Archive | July, 2013

On the Importance of Ethnography in Education: an interview with Mizuko ‘Mimi’ Ito


Mizuko 'Mimi' Ito

Mizuko ‘Mimi’ Ito

Editor’s Note: We finish off this month’s theme on ethnography in education with an interview with Mizuko ‘Mimi’ Ito (@mizuko). Mimi has some impressive experience with the topics covered this month: she is the Research Director at the Digital Media and Learning Hub, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Chair in Digital Media and Learning, and a Professor in Anthropology and Informatics at UC Irvine (after getting two PhDs from Stanford). And she is as kind and generous as she is brilliant.

In this interview, Mimi provides insights on bridging disciplines – from ethnography to economics – and institutions – from academia to industry. She also discusses the challenges and opportunities in forging new research agendas and shaping a field, something with which she has a lot of personal experience. We are thrilled to share Mimi’s insights with you to round out this month’s theme on ethnography in education. To learn more about Mimi, check out her many books and reports, summarized at the end of the interview.


Morgan: You’ve worked on a lot of compelling projects using ethnographic methods. What do you see as the strengths of ethnography?

Mimi: I think, for me, I was always in an unusual bucket as an ethnographer because I’ve always done research ‘at home’ and I haven’t taken on the frame of culture in quite the same was as ethnographers do, but I’ve adopted and adapted the perspectives and political commitments and methods of ethnography, and for that has worked very well in studying youth media. My approach has been to study youth culture and media as a space of cultural difference within a particular society. These technologies are new and children and youth occupy a somewhat segregated culture. Feminist ethnographies look at social stratification, and my approach shares affinities with those.

When I started out, there wasn’t a lot of work in anthropology looking at children and youth cultures, and I found that the perspectives of ethnography was really useful for looking at these subaltern and disempowered groups. A lot of my perspectives came from my training in anthropology about how to give voice to the unique ingenuity and perspectives of those who are disempowered. The role of youth in most societies as a relatively oppressed and marginalized population has been relatively under-studied in anthropology. The field has done a great job of studying regional inequities, and gender, race, and class, but has been remarkably silent about the everyday oppression that most societies have based on age.Read More… On the Importance of Ethnography in Education: an interview with Mizuko ‘Mimi’ Ito

Ethnographic Entanglements: How having multiple roles enriched my research in Nicaragua


Chelsey Hauge

Chelsey Hauge

Editor’s Note: the final guest author for this month’s Ethnography in Education theme, Chelsey Hauge (@chelseyhauge), is finishing her PhD this coming year at the Department of Language and Literacy at the University of British Columbia. Originally from California, Chelsey has spent the last decade cultivating her love of youth and media, from New York to Oakland, Vancouver to Nicaragua. She provides a perspective on ethnography in education outside of the United States with a fascinating account of doing ethnographic research on a youth radio organization in Nicaragua – while also running the program. She shows us that her deep entanglements with the program were an asset, not a liability, and invites us to reflect on the entanglements that any ethnographic research necessarily creates.


An experienced education researcher recently admitted to me that they did not allow their students to conduct dissertation research in spaces where the student was not only a researcher, but also a facilitator, teacher, leader, or producer. It was an admission of curiosity: I have conducted my own dissertation research on a program I am intimately involved with – I led this program’s inception, designed its goals, formed the partnerships necessary to carry out the program, trained its staff, and mentored its youth. In fact, I grew up within the broader auspices of the Amigos de las Americas (www.amigoslink.org) program, and only through years of involvement was I given the opportunity to craft and direct the media program in Nicaragua. I could have never conducted my ethnographic research on how youth come to tell particular social justice stories without these most intimate connections.

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The recognition that this entire project would have been located outside this researcher’s “rules” urged me to consider the possibilities and limitations of such close research and programming work. Certainly, ethnography is always a research practice built upon and muddled by complex relationships between researcher and research subjects. As researchers interested in the personal, the everyday, the experiences of folks, and the way events come together and shift, ethnographers enter into relationships where roles of “researcher” and “subject” are often unclear, where friendship and research grow from each other and even depend on each other.

As a researcher drawing on feminist ethnography, this gets even more complex as I am invested in a research practice that critically engages with the power dynamics in relationships, friendships, communities, between researchers and researched. The experienced researcher’s stance, then, serves to make their student’s lives less complicated, their research just a bit less tangled up with the researcher’s multiple commitments. Yet, the tangles I have encountered as I research civic engagement and youth media in Nicaragua are visible to me only because I inhabit both roles, and those tangles are productive, fascinating, and generative. I have been privileged to engage with a richness that would have been impossible without ebb and flow between both roles.

How I came to AMIGOS as a site – and to ethnography as a research method

I came to my research with youth media producers in rural Nicaragua before I ever called it “research.” Read More… Ethnographic Entanglements: How having multiple roles enriched my research in Nicaragua

Ethnography and the Geography of Learning


Alex Cho

Alex Cho

Editor’s Note: Alexander Cho (@alexcho47) is a doctoral student in the University of Texas at Austin’s Department of Radio-TV-Film. In addition to conducting fieldwork for the Connected Learning team in Austin, he helps coordinate the team’s qualitative data management and analysis efforts. His chief research interests involve how LGBTQ youth use social media in their daily lives. We are excited that he is contributing to this month’s theme on ethnography in education with and exploration of the lived experience of economically disadvantaged and minority high school students who are attending a low-income high school in the midst of a wealthy suburb of Texas. His group’s ethnography brings home the importance of experiences of place – both school and neighborhood – to what it means to be “suburban poor,” a phenomenon that is quickly becoming a defining feature of American cities.


When our Austin research team was initially designing “The Digital Edge” as part of the Connected Learning Research Network, we wondered: what would be the best way for us to gain a picture that was as comprehensive as possible of the daily lives and digitally-mediated learning ecologies of youth—especially youth from under-resourced minority communities? We were intrigued, for example, by Pew Internet and American Life Project reports that showed that youth of color were more likely than their white counterparts to use mobile internet. This was provocative survey-based quantitative information, but it left us wondering – what was the quality and character of this sort of access? Far from being celebratory, could it be that this was in fact because their quality of home access was poor? This was just one of many questions that we felt quantitative data on youth digital media practices left unanswered. And if we were going to marry youth digital media practices with their potential for informal and connected learning, we were going to have to figure out how to understand and describe these practices in much greater detail.

We realized that two facets of traditional ethnographic method would be invaluable to us: long time on task and nuanced qualitative data gathering. We wanted to pick up the stories where the quantitative data left off. What were these youth actually doing, why, and how? How were their lives impacted, what happened when something changed (If a mother lost her job? Or a college scholarship fell through?). We wondered: Can we begin to paint a picture of the daily lives, rituals, opportunities and challenges that  youth on the “Digital Edge” experience in school? And what, if any, is the potential or affordance of digital technology for these young people in creating education environments that develop the skills and literacies necessary to thrive in their next steps, be they post-secondary education, vocationally-oriented aims, or other sorts of civic opportunities?

Austin map

From “The Geography of Opportunity in Austin and How It Is Changing,” Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity

Read More… Ethnography and the Geography of Learning

Connecting the Dots: Researcher Positionality in Participant Observation


Aaminah Norris

Aaminah Norris

Editor’s Note: Aaminah Norris (@aaminahm) is just about to finish her PhD in the Graduate School of Education at UC Berkeley. She studies “critical making” and “design thinking” movements in an urban school, particularly the ways that its students use design thinking to develop methods to negotiate their racial and gender identities, which in turn relates to their self-efficacy. We’re excited to hear her perspectives on ethnographer positionality as a researcher and a woman of color as a contribution to this month’s theme on ethnography in education.


Ethnographic researchers all have to deal with issues of ethnographer positionality. Participant observers must make on-the-ground decisions about how much of their relationships to the communities that they research is participation and how much is observation, contributing to debates about the role of ethnographers. As a researcher of color whose background mirrors those of some of the individuals I study, I have had to make many such decisions about my positionality.  Sometimes, though, the participants in the community made this decision for me.

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The following narrative illustrates ways in which my participation was informed by the teachers at my field site.  I will relate a snapshot of my ethnographic field note data collected during participant observation of one teacher professional development training.

Read More… Connecting the Dots: Researcher Positionality in Participant Observation

Interactive eBooks and Reading Comprehension – I’ll Meet You There


Sheila Frye

Sheila Frye

Editor’s Note: Our next author, Sheila Frye (@sheila_frye), wears many hats: she is an educator with fifteen years’ experience, a reading specialist, a literacy innovation researcher, and a doctoral candidate studying the design of learning environments. Her research focuses on the crossroads between interactive eBooks and reading comprehension.  She has teaching certifications in reading, special education, and educational supervision, and blogs at http://teachingliteracy.tumblr.com. We are honored to feature her insights – and, as you will see, her wonderful exuberance – in this month’s theme on ethnography in education.


I have joyful data.

Yes, you read that correctly.

I have AWESOMELY LOVELY and JOYFUL data.

You see, for the past nine months I have been entrenched in my dissertation fieldwork, giddily collecting data on second graders’ responses to reading interactive eBooks on the iPad. Using a repeated measure design, I sat with thirty participants individually for two thirty-minute sessions each and observed what they did while reading the two chosen eBooks in either a “Read-to-Me” or “Read-and-Play” mode. After reading, the participants engaged in several performance tasks to assess their understanding of the stories and to gather information on their personal views of reading interactive eBooks.

In most children’s stories, the reader takes on a more passive role. But I wanted to study what happens when readers become active participants in a story. Luckily, Nosy Crow developed these awesome eBook apps that contain digital enhancements to transform the reading experience into one that requires the user to manipulate and interact with the characters, words, and other textual elements to traverse the plot.  Consequently, users have the option to become active participants in the narratives themselves. You know the Three Little Pigs? Well, users can help the pigs build their houses with the tap of a finger and, diabolically so, blow on the iPad to assist the wolf in huffing and puffing and blowing their houses down. Think Cinderella needs to upstage her mean stepsisters? Users can put the glass slipper on Cinderella’s foot so she can gloat until her heart’s content.

Cinderella Slipper

Genius, right?

Think about it: Children are naturally curious and practically beg to be involved in the environment that surrounds them. Drawing upon this to design eBooks that allow young readers to become part of the story?

Simply brilliant.

My research takes an intimate look at “interactive eBooks,” software applications that provide users with a multimedia literary experience designed especially for a touch screen device. Interactive eBooks go beyond traditional eBooks because they have “hotspots” embedded within the software that allow readers to become actively involved in the experience of reading and, subsequently, may provide learners with new ways to make meaning and increase text comprehension. As you may know, reading comprehension is the ability to make meaning and construct knowledge, an act that stems from the interaction between the reader and the text. In order to comprehend a text successfully, readers must actively reflect on and decode the printed word, combine this with their own prior knowledge, attend to unwritten nuances and inferred purposes of the author, and finally synthesize this information to make new meaning.

Whew!

Read More… Interactive eBooks and Reading Comprehension – I’ll Meet You There

Collateral Benefits: Focus Groups as Social Support Groups


Ricarose Roque

Ricarose Roque

Editor’s Note: Ricarose Roque (@ricarose) continues this month’s theme of ethnography in education with a lovely piece about some unexpected results of qualitative focus groups she ran with groups of parents as part of her research. Ricarose is a doctoral student in the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab, where she works with families in communities that have limited access to resources and social support around computing. We are thrilled to have her as a guest author at Ethnography Matters. 


In designing our research projects, we weigh which methods can contribute (or not contribute) into our research questions, but how might these methods benefit the people we study?

I found a surprising outcome in a recent series of focus groups I conducted to understand parents’ perceptions of computing in their lives and their children’s lives. Parents play an important role in their children’s learning ecology, from encouraging their children at home to brokering relevant relationships and resources for children beyond the home. As technology proliferates to every part of our lives from how we connect with one another to how we can learn, I’ve been interested in how parents are negotiating technology use with their children, especially among parents who do not have a history or background in computing and engineering. (I use parents loosely here to mean any adult caretaker.) I used focus groups to interview multiple parents in a familiar setting (their local community center) and to leverage the dynamics of groups to gather shared perceptions or contentious points.

In the hour and a half we shared together, I would discuss with 3 to 5 parents their personal and children’s use of technology and its influence on their lives. And at the end of each one, I noticed that parents seemed to enjoy the experience. They thanked me for putting this together. And then they thanked each other. Some suggested doing “this” again. Parents exchanged contact information. There was a feeling that we went through something special. And I only made sense of what that was through iterative readings of the transcripts.

parents

I found that parents connected over their sometimes overwhelming anxiety around computing and how it influenced how they saw themselves, their children, and their relationships to their children. For example, they agreed that there were benefits to using computers and mobile devices in their lives, but at the same time, they shared questions about what was being lost or given up with their use. With cell phones, they could get in touch with their children immediately and at any time. With Facebook, they could keep in touch with relatives still living in the countries they left behind. But when someone grows up with communication done through text-based mediums and interactions mediated through devices, how do they connect with people emotionally and deeply in real life? How do they develop their sense of what is right and wrong? One mother asked about technology: “How — not even how does it benefit him — how does it benefit other people? How does what you do [with technology] help someone else?”

For every question I asked, parents illuminated their responses with stories. One dad shared his disappointment with how technology has complicated reading with his son, and even replaced him as his son’s reading partner.

You hit on a word [on an iPad reading app] and it says the word for you. I was a little offended, I thought I would be a great reader for them, but they preferred to have the, whatever the person who had been paid by the company to read to them, which I’m still bitter about.

Read More… Collateral Benefits: Focus Groups as Social Support Groups

Why Digital Inequality Scholarship Needs Ethnography


Christo Sims

Christo Sims

Editor’s Note: We are excited to kick off this month’s theme on what ethnography can bring to education research with a post by Professor Christo Sims (@christosims). Christo has insights from a public school in New York City that was meant to foster digital inclusion across gender, racial, and socioeconomic barriers, but ended up entrenching these barriers instead. His story shows how ethnographic research can answer difficult questions and broaden the usual dialogues about digital inequality in education in fundamental – and important – ways.


Why Digital Inequality Scholarship Needs Ethnography

By Christo Sims

Digital inequality scholarship is well-intentioned. It debunks myths about digital media’s inherent egalitarianism and draws attention to the digital dimensions of social inequalities. Digital inequality scholars have shown, for example, that people with access to networked media use those technologies in different ways, some of which are thought to be more beneficial than others. They have highlighted how differences in skills and quality of access shape use. And they have rightly attacked the stereotype of the digital generation. These are important contributions for which we should be grateful.

Yet digital inequality scholarship is also limited in some fundamental, and I believe hazardous, ways. To defend these claims, I will draw on an in-depth ethnographic study of an ambitious attempt to combat digital inequality: a new, well-resourced, and highly touted public middle school in Manhattan that fashions itself as “a school for digital kids.” It is hard to imagine a more concerted attempt to combat digital inequality, and yet the school paradoxically helped perpetuate many of the very social divisions it hoped to mend. In-depth ethnographic studies can help us understand these outcomes, and they can provide us with tools for forming more accurate conceptions of relations between digital media and social inequalities.

Recruitment flier for the Downtown School

Recruitment flier for the Downtown School

Read More… Why Digital Inequality Scholarship Needs Ethnography

July 2013: Ethnography in Education


Guest Editor Morgan G. Ames

Guest Editor
Morgan G. Ames

Welcome to this month’s theme on ethnography in education research! From the promise of radio learning nearly a century ago, to the recent hype around One Laptop Per Child, to the current excitement around massive open online courses (MOOCs), education has been a site of constant reform efforts – or, as education researcher Larry Cuban puts it, “tinkering.” While using “big data” to evaluate these reforms has its allure (and can be useful in ethnographic research, as Jenna and Ayman have shown us in previous posts), ethnography is unique in being able to dig below the surface and uncover the complicated processes and contingent effects of education and education reform.

ethnography_education

This month’s authors highlight how ethnography can uncover unexpected results or answer difficult questions about some of the thorniest problems in education reform, especially the persistence of various kinds of inequality. Our first article, by Christo Sims (@christosims), tackled this question head-on in an ethnography of a technology-focused public school in New York that inexplicably had many of its less advantaged students transfer out. With his research, Christo was able to say why this was happening and what it means for other efforts for digital inclusion.

Coming up next, we will hear from Ricarose Roque (@ricarose), who is working to break down some of the stubborn gender, racial, and socioeconomic divides in computer science and bring the programming environment Scratch to a more diverse community. She will talk about some of the unexpected benefits parents experienced in the qualitative focus groups she has been conducting as part of her research.

Later in the month, Sheila Frye (@sheila_frye) will tell us about her research on interactive eBooks, which promote active reading habits – a crucial part of literacy – to children who may not learn this skill otherwise. Sheila uses ethnography to take a close look at both the benefits and the potential drawbacks of interactive eBooks. Her enthusiasm for ethnographic methods is infectious; she is one of the few graduate students we know who LOVES her dissertation work!Read More… July 2013: Ethnography in Education