Ethnography and the Geography of Learning

August 2, 2013

PROJECTS: The Digital Edge

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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?

Geography of opportunity

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

What we did

We are often asked how we chose our “sample.” The short answer is that we don’t necessarily have a sample; in fact, ethnography resists the idea of the “sample.” Instead of speaking generally, ethnography generates specific stories that help us understand the lived experience of certain people in a certain population, through nuance, detail, and time on task. In this way, we are able to gain insight into practices and meanings that may help us understand how technology, access, and learning are wrapped together.

Classic ethnography involves participant observation and qualitative interviewing over a lengthy time period. In this sense, we conducted a traditional ethnography. We spent over a year at Freeway High School, hanging out and participating extensively in two classes and an after-school program designed to foster digital media skills. We observed about sixty students but hung out with and interviewed 18 students extensively over the course of the academic year. Among the 18 students, we met about half of our them through the school’s digital media production course offerings; another half was recruited from friends of friends or through teachers talking about the study in the classroom. Our interviews were semi-structured and topical (mobile phones, peer culture, etc.), but were loose in form and frequently turned into friendly conversation. We were in text message and Internet contact with our participants on a regular basis. We also visited their homes and interviewed significant adult family members.

An unexpected factor

As we were in the field, we began to notice that the school’s location itself was an important factor in mapping the nuances of these young peoples’ learning ecologies. The school we were studying is the lowest-achieving high school of three in a suburb of Austin, it is the most heavily populated with racial and ethnic minorities, and it has a poor reputation in the district. It was in a liminal zone, distanced from Austin’s  affluent urban center, but also far removed from the leafy outer-reaches of the suburb’s more affluent areas.

At the same time that we were in the field, a spate of reports came out on the changing state of poverty in the US. Geography-based quantitative analysis reveals that suburban poverty is quickly becoming a defining characteristic of major American cities, separated from more central innovation districts. (Austin has been cited as exemplary of this trend.) This was, in fact, exactly what we were seeing, and there were profound implications for how the youth in this setting were experiencing school and leveraging digital media in their learning ecologies. We felt we were primed to begin to shed qualitative light on this new way of understanding opportunity as it related to geography, and wrap it back to the existing literature on the affordances of participatory culture technology in formal and informal learning environments by grounding it in ethnographic fieldwork that was already attuned to the lived factors of these young people and their local environments.

In other words, if the digital “participation gap” is an updated way of understanding what many have called the “digital divide,” then concerned scholars must also think of ways to nuance how we understand this participation gap. We are realizing, in one sense, it is an actual geographic gulf, where the long history of American residential housing and school segregation, the politics of property taxes, the potential for future opportunity, and stark differences in real capital are as fundamental to the idea of participation as the ground we drive on every day. What follows is an example of how our qualitative ethnographic work enables us to develop a rich picture of the varying factors that contribute to the learning contexts of youth on the “Digital Edge.”

An example: The pushes and pulls of unsteady housing

Our lengthy time on task, our immersive interactions, and qualitative method allowed us to begin to sketch a relatively holistic picture of these young learners’ lives as they progressed over the year we spent with them. We realized that a history of movement, whether forced or voluntary, is a hallmark of the youth in our study. The majority of our participants have not lived in the same home for the greater portion of their lives; instead, one hallmark of the digital edge youth in our study has been a trend toward inconsistent home setting and economic pressures for mobility. Several participants in our study are first-generation immigrants from Mexico; many others in our study have moved frequently within Austin, within Texas, or across the United States.

In a striking example of the inconstant and tenuous living situation of some digital edge youth, Amina, a senior, told us that she moved into a new apartment with a friend because her mother was away. She helped with the security deposit, though she is not on the lease officially, since she is waiting for her mother to return home. This conversation also sheds light on how the inability to depend on a stable housing situation affects Amina’s access to technology–it is relatively low on the priority list of her needs, and since she is little more than a tentative long-term guest in this housing situation, is relatively out of her control even if she did have the money to pay for it herself.

Q: Are you staying at your friend’s house still or…?

A:  I moved into a new apartment last weekend.

Q:  Which friend is it?  [NAME REMOVED]?

A:  Huh?

Q:  Is it [NAME REMOVED] and all of them?  Is that who you’re staying with?

A:  Oh, no.  My friend, [NAME REMOVED] she doesn’t go to school anymore.  She goes to ACC (Austin Community College).  So, like, she got her own apartment, moved out of her mom’s…  It’s, like, really nice, we live in, like, [REMOVED]

Q:  Oh wow.  So you’re paying rent then?

 A:  Yes.

Q:  Are you on the lease?

A:  Huh?

Q:  Are you on the lease?

A:  No.  I’m there until my mom gets back.  I didn’t really help her with rent but I just helped her with–whatever they call the–

Q:  Utilities?

A:  No.  Her entrance fee.  Like–

Q:  Oh.  Security deposit.

A:  Yes.  Her deposit.  I just gave them the deposit and that’s it.  Like, she’s still paying rent and everything.

Q:  So do they pay for it with the money you get from [REMOVED]?

A:  Yes.

When we asked about Amina’s home access to internet, she said she had none. Her roommate at this new apartment wouldn’t get it installed, and Amina, not being on the lease and with no permanent time frame, felt that she had no leverage to ask for it, even if she could afford to pay for it herself.

Amina found herself at Freeway High School after a series of long-distance moves. Her family is from Ethiopia, where she spent significant time, then most recently in New York, and finally the Austin area. In another interview, Amina seemed downtrodden — she related how her mother’s unemployment ran out, and that they are now relying on WIC vouchers and currently applying for government assistance, but that they only have money to get through the current month’s living expenses, and no more. Later on in the year, Amina found herself back living with her mother. This is sort of complicated and inconsistent home situation, its changes over time, and its concordant effects on technology access, is illustrative of the way youth on the “digital edge” negotiate barriers in their daily lives, and the richness of this account might be missed had we relied on quantitative data alone.

Armed with this rich picture, we began to make connections to the programs and offerings at Freeway High. The abundance of good quantitative data about our school, our district, and our local community  paints a bleak picture for students of Freeway High. Indeed, as we found through our interactions with Amina, youth at Freeway face many obstacles that students from more resourced backgrounds do not. However, were we only to rely on quantitative data, we might miss something interesting we also found in the course of our year at Freeway: Instead of viewing it as a “low-performing” school that was “economically disadvantaged,” we began to understand, at least for Amina, how the consistency of the school setting, the resources available there, and Amina’s good relationships with her teachers actually acted as a source of stability in her life.

Ultimately, though the quantitative “big picture” may be somewhat bleak, ethnographic method, through long time on task and nuanced longitudinal qualitative data gathering, can allow us the on-the-ground specificity that is necessary to understand the lived experience and contours of our young learners’ lives, especially important for students in the “suburban poor”—and how, hopefully, how to possibly create better learning environments that heed the lived reality of students in these settings.


This post originally appeared in Ethnography Matters’ special issue on Ethnography in Education.