Ethnography in Learning

Ethnographic research is a qualitative research study/method that involves observing participants in their real-time environment while focusing on the ‘why’ and ‘how’. Ethnography has remained one of the most important anthropological tools that add a lot of value when the researchers want to gain a deeper understanding of a problem or the people around it. In recent times, ethnography has been identified as a decisive aspect of achieving user-centred design, as it throws more light on the audience and the context in which any product or service is used.

When researchers successfully understand the audience in their typical environment, they are able to identify/understand the usability of the product or service from a much more specific and cultural context. An ethnography based qualitative research is used to understand/obtain insight into people’s culture, issues, attitudes, behaviours, expectations, values, motivations, and goals. Ethnographic research commonly yields personas that allow the researchers/designers to think from the audiences’ perspective and sets the foundation for some quantitative studies.

A strong investigative tool, ethnographic research also can be applied to ‘learning and development’, because the mode of delivering a learning solution can be determined only if the learning designer has an acute understanding of the audience’s environment, needs, skillset, training gaps, immediacy of the learning need and the intended overall behaviour impact triggered by the learning solution.

Ethnography is typically a detailed, long-term study and is not widely preferred within the domain of learning design. However, you can perform a carefully structured ethnographic research in a matter of days/weeks. This is called ‘Rapid Ethnography’.

Apropos of learning design, ethnography contributes to the:

  • understanding of the audience’s challenges
  • mapping challenges to learning needs
  • measuring the effectiveness of existing learning solution
  • gauging the impact it had/would have on the audience
  • identifying the best modality to deliver the learning solution, and
  • structuring the learning material

Learning solutions are generally identified as classroom training sessions, e-learning, blended learning and flipped classroom sessions.

Why and how is ethnography used?

Ethnography is not conducted with a definite outcome in mind. Although, under specific conditions, researchers can confine the scope of the research based on their needs. Ethnography can be ideally performed at the beginning of a project, using one or more of the listed ways:

  • Non-participant observation
  • Participant observation
  • Interviews
  • Focus groups
  • Surveys

During non-participant observation of employees, the researchers will observe activities and behaviours of participants in their working environment, while they go about doing their everyday tasks. In participant observation, researchers try to take part in the activity they observe which helps the researchers to understand the issues that arise in a particular environment and identify their source. Researchers also conduct semi-formal and formal interviews to gain better insight and more information that reinforces their understanding. If they need additional information or have to validate their observation with more concrete statements from the audience, they will conduct surveys and focus group discussions to extract as much information as possible.

The researchers will further analyse the data and collate them based on the need for training, and the levels – knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation. If more information is required, the researchers will conduct interviews with specific questions.

Let us look at the example of ethnographic research in the learning context in the forthcoming posts.

The first post is here: Ethnography for Better Learning

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