams, teachers, and/or students (Borgnakke, 2015a, pp. 13–14).

The ethnographic tradition and renewed aim of “being there—among professionals and learners” requires further clarification of consequences. But, most of all, clarification of the relationships between the ethnographic “field,” “place,” and “time” is required. In addition, as discussed in the next section, renewed reflection on “time” in relation to the classic ideal-type “long-term fieldwork” is needed.

Long-term Fieldwork and the Renewed Reflection on “Time”

The phrase “long-term fieldwork” recalls the Malinowskian tradition of the field researcher spending years in the field and acting as sole researcher (Malinowski, 1922). Besides “being there,” the main demand is “time.” The potential of fieldwork is realized by staying “in” the field, collecting materials “from” the field “about” the field, with the objective of acquiring a holistic understanding of social and cultural practices. The classic recognition of the importance of time is also applicable to the new broad field research, as I have previously shown (Borgnakke, 1996a, 1996b, 2012, 2013a).

Long-term fieldwork offers unique potential for exploration of processes, such as exploration of the process of innovation or exploration of the ongoing teaching and learning processes (e.g., Borgnakke, 1996b, pp. 465–638). In addition, the field researcher’s large empirical collections mean that the researcher is in empirical surplus. With this, the ethnographic potentials as a background, the possibilities of short-term fieldwork can be considered. In a framework with observations spanning only weeks or months, an intensive field study can be focused on a school or an education project, or different learning contexts can be explored (e.g., Borgnakke, 2013a, pp. 31–33). In such cases, cross-class or cross-context fieldwork may boost the potentials to acquire holistic understanding and the “empirical surplus” may confirm that even short periods of intensive fieldwork can meet the key traditional Malinowskian time criterion.

However, a larger time frame is required for fieldwork on processes such as implementation of major reforms in compulsory and secondary schools, which may take as long as five to ten years. For example, the 2000s have been labeled “the Decade of Reform” for all levels in Danish upper secondary schools. To navigate in this process one has to distinguish between the official time and milestones of the reform decade and the time references of the teachers involved. For example you can hear professionally involved refering to ‘the pioneer years,’ meaning the first year of the reform or ‘the trouble maker decade,’ meaning the whole period of the reform , followed by a reference to the ‘busy scheduling’ limitating curriculum plans for that year, month, and so on. The ethnographic point is that if there is ‘a decade of reform’ there is also a world of schooling, teaching and learning already labeled and institutionalized. This, the institutionalized school-life and time frame provide the social cultural foundation (Borgnakke, 2006, 2011b).

Therefore, from an ethnographic perspective, the schools’ “own interpretations, labeling, time and timing” is the starting point. Next, and in terms of the pragmatic decision, the time spectrum of fieldwork can range from “just a visit” through “a normal school week (Monday–Friday)” and monthly stay to long-term contact with the field, covering the case full scale. In all these cases the classic Malinowskian rationale can be maintained, at least in the sense of basing fieldwork and observation on the field’s practical holistic terms and timing. This holistic timing has consequences for research, as also stressed by Hammersley (2006) and Jeffrey and Troman (2004). If long-term fieldwork is maintained as a methodological reflection and characteristic element of the ethnographic practice, in addition to intensive field studies, it can provide extensive, valuable archives of empirical material and analyses. Conversely, archives from such research bear testimony to the value of long-term fieldwork. Particularly production of large quantities of empirical data, enable multiple analyses , including explorations of issues that were not considered during planning and data collection phases (e.g., Borgnakke, 1996b, pp. 643–712).

Maintaining the basic features of classical fieldwork ensures maintenance of contextualization and appropriate time frames of researchers’ contact with the field. However, it also raises needs for new interpretations and innovatory adjustments of principles and tools to address new themes and categories of ethnographic educational research. Along with a Marcus-inspired reinterpretation of multisited ethnography, these types of themes and categories are on the current agenda for the ethnographic project as a whole.

The Current Multisited Agenda

In 2001 and 2017, Margaret Eisenhart presented overviews of the current state of the educational ethnographic project, primarily with references to American research. In “Educational Ethnography Past, Present and Future: Ideas to Think With” (Eisenhart, 2001), she criticized current ethnography, and asked researchers to reconsider old views and basic categories such as “culture, gender, class, ethnicity” in relation to late modern conditions and their consequences. The demand by Eisenhart was important, but perhaps already met—at least in the Nordic critical tradition. Since the 1990s, rethinking of these basic categories has been a vivid element of educational gender, youth, and media research, which has generated various ethnographic methods and studies, based on a new generation of, for example, gender questions (Öhrn & Holm, 2014). In this respect, ethnographic researchers have updated the research agenda. Against the updated background, basic categories in different generations can be examined in relation to both educational research and relevant aspects of media, IT, and youth culture. This has triggered reappraisals of concepts of youth culture, school culture, and formal and nonformal learning across a spectrum from classic studies and cases (Hebdige, 1979; Willis, 1977) to late modern examples, such as The Digital Youth (Buckingham, 2008; Drotner & Duud, 2009; Erstad, 2012; Ito et al., 2008). Recent studies focusing on the young generation’s use of social media have furthermore demonstrated the importance of having issues associated with digital literacy on the agenda, combining a sociocultural approach with an educational “bildungs-approach.” This is important for encouraging researchers and schools to participate in pedagogical developments focusing on social cultural dimensions rather than merely technical dimensions.

In this manner, ethnographic educational researchers not only update the research agenda from the 1970s but also construct a new platform and add new practical issues, as discussed by Webster and Marques da Silva (2013). These efforts have opened paths for extensions and explorations of broad themes and contexts, in multisited ethnographic, meta-ethnographic, and comparative case study approaches, as described by Eisenhart in her later state-of-the-art review (Eisenhart, 2017). In this review, she characterizes Marcus-inspired ethnography with illustrative references to multisited research projects and frameworks. For example, investigations of (school) political and cultural production, involving observations of politicians, school administrators, teachers, parents, and students. Researchers follow an innovative discourse or reform as it is transported away from the original source into new places, and educational reforms as they are formulated by decision-makers, implemented by teachers, and experienced by students and parents.

The ethnographic point is that multisited studies of cultural production provide means to understand how educational activities, values, and results of a group at a specific time are designed, limited, and changed by connections or processes across groups, places, and times. Such studies may encompass (for example) activities and settings of policymakers who design a education reform, teachers involved in its implementation, young people directly affected by it, and parents hoping to observe beneficial effects (Eisenhart, 2017, p. 137). The influence of Marcus on such approaches is summarized by the following quotation:

“The past habit of Malinowskian ethnography has been to take subjects as you find them in natural units of difference. . . . [T]he habit or impulse of multi-sited research is to see subjects as differently constituted, as not products of essential units of difference only, but to see them in development—displaced, recombined, hybrid . . ., alternatively imagined. Such research pushes beyond the situated subject of [traditional] ethnography toward the system of relations that defines them” (Marcus, 2009, p. 184).

This quotation not only outlines multisited investigation as a context-sensitive strategy enabling ethnographic follow-up research but also enables a Nordic-German, rather than American, exemplification. In many ways, the strategy presented by Eisenhart through Marcus has strong elements of the critical constructivism propounded by Klafki (1977, 2002), and the qualitative research methodologies inspired by critical theory and social constructivism (see Borgnakke, 1996a, 1996b; Kvale, 1997; Nielsen & Nielsen, 2005).

Against this broader background, I confirm the validity and value of Eisenhart’s presentation of current ethnography but suggest a further step, using experiences of multisited ethnography gained to date. These experiences can be used to refine the foundations in several respects. First, they can help to clarify the relationship between field research and discourse analysis. Second, they can help development of a strategy for cross-case studies crossing learning contexts, including both online and offline settings. Third, they can highlight common foci or themes for ethnographic studies. Finally, they can reinforce experimental methodological frameworks for ethnographic research. In the following examples, I review these contributions (actual and potential) in relation to what is characterized as “mapping the field of practice/mapping the paradigm,” and “case studies crossing learning contexts,” with the broader objective of sharpening the focus on the educational system in change.

Mapping the Field of Practice/Mapping the Paradigm

Clarification of the term “mapping the field of practice/paradigm” and what it may entail can be exemplified by my own research. My extensive fieldwork from the 1980s was done at Aalborg University (AUC), one of the Danish “reform universities,” offering full-scale bachelor and master programs based on problem-oriented project work. My approach to the long-term fieldwork was simple and consistent: I followed one of AUC’s basic programs, participating from start to finish. In this version of the practice, long-term fieldwork refers to observations of activities associated with the entire program, from the teacher teams’ preliminary planning of “next year” and the first welcoming of new students to the actual project and course periods.Empirical data were mainly collected by following a group of 50 students and seven project groups through three periods of project work, including close-up studies during the period with final examinations.

The book Educational Field Research (Borgnakke, 1996a) presents and discusses the fieldwork and results in detail, while the article “Cardinal Writing: Following the Observed Process” (Borgnakke, 2018) describes and exemplifies the practice-analytical framework and close-up analyses in detail. Therefore, in this section, I skip details and concentrate on the status of long-term fieldwork as “a type” with distinct potentials.

First and foremost, fieldwork following full-scale education in real time and authentic complexity is a strong concept for mapping the field of practice. Since all institutional levels, parties, and pedagogical phases are included, the overview and empirical collections provide detailed background for practice analysis. The empirical data collection also provides important background for analyses of the learning processes at a micro-level, with close-up analyses of milestones and learning strategies (Borgnakke, 1996b). Hence, classic long-term ethnographic fieldwork provides foundations for developing an overview of what it means to explore the field of practice and exploit the empirical material in analyses of practices and learning processes.

In methodological terms, such full-scale studies can sharpen both requirements and opportunities to develop interplay between classical fieldwork and methodological renewal. Classical fieldwork’s combination of participant observation, spontaneous conversations, and interviews is crucial for grasping authentic complexity, through following courses, activities, and ever-changing contexts of study-life chronologies.. Being among professionals and learners, and engaging in conversations and interviews with groups and key informants in the field, provides access to the participants´ own interpretations of the process and teaching and learning practices. In this regard, the perspectives of participants and references to their life world (Kvale, 1997) are integrated in the ethnographic approach. With the classical ethnographic design as a background,ethnographic fieldwork show the possibilities of incorporating use of new digital technologies in the processfor instance, to augment data collection via key informants’ video diaries (Noer, 2014, 2016). In addition, micro-ethnographic studies have already shown the potentials of video recordings as background for close-up analysis of teaching and learning situations, focusing on interactive and communicative patterns (Alrø & Dircink-Holmfeld, 1997; Sahlström, 1999). Last but not least, full-scale studies addressing the entire field have generated digitized archives of empirical material, including references to focal institutions’ websites and learning platforms. For example, in case studies on innovative projects in higher education conducted by the INNOVA research group, the e-pedagogical profile is embedded in such platforms and the online education.2 Hereby the digital communications circuit is the starting point for everyone involved.

In these cases, the methodological renewal is IT-based, but the research interest in the next step, transforming “the observed field of practice” to empirical analysis, is still related to principles known from long-term fieldwork. That said, it is still fruitful to return to the practical context to recall how the same classical framework for mapping the field of practice is also a strong concept for mapping the educational or pedagogical paradigm. Further, it is fruitful to focus on different levels and the interplay between macro-, meso-, and micro-levels.

Clarifying strategies for the empirical analysis, the main point here is to develop an ethnographic analysis by using inspiration from Thomas Kuhn’s concept of paradigm. Kuhn’s descriptions of components are used to map the paradigms and characterize them in terms of their relative dominance in the field and relative strength in scientific grounding, educational framing, and curriculum.3 Against this background, mapping the field of modern university pedagogy (1970–2010) was described as the main task and the paradigm maps, as I called them, captured the results (Borgnakke, 2011a). The results showed the relative functional strengths of the paradigmatic traits and identified transformations of rules, norms, and values of the educational community in the learning context. In addition, examples of best practice were identified.

The paradigm maps showed that Danish higher education was dominated by two strong and shifting paradigms during the period 1970–2010. The “Project Pedagogical Paradigm,” dominated most strongly during the 1970s, while the “Learning Paradigm,” which was related to the Bologna process and is now defined as “The Learning Outcome Paradigm,” was dominant from 2000 to 2010 (Borgnakke, 2011a, pp. 14–21). The new learning and goal-oriented paradigm even turned to be the powerful paradigm dominating the educational system as a whole not only for one but two decades.

The Learning Outcome Paradigm has therefore had a huge impact, not manifested (unlike effects of the former Project Pedagogical Paradigm) in new campuses, buildings, or educational centers, but embedded in universities, higher education, and the educational system as a whole. In this sense, mapping the paradigm refers to identification of all relevant political and educational processes, participants and associated programs, documents, and requirements interactively involved at macro-, meso-, and micro-levels. It refers also to the possibilities to focus on specific issues going across the paradigm. As an example, the article Cross-Case Analysis of Changes in Teacher Role and Didactic Function in Denmark, 1980–2020 (Borgnakke, 2021) combines results from the broader field research with focused close-up analysis of paradigmatic teaching situations. The cross-case analysis shows how the project-based pedagogical paradigm from the 1970s generated alternative concepts of the professional teacher and bottom-up strategies for teacher collaboration. During the 2000s and 2010s, the new powerful learning paradigm marked the shift to top-down directed demands for “high professionalism.” The shift, shown in close-up analysis, led to an accumulation of functions and functional overheating rather than alternative practices. At the same time, demands for multifunctionality in the classroom were politically highlighted as a professional readiness for change and innovation.Against this background, the ethnographic analysis, both in broader and focused sense, refers to the paradigm and the paradigm shift over time as a political discourse and an educational practice with programs, demands, and documents in circulation between levels and parties. Hereby the communicative circuit in total is of interest. And hereby the ethnographic analytic framework refers to the empirical collection and the archive, similar in total as illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Mapping the paradigm. The ethnographic analytical framework exemplified in a Danish version of the Learning paradigm shows the potential for coping with the archive and characteristic “three-level text collection.”

The Archive and the Ethnographic Analytical Framework

Referring to the figure, the ethnographic analytical framework can be exemplified in a Danish version of the powerful Learning Outcome Paradigm showing the potential for coping with the archive and characteristic “three-level text collection.” Overall analysis and close-up analysis will focus on (a) collected documents, literature, and archives regarding the background theory and concepts, (b) documents regarding the educational policy and institutional arrangements, and (c) data collected from fieldwork and case studies with (d) materials and tools from the process of didactization and the process of digitalization.

Analysis of collections and documents enables the basic learning concept to be positioned in relation to the background theory with traditions of English-American-Australian educational research as dominant representatives of the paradigm. Here, works by Paul Ramsden and John Biggs in particular are in focus as theoretical and conceptual background.

Through their research environments, research, books, and dissemination Ramsden (1991), Biggs (1999), and Biggs and Tang (2007) can be used to refer both to Kuhn’s four components (to conceptual development, textbooks, development work) and link to what in the paradigm is regarded as “best practices” and have been reproduced in the profile of universities’ education courses and centers. Ramsden and Biggs formed, in this sense, a tradition in the Learning Outcome Paradigm matching the current political demands, but with origins in the conceptual development of surface and deep learning that can be traced back to the 1970s research environment at Gothenburg University (Marton & Saljö, 1976, 1984) and studies done together with Noel Entwistle (1997) and Entwistle et al. (2001). At the same time conceptual developments presented in Teaching for Quality Learning at University (Biggs, 1999) provided the foundation for the center for university pedagogical development at the University of Aarhus and University of Southern Denmark, as well as at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Natural Sciences Didactics (IND).

Ramsden’s and Biggs’s books are in this sense already included as a matrix for course development, as illustrated by the IND-book Improving University Science Teaching and Learning (Christiansen et al., 2010). Ramsden’s main concept, with presentations of the two learning strategies, deep and surface strategies, as well as the conceptual development of what Biggs called “constructive alignment,” has also been reproduced in the profile of the university education centers and courses for associate professors, doctoral students, and heads of departments. Finally, the Biggs tradition was brought to life in an award-winning video production (Brabrand, 2006), in which his basic concepts are dramatized and personified, in a story about two students: Susan, representing deep learning strategies, and Robert, representing surface strategies. The expressed, visualized, and personified version of the Learning Outcome Paradigm can therefore also be seen on YouTube.

Considering the paradigms in terms of their origins and effects, political and institutional, the currently dominant Learning Outcome Paradigm have had extraordinary structural impacts on the academic learning context. Not only curriculum and teaching strategies are affected but also organizational development, teacher-student relations, and the learning process. Further, e thnographic analysis has shown that practical consequences observed in profession-oriented higher education include structural enhancement of schoolification and conventional teaching and learning strategies, rather than innovative and student-oriented strategies (Kirketerp Nielsen, 2018; Lyngsø & Kirketerp Nielsen, 2016).

The framework described corresponds to exploiting the combined potential of classical fieldwork and critical discourse analysis. As illustrated by full-scale studies (as examples of broad field research) this provides potency by imbuing empirical analysis with ecological validity, rooted in authentic complexity and synergistic application of multiple methods in a practice-oriented strategy. Mapping the educational programprovides the required overview and evidence of main trends. However, for the empirical analysis, it is essential to observe and characterize relative strengths of paradigmatic traits and identify transformations of rules, norms, and values of the educational community. It is also crucial to identify these features in the full range of regulations, curricula, teacher functions, and textbooks, as well as examples of best practice.

Currently following the paradigm, as illustrated in Figure 1, will yield an almost identical archive in digitized form, including empirically collected data, references to the institutions’ websites and learning platforms, material from sources such as YouTube, and self-directed groups on Facebook as objects for the analysis. This means that almost “all” material linked to the practical management of the Learning Outcomes paradigm or to the implementation of Danish reforms is on the Internet or on the institutions’ intranet. This is digitization full scale!

It could be added that in 2018, the Ministry of Education realized that the cultural transformation of the learning outcomes paradigm into curricula, teaching, and testing strategies had gone too far. Despite critiques, and even deletion of goal-oriented material and models from the Ministry of Education’s homepage, the learning outcome–based curricula are still deeply embedded in the Danish educational system both in formal regulations and in living educational systems.

Hence, full-scale studies are clearly forced by digitalization to be renewed but still inspired by a classical fieldwork framework and challenges in terms of developing a critical analytical strategy to cope with the digitized processes and phenomena. That said, another important type of full-scale research needs to be elaborated, rooted in what was called intensive fieldwork and cross-case studies focusing on curriculum development in different learning contexts. As exemplified in the next section, intensive cross-case studies can be characterized in connection within the spectra of practice-oriented research, in which research teams were involved in quality development and evaluative research in higher education.

Cross-Case Studies Crossing Learning Contexts

The type of evaluative research involving intensive field study and comparative cross-case studies can be exemplified by the Danish “Project Quality Development of Teaching” from the 1990s. Education projects focused on the mechanical engineering program at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU), the English program at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH), and the marketing economics program at the Copenhagen Business School (CBS) were all included (Borgnakke, 2004, 2005, pp. 156–216).

During the case studies, I followed the development efforts, exploring the academic context and the teaching and learning strategies. Through observationand interviews with teachers and students, I followed the varied teaching forms and learning strategies from classic lectures in modern classroom settings to late modern project work in business- and profession-oriented project work. Furthermore, I observed the characteristic settings and situations from one scientific area to the next, starting with the technical area (DTU), continuing with the humanistic area (UCPH), and ending with the social and business science area (CBS).

Armed with material, text collections, and fieldnotes from observations in the different academic areas, I could grasp the issues connected to the institutional traditions for teaching and learning and compare the radically different academic cultures and learning contexts. At the same time, a common issue became clearly expressed as the dilemma of the movement from elite university to mass university. This refers to the difficulty of reconciling strong influences of conventional school tradition and teacher/pupil relations with attempts to meet demands and expectations for the survival of classic university traditions and research-based teaching for “the future professional.” The dilemma posed major conflicts of interest and orientation for the late modern university (Borgnakke, 2005, pp. 157–167).

The observations, spontaneous conversations, and interviews revealed strong identifications of the teachers' and the learners' own representations (and interpretations) of these conflicts. Furthermore, the comparative case study approach proved to have potent capacity for identification and documentation of (a) the diversity in learning strategies; (b) the educational cultures’ impact on teaching and learning; and (c) the learning contexts’ influence on learning subjects, knowledge, and learning interests.

Interestingly, the dilemma and pedagogical issues were divided into three sets. Grounded in the humanistic-, technical-, and business-oriented approaches to education three different scientific cultures and learning strategies could be identified.. Against this background the case analysis provided documentation and references to the old maxim “learning by doing” (Dewey, 1910). Further, referring to the academic context as ‘a learning context’ ( Borgnakke, 2004), concepts formulated by Lave and Wenger (1991) could shape examples of situated learning and communities of practice. .

Thus, a clear empirical conclusion from the comparative case analysis was that ‘the common pedagogical issues and reflections on academic learning’ were expressed in three versions closely related to the three different learning contexts. On a deeper level, we need to express the point in a Habermasian manner. The pedagogical reflections and goals set for the developmental work, or courses, were influenced by the technical, humanistic, and social scientific knowledge interests, or “erkenntnisinteresse” in German (Habermas, 1968). In each observed learning process, I recognized the tendencies to highlight the learning interests in either ‘to master a technique,’ ‘to understand’ or to ‘act and change.’ That expressed in Habermas’ wording makes the learners perspective clearer. From the learner’s viewpoint confronting a specific academic subject area seem to be driven by the strongest dimension in the learning context.

However, as learners, the students also shift between aims ‘to master,understand or to change.’ As observations and conversations with the students show, the learners themselves typically signaled how, when, and which dimensions were too strong (see Borgnakke, 2004, 2005, pp. 177–216).

Following learning processes in different academic learning contexts, as in the above example, adds deeper layers of learning as an ongoing life matter and a matter of crossing contexts physically and mentally. With references to case studies in profession-oriented learning process, shifting between scholastic practice and professional (e.g., clinical, for nurses) practice is a basic principle. In this respect, focusing on the learner’s “erkenntnisinteresse” implies focusing on a fundamental contrast between the scholastic and professional contexts as well as the contrast between theory and practice (Borgnakke, 2014; Noer, 2016). Research focusing on profession-oriented learning is methodologically challenged by this contrast as well as by the fact that the two contexts are experienced as two separate forms of learning. Field research carried out in online learning programs is challenged in additional ways (Lyngsø, 2019). First, the shifts from formal learning strategies (e.g., lessons in school and through textbooks) to informal learning (e.g., self-directed learning strategies, at home, and peer-oriented use of social media) are a challenge. Second, the e-pedagogical settings and shifting online/offline learning situations, pose further challenges.

Following the learner through these different phases of scholastic and professional learning demands observation and empirical data fromthe ongoing process. With this as an addition to the methodological background, the summarized reflections—the next section—are related to a research trend rather than single research projects. This is the increasing involvement of fieldwork and case studies in the political process of innovation andorganizational development.. As research teams, we are confronted directly with the new order of magnitudes related to the common theme “the educational system in change” as well as the common demands associated with professionalization and digitization.

Meeting Challenges From the Educational System in Change

A requirement for reinforcing an ethno-methodologic experimental framework is reinforcement of the interdisciplinary scientific background to meet challenges by bridging methods and traditions from learning research, profession- and organizational research. In addition, ethnographic research already has links to research in media, IT, and youth culture and can benefit from experience of diverse methods. Moreover, current ethnographic studies by interdisciplinary research groups emphasize the necessity of developing qualitative in-depth studies producing alternatives to the work of the evidence movement. In such studies, practice-oriented research crossing learning contexts meets the new challenges but confirms the strength of classical fieldwork.

Ethnographic case studies develop combinations of methods based on classic traditions but renewed by relations to innovative cases. This sharpening the analytical framework for focusing on interplays between the political (macro-) and the institutional and practical (meso- and micro-) levels. Hence, the empirical results can inform both overall analyses of innovative processes and detailed aspects of cases, educational cultures and learning situations..

Currently, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, educational institutions are expected to master the shifting offline/online culture. Moreover, professional teacher teams are expected to be ready to transform any didactic action to an innovative digital learning culture. But these processes of didactization and digitalization demand that not only teachers but also the organization be able to manage the complexity.

Against this background, ethnographic research is challenged to go beyond demands and expectations facing the practical implications in the complex process. The starting point for ethnographic analysis is that the practical process is rooted in an “authentic mix” of IT-based strategies, demands, and expectations positioned at multiple organizational levels and parties. The “authentic mix” will have ecological validity through reference to relevant policy documents, programs, curricular material, and plans for pedagogic processes. However, the “authentic mix” will also have a reference to dilemmas and problems in the process having an impact on the flows of learning tools and objects.

Tracing the flows of objects therefore challenge ethnographic research to explore the practical use of technology across different situations and contexts. In an analytical sense this crossing contexts is both a starting point and a driver to clarify how the ethnographic methods can delve deeper into the ongoing process of innovation. But going deeper into the process is also a wakeup call, that implies a concrete critique of technology in use as basic learning tools. Where the paradigmatic slogan in recent decades has been ‘IT-enhanced learning,’ both trade unions and professionals (school leaders and teachers) are now more skeptical and demand genuine research into the practical benefits and possible costs of learning technology. This means that the challenges to ethnographic method development must not only provide a technology-critical, but a paradigm-critical contribution to the practice-oriented research.

Further Reading

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  • 1. Jackman was the leader of a project on the value of preceptorship for health profession students (mainly medical and nursing students); see Jackman et al. (2012).

  • 2. The research group Ethnographic Studies in Innovative Learning Context conducts fieldwork and case studies in scholastic, profession-oriented, and academic learning contexts. Full scale case studies are related to teacher and nursing programs, inter-professionalism (in the InterTværs project), online learning (in the NETeducation project), and game-based profession learning (in the Innovation project in veterinarian study). Overviews see Special Issues, (2015), Innovation og Uddannelse (2016), Borgnakke (2016c), and Borgnakke et al. (2017). The research is continuingly expanding, recently with doctoral projects focusing on professional Bildung and ethnographic based curriculum development. .

  • 3. See Kuhn (1970). The four components are (a) nature-like symbolic generalizations, (b) metaphysical beliefs about the real structure, (c) standards of scientific activity, and (d) role models and examples. See also Figure 1 (Borgnakke, 2011a, p. 98). On the use of Kuhn to develop the critical analysis of the current learning outcomes paradigm, see Borgnakke (2011a, pp. 14–39).