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date: 12 July 2020

Ethnographic Methods for Researching Online Learning and E-Pedagogy

Summary and Keywords

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

Following the process of digitization, themes that are high on political and institutional agenda include “IT-enhanced learning” and the necessity of synergistic organizational and pedagogical development. Ethnographic methodology enables ongoing interpretation of school development as reflected and discussed by professionals and teacher teams, thereby facilitating elucidation of changes and consequences at technical, organizational and pedagogical levels. The general question addressed can be expressed as: How can a digital platform, associated on- and/or off-line learning processes, 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 digital transformation and associated discourse. The challenge has been approached in terms of practice-oriented research facing the digital culture and renewing the ethnographic approaches across the spectrum from policy- and organizational-level to practical learning-level ethnographic investigation. The challenge is also seen as embedded in research which illustrates the potentials for ethnographic multisite studies contributing to that which I express as mapping the field of practice or paradigm, and cross-case studies crossing different learning contexts. The common highlighted theme is that changes in educational systems and practices are necessitating changes in ethnographic practices.

Keywords: online learning, ethnographic fieldwork, digital culture, innovative full-scale projects, multisited studies, authentic complexity, mapping the field of practice, institutional ethnography, ethnography in learning, ethnographic methodology

Facing the Digital Culture—The Main Challenge, Full Scale

The permeation of digitization in all aspects of our lives is posing major challenges for educational policymakers, practitioners, students, and researchers. In this article, results of ethnographic studies of innovative full-scale initiatives are used to exemplify how the challenges for researchers include navigation in what can be regarded as experiments in the digitization 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, the digitization.

The main challenge seems to be posed by the new orders of magnitude. In initiatives ranging from the establishment of upper secondary IT (information technology) 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), digitization 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. The above-mentioned case studies and analyses of IT schools and online education show how technacy of school leaders and teacher teams seems to have become regarded as crucial for development of schools, education in general, and contributions to digitally oriented transformation (Borgnakke, 2011b, 2017b). However, virtual platforms and changing system and organizational perspectives, as well as shifts between the positions of educators as “teachers” and students as “learners,” are also posing challenges in terms of description and understanding. How can a digital learning situation be described in practical terms, and how can ethnographic research conceptualize and investigate the learning context?

As discussed by Biesta (2005), the political learning discourse and “new language of learning” prevail in connection with the new learning industry’s modern educational positions in relation to what critical analysts regard as a narrow technical and instrumental argument for ICT (information communications technology)-mediated and -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 new pedagogical issues arising from the increasing virtuality of the social world (Shumar & Madison, 2013). This is manifested in reflections on “the digital ages” and their consequences for attempts to understand technology-saturated society and its new media as a digital culture, or set of subcultures (Coffey, Renold, Dicks, Soyinka, & Mason, 2006; Dicks, Mason, Coffey, & Atkinson, 2005). It is also manifested in reflections and descriptions in studies of issues associated with distance learning in medical education (MacLeod et al., 2015; Tummons, MacLeod, & Kits, 2015) and development of bachelor’s and master’s degrees in dentistry and nursing (Gwozdek, Springfield, Peet, & Kerschbaum, 2011; Lyngsø, 2019; Springfield, Gwozdek, Peet, & Kerschbaum, 2012).

This background highlights the necessity of coping with digital culture and digital technologies. At the same time, educational ethnographic researchers are challenged to go beyond the political and educational rhetoric to explore the practical implications of the digital transformation and its associated discourse (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; Hernandez, Fendler, & Sancho, 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 they discuss underlined ways of “following connections and circulations in research that travel across online- and offline spaces,” involving “tracing the flows of objects, texts” and the multiple embedded or embedding contexts. Tracing the flows of objects embedded in multiple contexts is not new, indeed it is integrated in the conventional 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 multi-modalities are in use (Borgnakke, 2015a, p. 14). Some situations are highly technologized, as shown by fieldwork in Danish IT-upper secondary schools where digitization permeated all didactical teaching and learning phases, from curriculum planning to course monitoring and evaluation (Borgnakke, 2011b, 2012). In strong cases, daily school routines and school life are like living in a digital learning environment. In weaker versions, the technologization may only be high in specific professional training activities and profiles as observed, for example, in studies of cases in the healthcare sector and professional learning situations (Borgnakke, 2016a). In such cases, a physical space may be set aside for mixed-media suites of “simulation-based learning” and a wide spectrum of IT-enhanced learning situations can be observed. Activities may range from profession-oriented project work and case studies, simulations, and role play to the participative integration of students in healthcare teams and clinical practice. Borgnakke (2016a) analyzes an example of this kind of professional learning platform in a case study on interprofessional learning, called Case Canada.

Describing the observed mixed-media situations as blended learning and providing overviews portraying the serial use of technological tools and arrangements are clearly important for rigorous ethnographic fieldwork and analysis. However, analysts of IT-enhanced platforms for either upper secondary 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 practice learning, workplace learning, and/or professional learning, as learning situated in a practical (educational/work/professional) context. In an ethnographic study, the authentic complexity of this practical context must be 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 professional healthcare technologies, practical 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 abovementioned Case Canada, where the claimed “necessity of authentic complexity” was encapsulated by Dierdre Jackman in an interview regarding the Rural Medical Care1 project (Borgnakke, 2016b). 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 practice.

In relation to the ongoing observation and case studies in which IT-enhanced settings and e-pedagogical frameworks are investigated, we are confronted with a new field of practice for ethnographic research. Here, a mixed-media blended strategy integrates organizational development, education, and learning research into a common framework for coping with both innovations and digital everyday conditions (as discussed in the special issues Seminar.net, 2015 and Innovation og Uddannelse, 2016). These are characteristics of the current innovative context, but as Hammersley (2006, 2017) points out, ethnography following 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, and should facilitate analysis of, the complex sets and interactions of policy, innovation, and e-pedagogical and professional IT didactical issues. Hence, ethnographic methodology is challenged by and must respond to shifts between organizational levels and parties, and between digital processes related to teaching and/or learning. It must also cope with different political and institutional agendas, as well as associated variations in conditions, including the modern order of magnitudes, 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.

Summarizing the main challenge for ethnographic methodology, there is a need to clarify ways of describing and analyzing the full spectrum of developments, their interactions, and the meaning of full-scale in late modern educational terms. In terms of strategies for knowledge production, empirical overview, and detailed, close-up analysis, ethnographic methodology capable of responding to “the new orders of magnitude” is required, sharpening the practice-oriented 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, for example, Beach, Gordon, & Lahelma, 2003; Borgnakke, 2013a; Greenwood, 2009; Greenwood & Levin, 2007; Hiim, 2007; Klette, 1998, 2007; Larson, 2006; Lindblad & Sahlstrom, 2003; Nielsen & Nielsen, 2005, 2006).

Returning to Research Traditions Oriented Toward Practice

To understand practice orientation as a common feature, it is important to emphasize that in terms of research background and references it had 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,” i.e., tightly school- and practice-oriented. The objective of this practice-oriented strategy was Development of a critical constructive didactic, as explicitly 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). 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 re-establish critical basic empirical research, encompassing the whole school environment and organizational development.

To renew Klafki´s critical constructivism in practice-oriented 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; Noblit & Hara, 1988; Uny, France, & Noblit, 2017).

Against this background, interest in research-based evaluation has been expanded, but methodical needs have arisen to design and implement case studies and empirical analyses at both educational policy (macro-) level and practical, pedagogical meso-/micro-levels. Moreover, innovation and implementation of the new technologies are already important parts of the field of practice and the educational system’s “own experiments,” in forms ranging 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 spectrum in the 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 may be missed by superficial or too narrow analysis, not only of educational and learning practice “as such” but also of specific issues or components in the process. These complexities are all part of the authentic complexity (to use the above-mentioned formulation), which cannot be properly grasped without considering broader contexts.

Research being “oriented toward practice” is no longer sufficient, as there is a clear need to explore the field of practice, 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 simultaneous and 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 ethnographic literature since the 1990s. However, regardless of the research 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 concepts, 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.” The above-mentioned 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 the above 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, Maccarini, & De Rosa, 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; Borgnakke et al., 2015; 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 educational research is to cope with the above-listed 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, Yanow, Wels, & Kamsteeg, 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 ICT-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 integrated it in ethnographic analyses covering the levels outlined above (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 homepages 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, everybody professionally involved refers to the decade and specific year of the reforms, followed by the focal groups of students in terms of school years and courses, as well as specific curriculum plans for that year, month, and so on. The ethnographic point is that in the world of schooling, teaching and learning are already institutionalized, and the institutionalized time frame provides foundations for all time references, scheduling, and stays for teachers, students, and external researchers.

Therefore, from an “outside” perspective, the schools’ “own time and timing” is the starting point. 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. 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 researcher’s 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, enabling multiple analyses and interpretations, potentially 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 educational 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 re-appraisals of concepts of youth culture, school culture, and formal and non-formal 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, 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 have not only updated the research agenda from the 1970s but also constructed a new platform and added new practical issues, as discussed by Webster and Marques da Silva (2013). These efforts have now 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 latest 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 types of (school) political and cultural production, involving observations of politicians, school administrators, teachers, parents, and students. Researchers may follow an innovative discourse or reform as it moves or 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 multisite 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 training 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 multisite 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 “Cross-case studies crossing learning contexts,” with the broader overall objective of sharpening the focus on a new common theme: The educational system in change.

Mapping the Field of Practice/Mapping the Paradigm

Clarification of my meaning of the term “mapping the field of practice/paradigm” and what it may entail can be exemplified by my own research, including extensive fieldwork from the 1980s at Aalborg University (AUC), one of the Danish “reform universities,” i.e., full-scale bachelor and master programs based on problem-oriented project work. My approach to the long-term fieldwork was simple and consistent: I closely 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” to the first welcoming of new students. 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, thereby meeting practical complexity on the terms of the field. 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, current ethnographic full-scale studies show the possibilities of incorporating use of new digital technologies, for 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; Sahlstrom, 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,2 the e-pedagogical profile is embedded in such platforms and the online education. 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-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 and his descriptions of components3 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. 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 particularly dominant from 2000 to 2010 (Borgnakke, 2011a, pp. 14–21).

The Learning Outcome Paradigm has had 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 process, participants and associated programs, documents, and requirements interactively involved at macro-, meso-, and micro-levels.

Against this background, the ethnographic analysis refers to the paradigm communications circuit as a political and educational circuit with programs, documents, and demands in circulation between levels and parties. Hereby the ethnographic analytic framework refers to the empirical collection and the archive in total as illustrated in Figure 1.

Ethnographic Methods for Researching Online Learning and E-Pedagogy

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.”

Referring to the map, 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.” Overall analysis and close-up analysis will focus on (1) collected documents, literature, and archives regarding the background theory and concepts, (2) documents regarding the educational policy and institutional arrangements, and (3) data collected from fieldwork and case studies.

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.

Through their research environments, research, books, and dissemination Ramsden (1991) and 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, McCune, and Walker (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, Rump, & Degn, 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, at the macro/meso-level, the currently dominant Learning Outcome Paradigm have had extraordinary structural impacts on the academic learning context. An important implication for overall ethnographic analysis is that they have affected not only curriculum and teaching strategies but also organizational development, teacher-student relations, and the learning process. Ethnographic analysis of the Learning Outcome Paradigm 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 above 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 analytical strategy. Mapping the educational program, the learning platform and technical tools, discipline content, main topics, textbooks, and so on provides 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.

Following the paradigm, as illustrated in the map, will yield an entire relevant archive in digitized form, including all 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. Hence, full-scale studies are clearly 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 highlighted, rooted in what was called intensive fieldwork and cross-case studies focusing on different learning contexts. As exemplified in the next section, intensive cross-case studies can be characterized in connection with the previously described 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, concentrating on relations between the academic context and the teaching and learning strategies. Through observation, conversation, and interviews with teachers and students, I followed the varied teaching forms and learning strategies involved: 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 seemed to be grounded in the humanistic-, technical-, and business-oriented approaches to education and learning corresponding to the scientific cultures and learning strategies in the three settings. The common pedagogical issues and reflection on learning were divided into three sets. Thus, the case analysis provided documentary evidence of the importance of an empirical and ethnographic turn in the use of social actions, theories, and references to the old maxim “learning by doing” (Dewey, 1910). Further, in the analytical process of contextualization (see Borgnakke, 2004), concepts formulated by Lave and Wenger (1991) were used to reconstruct examples of situated learning and communities of practice. The analysis also highlighted the important nuance that contextualization is closely related to the scientific subject matter.

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, regarding education through teaching and learning of a scientific subject, 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 “erkentniss interessen” in German (Habermas, 1968). In each observed learning process, I recognized the same tendencies. Of interest here is not only the nuance but also the new perspective from the learner’s viewpoint. Students confronting a specific academic subject area seem to be driven by the strongest dimension in the learning context.

However, as learners, the students shift between aims “to master a technique,” “to understand” (verstehen), or “to act and 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).

This result of sharpening the focus on “the learner” and the ethnographic principle of “following the field” highlights the benefits of exploration of multiple learning contexts. Following learning processes of different groups of students in different academic learning contexts, as in the above example, adds deeper layers of ethnographic meaning. From the learners’ perspective, the process of learning is an ongoing life matter and a matter of crossing contexts physically and mentally (learning transfer). In an ethnographic sense, “following the learner” therefore means crossing contexts and seeing the process from the learner’s perspective when students are sometimes at school going to classes and sometimes at a workplace engaged in projects related to an organization or company. These are two very different learning contexts. With references to current fieldwork in the profession-oriented learning context you can say that crossing contexts and shifting between scholastic practice and professional (e.g., clinical, for nurses) practice is the basic principle. In this respect, focusing on the learner implies focusing on a fundamental contrast between the scholastic and professional contexts as well as the contrast between “theory and practice.” The context markers link “theory” to “the school” and “the classroom,” and “practice” to workplaces, such as “the clinic.”

Fieldwork 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. Fieldwork carried out in online learning programs is challenged in additional ways. First, it must accommodate 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) and practice learning (e.g., learning at the clinic oriented toward the professional action repertoire). The e-pedagogical settings and online/offline learning situations, with diverse flows of learning objects, pose further challenges.

Following the learner through the different phases of profession-oriented education with emphasis on collecting empirical data from the course involves observation of the ongoing process, the contrast, and the flows in learning objects. With this as an addition to the methodological background, the summarized reflections –the next section are related to a research trend from the 2010s rather than single research projects. This is the increasing involvement of fieldwork and case studies in the political process of reform, organizational development, and innovation. As research teams, we are confronted directly with the question of learning in late modernity and the new order of magnitudes related to the common theme “schools in change” as well as the common demands associated with “digitization.”

Meeting Challenges from the Educational System in Change

A requirement for reinforcing a methodological-experimental framework for ethnographic research is reinforcement of the interdisciplinary scientific background to meet challenges by bridging, for example, methods and traditions from educational and learning research, profession-oriented research, 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. Further, current ethnographic studies by interdisciplinary research groups underline the necessity of developing qualitative in-depth studies producing alternatives to the work of the evidence movement. In such projects and studies, practice-oriented education research and action research crossing learning contexts meets challenges, but strongly confirms the strength of classical fieldwork.

Crossing learning contexts, ethnographic case studies develop combinations of methods based on classic practice-oriented traditions but renewed by relations to innovative cases. This enables sharpening of the ethnographic analytical framework for focusing on interplays between political (macro-) and both institutional and practical (meso- and micro-) levels. Hence, the empirical results can be related to (and inform) both overall analyses of innovative processes and the field: i.e., the learning context, detailed aspects of cases and learning situations, and the two principles of ecological validity and authentic complexity in studies of shifting offline/online educational cultures.

To summarize with a focus on these principles, the starting point for ethnographic analysis of digitized educational cultures is that the field of practice and the learning context must be regarded as completely multimedia, and rooted in an “authentic mix” of IT-based strategies positioned at multiple organizational levels and used by multiple parties. The “authentic mix” will have ecological validity through reference to relevant policy documents, laws, programs, strategies, curricular material, and plans for pedagogic processes. For net-based analysis, the key materials will be available from websites of associated organizations/institutions, intranets, and learning management systems, as well as diverse devices currently in use to mediate flows of learning tools and objects.

Tracing the flows of objects involves following the practical use of technology embedded in the process of learning across different situations and contexts. In an analytical sense this crossing of contexts is both a starting point and a driver to clarify the ethnographic potentials and challenges currently related to political demands of further digitization in the process of curricular, instructional, and learning change.

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, Myrick, and Young (2012).

(2.) The research group Ethnograhic studies in innovative learning context conducts fieldwork and case studies in scholastic, profession-oriented, and academic learning contexts. Current case studies are related to inter-professionalism (in the InterTværs project), online learning (in the NETeducation project), and game-based profession learning (in the Innovation project in veterinarian study). The research is continuingly expanding, recently with doctoral projects focusing on profession-oriented learning in clinical psychiatric praxis.

(3.) See Kuhn (1970). The four components are (1) nature-like symbolic generalizations, (2) metaphysical beliefs about the real structure, (3) standards of scientific activity, (4) role models and examples. See also Figure 1 (Borgnakke, 2011a, p. 98). The use of Kuhn to develop the critical analysis of the current Learning Outcomes Paradigm, see Borgnakke (2011a), pp. 14–39.