In the context of teaching about digital media—in graduate and undergraduate courses such as New Media and Global Affairs, Technology and the City, Innovation and Design and Everyday Experience at The New School—I have also been able to teach through digital media, employing listservs and blogs, requiring digital photos, videos and presentations and encouraging students to use online tools for data analysis. Currently, I teach in the Design and Management program in the School of Design Strategies at Parsons and in the Media Studies program in the School of General Studies at The New School. While the majority of my teaching since 2007 has been in the classroom, supported by digital media, some of my teaching has been in online settings using platforms such as Blackboard and Wiggio and even the 3D virtual world Second Life. In this essay, I will discuss the role of digital media in conducting, analyzing and documenting ethnographic research, which is a method that I teach in many of my courses.
By integrating the use of digital media into courses about design, technology and innovation, it is possible to bring to life the opportunities and constraints introduced by these tools. Specifically, design students are expected to understand the utility, significance and affordances (Gibson; Heskett; Norman) of designed objects, and graduate students in media studies are steeped in theories about the social construction of technology (Bijker, Hughes and Pinch). Yet, teaching students about digital media is not sufficient to train them as critical practitioners rather than merely “users” of technology. It is only with in-depth and personal investigations and experiences with digital media that students develop their own technological point of view. Thus, repeated exposure to the ways in which digital media can expand learning as well as examples of its limitations are useful in teaching students to be more engaged in debates about these tools both inside as well as outside of the classroom.
In my graduate-level classes, I set up listservs via Google Groups in order to provide a forum for discussion throughout the week. While students are encouraged to post at least one article per week on the subject of the week’s discussion, many students post more articles and responses and continue active discussions throughout the semester. The listserv is also an important site for course announcements, readings and links to online materials. It acts as a venue for building a community around the course. For example, I have had many students urge me to maintain the listserv beyond the end of the course since they viewed it as a valuable forum for ideas and opportunities. The integration of the listserv allows for a blended learning approach, which combines both face-to-face and mediated environments. Similarly, for my online students I seek opportunities where they might be able to meet in a face-to-face setting in addition to offering to hold office hours by phone and in person. In Fall 2009, a number of my online students attended the “Toward the Sentient City” exhibition at The Architectural League of New York, where one of my projects, Breakout! Escape from the Office, was featured. Meeting online students face-to-face is important for the development of more meaningful connections with students, in addition to providing a face to go with the name.
On several occasions, when learning about telecommuting and sustainability in Fall 2007, I attempted to use Second Life with some difficulty. In this case, students would come to class with their laptops, create an avatar and attempt to navigate to the same “island” within the virtual environment. Undergraduate students reacted to this exercise with hesitation, mainly because they found the virtual environment to be “creepy” Despite having grown up with a wide range of digital media, Second Life felt like a very unsafe space to the students (the majority of whom were female) and they were unable to understand the commercial application of such platforms for supporting distributed collaborative work. Furthermore, bandwidth limitations and processing speed restrictions caused the program to crash quite often, which was unproductive and defeated the purpose of the in-class exercise.
When teaching with digital media, it is important to understand ethical dimensions such as the technological and individual realities of the students, which may vary from person to person. For example, while many students at private educational institutions such as Parsons arrive with powerful laptops of the latest variety along with a range of other digital devices such as cameras, phones, video cameras and, perhaps, even iPads, teachers need to be aware that not all students have easy access to these tools due to their individual financial situations. Thus, it is important to consider both high-tech as well as low-tech ways of completing successful assignments. Furthermore, while some students have a high level of digital literacy and experience with sophisticated ways of using digital tools, others are less able to create such impressive work digitally, and this should not be held against them when it comes to evaluating their ideas and grading their work. By allowing for some flexibility, we can enable students to choose the best ways to complete their assignments.
Finally, while there is a heavy emphasis on teamwork and collaboration that can be supported with digital media, especially in design curriculums, it is important to maintain the balance between individual contributions and group work. Students often have difficulty finding a common time to meet in-person for projects due to conflicting schedules, which are weighed down by multiple internships and a heavy course load. In this way, digital media such as Skype, e-mail, Google Docs may be helpful in coordinating group activities. In fact, a student assessment of the ways in which digital media were used in collaboration, featured as a built-in part of assignments, would be helpful in raising student awareness about the inherent opportunities and constraints posed by these tools. However, it is important to keep in mind that while an emphasis on collaboration is still important, students want to develop their own contributions, ideas and projects. Sometimes an overly strong focus on collaboration through digital media may hinder a student’s ability to develop their own thoughts, arguments, data and sense of their own intellect, ownership and responsibility for their work.
In the context of teaching ethnographic research, I have employed a variety of digital tools such as digital cameras in order to document fieldwork through photo and video. Ethnographic research has a long history of drawing on images and film in order to document cultural practices around the world (Plowman). In my courses, students observe the relationships between people, technologies and the built environment (Stilgoe) in urban settings. Taking field notes, I have experimented with the technique of using Twitter to document observations; there are also several iPhone applications for this purpose. While it has become easier and easier to gather digital photos and video, it is still relatively difficult to publish these materials as many of the top peer-reviewed social science journals do not accept them. In order to make use of photos in presentations, it is important to have ways of organizing, storing and sharing them. While it is possible to organize photos using iPhoto, digital media such as Flickr, yousendit and drop.io are helpful for sharing them with the public or with a specific group.
Yet, even with comprehensive documentation of the physical world, it is not enough to limit one’s study to data that can be observed with the naked eye. As a result, it is necessary to employ additional digital tools in order to gather the kinds of data that cannot be readily observed. These include online traces of digital links as well as electromagnetic frequencies that exist in specific locals. Virtual ethnography (Leonard and Rayport), network ethnography (Leonard and Rayport; Howard) and trace ethnography (Geiger) are methods that enable new kinds of data to be studied. For example, GovCom’s IssueCrawler tool allows students to visualize the network of a particular issue or topic by analyzing the links between various websites. For example, a student interested in sustainability could generate a list of the top sites likely to be important in the field of sustainability and upload them to the IssueCrawler. By analyzing the in-links and out-links from the original sites, the IssueCrawler will generate a visual representation of the topic including the hubs, connectors and outliers. In addition, spectrum analysis is an interesting way to generate a different way of understanding the space in which ethnographic fieldwork is being conducted. By using a spectrum analyzer, a relatively inexpensive device that plugs into a computer’s USB port, it is possible to see the activity on surrounding Wi-Fi networks as well as to see whether they are encrypted or open. Spectrum analysis may be used to understand human patterns that are occurring in the space, which otherwise would go unnoticed or be misunderstood.
Finally, when presenting ethnographic research, it is important to use storytelling to combine field notes, images, video and other artifacts. Most students use PowerPoint or Keynote to present their findings; however, recently, several other tools such as Prezi which allows for a more dynamic and visual rearranging of pathways through text and images, have caught the attention of teachers and students alike. PowerPoint has been berated for its aesthetic failings (Tufte) and even blamed for bad decisions and disasters such as the Iraq war and Columbia space shuttle accident. Yet, at the same time, it has been used effectively for the purpose of communicating, demonstrating and selling ideas in part due to the ways in which digital images and videos can be integrated into the performance of the presentation (Stark and Paravel). Other compelling formats for the presentation of ethnographic findings include interactive pdfs using Adobe Photoshop, photo slideshows, and short three-minute videos.
In this section, I will discuss the pros and cons of teaching, learning and conducting ethnographic research using digital media such as digital cameras and presenting ethnographic data using digital presentation tools such as PowerPoint, Keynote, Adobe Photoshop, photo slideshows and videos as well as analytic tools such as IssueCrawler and spectrum analyzers. First, the incorporation of digital media into the process of ethnographic observation can introduce new challenges and distractions while at the same time greatly increasing the amount of data that can be collected. For example, students may be distracted by learning to use new functions on their mobile phones to record photos and videos as well as the urge to talk to their friends, send text messages, check their e-mail and browse the Internet instead of focusing on the observation. While some students claim that they are unable to find anything of interest to observe and document, others return with impressive new insights about the world. The pervasive nature of digital media and the Internet as it expands throughout our physical environments can make it difficult for students to unplug and observe the world around them for the purposes of ethnographic fieldwork.
At the same time, digital media offer new ways of gathering, analyzing and presenting knowledge gained from ethnographic observations. In terms of presenting ethnographic data, students are often slaves to the presentation formats that are prescribed by tools such as PowerPoint, which suggest that presentations should follow specific order, layouts and storyboards. While flexible and adaptable to some degree, students feel pressured to use PowerPoint as it is supposed to be used. Perhaps they have seen their colleagues, faculty or managers give presentations that follow these preformed ways of presenting. When it comes to presenting ethnographic research, however, the key factor in communicating knowledge gleaned from observation is the ability to be a good storyteller, often by translating the element of surprise a keen observer might experience in the field. Surprise is important because it typically indicates that the researcher has captured something unexpected or counterintuitive about human behavior. However, by overly relying on slides to organize and tell the story, students risk giving away too much detail, and, possibly, in the wrong order and thereby devaluing the gems and insights that they have discovered during their fieldwork.
For example, students assume that PowerPoint presentations must begin with a title slide, a background slide and perhaps a slide with a title and an image. Yet, some of the most effective presentations of ethnographic research that I have seen relied merely on a rolling slideshow of images without any text, or minimal text indicating the time, place and location that the images were taken. This leaves the storytelling in the hands of the presenter and insures they do not get bogged down with linear sequences of text on slides. Scanned images of field notes can also be valuable in communicating the authenticity of the research process.
More recently, I have assigned students to work in three-minute videos despite the fact that I do not teach courses about media production. While students have been quite resistant to this format, fearing that they do not have the skills to work in video, they have created poignant and funny clips, which have further enhanced their storytelling abilities. While students sometimes struggle with learning new formats and handling large quantities of data such as images and video, digital media have much to offer with respect to bringing ethnographic observations to life in the classroom.
In several of my undergraduate courses, including “Design and Everyday Experience” and “Introduction to Design and Management” (as well as the Summer Intensive Studies version of this course), I assign ethnographic observations that range from two to eight hours in length. Generating observational data is important for students because it is a way to underscore the value of each student’s unique point of view and knowledge about the world. After all, with each observation, they are creating new learning about the world that cannot be found merely by reading books or trusting the opinions of teachers, journalists and scholars. As such, this assignment helps students to develop a sense of ownership over their own findings and knowledge that cannot be recreated or taken away from them. In these assignments, digital media are used to document, analyze and present ethnographic findings.
In one particular assignment, students were asked to stand on a corner taking field notes, photos and/or video in order to observe patterns such as temporal and spatial variations, global and local activities, individual and community activities, private and public activities including privacy and surveillance, socio-economic factors and demographics around topics such as consumption patterns, media and technology use, architecture and the built environment and social norms, regulations and policies. Over the years, I have learned to give specific guidelines for the type of field notes and the number of photos and artifacts that students are required to collect during the observation. For example, during a two-hour observation, students should expect to take five pages of detailed notes (indicating the date, time and location along with descriptions of their observations), 150-200 photos and/or short video clips and collect one material artifact.
Despite considerable complaints from students about the in-depth nature of the assignment, in particular from those that had been assigned the eight-hour observations, those that persevered generated impressive results when it came to presenting their work. For example, one team from the summer intensive course spent a week conducting observations about bicycle culture in New York by attending meetings of fixed gear bicyclists and visiting and observing traffic in bike lanes in Manhattan and Brooklyn. The team displayed their findings in a series of slides using Adobe Photoshop rather than Keynote or PowerPoint; however, while aesthetically more sophisticated, the functionality for presentation purposes was similar in terms of a linear series of text, images, diagrams (including an IssueCrawler analysis of bicycle culture and sustainability) and sketches. One of the most effective and interesting strategies that this team used was to display a large quantity of photos from their ethnographic fieldwork; on the left hand side of the slide, a close up of 16 images, and, on the right hand side, thumbnails of over 150 photos. This was a compelling way to present the data because they emphasized the extensive nature of their documentation in a single slide.
Brendon Duvall and Anders Thøgersen, “Bicycling in NYC,” Summer Intensive Studies: Introduction to Design and Management, Summer 2007[AC1] .
Another student used video to illustrate the umbrella patterns that he observed from a window above the 5th Avenue and 14th Street intersection over an eight-hour period on a rainy day. By speeding up the video, it was possible to bring to life patterns around space, color and social norms that would have been impossible to document merely with the naked eye. Using my own ethnographic work as a model that includes myriad ways of incorporating digital media into the research process, my students have developed innovative approaches to their own projects, which have revealed important ways of seeing people, technologies and the built environments of the cities that they inhabit.
Bijker, Wiebe E., Thomas P. Hughes, and Trevor Pinch. The Social Construction of Technological Systems. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987.
Geiger, R. Stuart. “The Work of Sustaining Order in Wikipedia: The Banning of a Vandal.” Computer Supported Cooperative Work. Ed.: ACM.
Gibson, J. J. “The Theory of Affordances.” Perceiving, Acting and Knowing. Eds. R. Shaw and J. Bransford. vols. New York: Wiley, 1977. 67-82.
Heskett, John. Design: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Howard, P. “Network Ethnography and the Hypermedia Organization: New Media, New Organizations, New Methods.” New Media & Society 4.4 (2002): 550.
Leonard, Dorothy, and Jeffrey F. Rayport. “Sparking Innovation through Empathic Design.” Harvard Business Review. November-December (1997): 102-13.
Norman, Donald A. The Design of Everyday Things. New York: Doubleday, 1990.
Plowman, Tim. “Ethnography and Critical Design Practice.” Design Research: Methods and Perspectives. Ed. Brenda Laurel. vols. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003.
Stark, David, and Verena Paravel. “PowerPoint in Public: Digital Technologies and the New Morphology of Demonstration.” Theory, Culture & Society 25.5 (2008): 30-55.
Stilgoe, John. Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places. New York: Walker Publishing Company, Inc., 1998.
Tufte, Edward R. The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching out Corrupts Within. <http://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/powerpoint>.
 Syllabi for these courses can be downloaded from <http://www.lauraforlano.org>.
 See <http://www.sentientcity.net/exhibit/>.
 See <http://archleague.org/>.
 See <http://www.sentientcity.net/exhibit/?p=53/>.
 See <http://www.govcom.org/>.
 See <https://www.issuecrawler.net/>.
 See <http://prezi.com/>.