Tag Archives: OU

Quick thought on cyberethnography

If someone searches for you on the Web and comes up empty-handed, do you exist?

Mary Brandel, Computerworld.com

Fragmented mirror by ArielPSo, ethnography seems to be having somewhat of an identity crisis partially inspired by the massive migration online and the various affordances of technological data-collection techniques. Plus ça change perhaps, as Ira reminds us of the lack of consistency of ‘traditional’ ethnography (cf the oddly different “Slim’s Table” vs. “There Are No Children Here” studies from 1991/2).

So, some cast doubt on the validity of online ethnography because, well, anyone can be or say anything online can’t they? But could this not be part of identity – a distributed identity no less valid than that presented face-to-face or through techniques using Relational Frame Theory (whatever that is)?

Image: Untitled by ArielP

H809: Reading 21 Hammersley (2006) Ethnography: Problems and prospects

Some people in Second LifeI came to this paper not knowing anything about ethnography, and, while Hammersley writes clearly and gives a useful overview of the area, I get the impression that it’s one of those ‘everything-you-know-is-wrong’ topics!

We are reading this with a view to exploring the notion of ‘virtual ethnography’, which appears to be the poor sister of ‘real’ ethnography, but Hammersley’s paper shows that much current debate on ethnography is centred on working out just what ethnography is. And this reflection suggests that a redefinition taking into account the blurring boundaries between online and offline activity.

Hammersley rounds up some of the debates within and about ethnography and helpfully offers a definition that is broad enough to be representative while being succinct enough for newbies to understand:

[It is] a form of social and educational research that emphasises the importance of studying at first hand what people do and say in certain contexts. (p4).

It usually involves ‘fairly lengthy contact, through participant observation in relevant settings, and/or through relatively open-ended interviews designed to understand people’s perspectives’. Thus far, I see no great issue with applying this to participants engaged in online activities, although ‘fairly lengthy’ is a problematic term (I note that there has been a shift towards shorter studies given the changing cultures in universities).

I digress (one of the affordances of a blog is the way it allows one to think out loud. I’m writing this not as a means of sharing so much as a way of constructing my own knowledge. Sorry. 🙂  ) We H809 students have our instructions!

13.5: Ethnographic understandings of context

Hammersley describes the tension between observations made at a micro level which are held up to represent a big picture. There is this ‘holistic’ location of the thing being studied but perhaps the thing should be studies in greater detail but at a more local level (micro-ethnography). 

We then have the difficulty of determining whether context is ‘discovered or constructed’. It’s at this stage that I began to remember the discussions of deconstruction and post-modernism from my undergrad years and I also recalled the Sokal Affair. Take this point of view: ‘any attempt by an analyst to place actors and their activities in a different ‘external’, context can only be an imposition, a matter of analytic act, perhaps even an act of symbolic violence‘ [my italics]. Hammersley doesn’t endorse this view, but he does say there is a ‘grain of truth’ in it. My fellow H809 student, John Kuti, sums things up far more succinctly than I do.

13.6: Virtual context

Hammersley points out that in traditional ethnography, great emphasis is placed on ‘the researcher’s participation in, and first-hand observation of, the culture being investigated’. Internet ethnography, however, involves no face-to-face communication, collecting the data online instead. I’m not quite sure again why this is problematic, as I don’t see why physical presence is so vital. With the increasing ubiquity of powerful audio/visual communications technology, surely there is nothing inherent to f2f that wouldin itself devalue online research?*

* As a total newbie to ethnography, I’m aware that I could be in dangerous territory here. Please Prof. Ethnography, don’t hurt me!

Another difficulty of online ethnography for traditionalists is the problem of not knowing what online contributors say ‘beyond what they tell us’ [his italics]. But, as he points out, this is something of a straw man as most online interaction ‘operates in an orderly fashion’ and that ‘participants obviously display enough about themselves through their contributions to be able to understand one another’.

When I think of the amount of data that is freely-available about me online, the relationships that exist only online and the traceable interplay between my profession and recreation, I’d imagine a face-to-face interview would be redundant!

H809 begins

Back to the grindstone with the OU. With H808 put to bed, I had hoped for a less frantic run of things. Alas NUIM got in the way and I had to write up a presentation I gave in Greece a couple of years ago at the European Access Network‘s Annual Conference in gorgeous Thessaloniki.

H809 has, of course, been busily getting about its business for the last three weeks and I’ve not been able to engage as I had wanted to. The first week was OK as it was largely making ourselves familiar with the technology as well as one reading. Happily all the struggle with H808 was at least worth it as one was already au fait with FirstClass, wikis, blogs and podcasts etc.

H809 seems to based around a weekly reading, each illustrating some important aspect of research that us budding research professionals should know. The first reading, by Hiltz and Meinke, dates back to 1989 and tests the merits of using a ‘virtual classroom’ to teach Sociology. I was struck less by the outcomes of the research (both virtual and physical are pretty much the same with some benefits to one over the other here and there) than by the fact that these discussions are still taking place twenty years on. “Is elearning as effective as face-to-face learning?” is the contemporary language, but the song remains the same (especially in my institution).

Anyway, I’m on a major catch up these next few days, so expect a glut of blog entries! Another feature of this module is the expectation that we keep a blog and interact with those of others before bringing our observations back to FirstClass. H809 is a first run module, so it will be interesting if this system works. In H808, when faced with the pressures of the TMAs and the ECA, learners abandoned any optional activities very quickly, so we’ll see how this module copes!

Pesky Podcasts

podcast iconI decided to use ‘Enhanced Podcasts’ as my new technology for Core Activity 8.1 in the H808. I took an audio podcast that I made last year which was aimed at students with disabilities deciding which university to choose. These potential students often have many concerns about receiving the appropriate supports and there are some (convoluted) alternative admissions routes which need to be understood. We felt that as many of these students have issues with text, presenting some of the information in audio form might be beneficial. Similarly, we had feedback that hearing the voices of the staff potential students would be meeting was reassuring.


Since then I’ve given workshops on creating podcasts to various groups, so I felt pretty confident about my technical skills regarding audio. I was aware of enhanced podcasts, but these are not the widely-used mp3 format, but (at the time) lesser-known AAC or m4a format. This format is now supported by many popular devices (iPod, iPhone, Playstation 3, Wii, as well as phones from Nokia, Sony Ericsson and Blackberry) so I decided to revisit a podcast with a view to converting one into an enhanced podcast with images and hyperlinks.


I used Garageband, an Apple application available as part of the OSX operation system. This allowed me to import the existing recording and add chapter markers, images and URLs very easily. The images had to be imported first into iPhoto (an image management application, again native to the Mac). These could be accessed then from within Garageband, along with other media such as sound effects or other audio items.


Non-Mac users are not well served when it comes to creating enhanced podcasts but it can be done. Jake Ludington gives a tutorial using Windows Media Player.


I appreciate (see below) that not everyone will readily be able to listen/view the podcast attached, but iTunes is a free download, Miro works well and VLC claims to. Feedback on the technical issues would be welcome.




Key features


  1. Ability to augment audio with appropriate images. This could be useful to display an image of a person or item being discussed. Diagrams or screenshots could also be included, or just an image with text (e.g. a URL). Institutions may welcome the ability to include logos or other branding. Images are also very useful for visual learners, some people with disabilities or younger listeners.
  2. Hyperlinks can be embedded. If a listener is playing the podcast on a device with a web connection, they could be directed to sites with hyperlinks embedded in the podcast at appropriate times.
  3. Chapter markers. Longer podcasts can be organised into chapters and these can be given meaningful titles.
  4. Format more widespread. While not as pervasive as mp3, the AAC/m4a format can now be played on a very wide range of popular devices (all Apple players, Sony Playstation 3, Nintendo Wii, Nokia N-series and most Sony Ericsson phones, Blackberry, Creative Zen players etc). Free cross-platform media players such as VLC and Miro claim to be able to handle enhanced podcasts (although I (surprisingly) had problems with VLC).
  5. All of the benefits of audio-only podcasts.


Potential issues


  1. Software. As mentioned above, it is relatively easy to create an enhanced podcast if you have access to a Mac. The process is more convoluted if using Windows or Linux.
  2. Time and effort. The process of choosing appropriate images, resizing, ensuring that the correct balance between size of image and clarity of image is achieved, deciding and creating chapter markers, including hyperlinks, compressing and exporting and testing – these all have to considered and undertaking with an enhanced podcast.
  3. Access. While AAC/m4a is supported by a wide range of devices and applications, it could not be considered a standard in the way that mp3 could be.
  4. All of the limitations of podcasts (unsuitable for those with hearing impairments, limited bandwidth, slow connections, older equipment)