Ethnographic research retrospectively

In autumn 2013 the Learnmix team carried out an ethnographic study in Estonian schools. As we have rather limited resources in our hands, we implemented a rapid and focused ethnography study in the following Estonian schools:

1. Tallinn Secondary Science School (3rd grade math; 9th grade geography; 7th grade geography; 5th grade English; 6th grade English)

2. Tallinn Central Russian Gymnasium (5th grade math; 6th grade math lesson; 5th grade informatics; 4th grade Estonian; 2nd grade Russian; 10th grade English

3. Tallinn English College (1st grade math lesson)

4. Tallinn Pelgulin Gymnasium (12th grade biology; 11th grade biology)

5. Kiili Gymnasium (12th grade history; 12th grade society studies)

Our ethnographic research tried to capture patterns of use and role of digital artifacts in current teaching and learning practices in order to provide food for thought to re-conceptualise e-textbooks. Throughout our school visits we collected an extensive body of data via observations, photo shooting and notes. After every school visit the research team carried out sense-making sessions for developing concept maps and transcriptions of the visits.

We all have experienced that nowadays various tools and services allow us to take control over what we are doing. Despite of the fact that schools are using tablets and different applications we can still witness the situation, where a teacher controls, dictates and organises learning experiences and knowledge building. For instance the following graphic illustrates the current situation in schools quite well.

Screen Shot 2014-04-14 at 12.23.18

The sliders on the graphic show who controls what. The more they are pushed to the right, the more the component is controlled by a teacher.

Based on our ethnographic research we can claim that lack of technology in schools is not the reason for not implementing it more extensively and creatively. The dominating teaching approaches are still rather traditional, in which technology is taken just as another medium to replace paper, pencil and blackboard.  It doesn’t add any value to a lesson, in which a student is asked to solve a math assignment in teacher’s computer, which is projected to the screen for everybody to watch. A blackboard served that purpose rather well.

In addition we implemented Gagne 9 instructional events (gaining attention, stating the objective, stimulating recall of prior learning, presenting the stimulus, providing learning guidance, eliciting performance, providing feedback, assessing performance, enhancing retention and transfer to other contexts) to our data set. We were interested in which instructional event is supported by digital artefacts and technology. The data analysis showed that technology is extensively used by a teacher to recall prior learning, present new information and students were mainly using technology to perform a concrete task with a concrete application or program.

To conclude, our ethnographic study showed that technology is in schools, but often implemented in a way that teachers control and dictate putting students in a passive receiver’s role.

Going digital – e-textbook research directions

We are in the middle of carrying out a literature review on e-textbooks in K-12 education. Although the project is still work in progress, we have been able to identify some visible research directions in the field.

It is very apparent that cost of textbooks seems to be one of the main issues while considering e-textbook implementation in K-12 education. It is commonly believed that the cost for e-textbooks is going to be much lower. Currently there are many indications that e-textbook is following “an e-book model” i.e. digitisation of printed textbooks’ content. This kind of mere digital re-production of formally printed textbooks allows for the continuation of educational practices that had developed around printed texts. This has resulted in another prominent strand in the field of e-textbook research, which is related to students’ experiences, perceptions and performance with e-textbooks. The findings are mixed and don’t show clear indications that one is better than the other one.

Nevertheless, e-textbooks in their current form have not made a proper entrance into K-12 education. Perhaps, the continuous attempt to replace printed textbooks with their digital copies – without rethinking the educational practices that underpin the use of these resources – is one of the important reasons. Our literature review has produced so far only a small number of contributions that attempt to re-conceptualise the e-textbook altogether. We can point out open(-access) e-textbooks initiatives. This type of e-textbook approach is a step further in the overall e-textbook evolution in an economical and pedagogical sense. They emphasise a crowd-based co-authoring approach and the formation of a community enabling any- one to contribute and modify the textbook (Väljataga & Fiedler, in press).

In addition, we have found some visionaries, for instance Warlick, who has pondered already in 2006: “…Think for a minute about learning environments where one of the jobs of the student is to research, select, collect, organise, and adapt content from various re- sources and assemble that information into a growing and evolving digital textbook, supervised both directly and digitally by the teacher. The student’s textbook would be crafted for his or her learning style, special interests, and personal sense of visual preference. Teachers would monitor their students’ textbooks by suggesting addition- al resources, questioning others, and supporting the ongoing assembly” (Warlick, 2006, p. 29). From this perspective the next generation e-textbooks will become information artefacts that need to be explored and co-created, rather than a road to be walked…

More information about the literature review can be found here: Väljataga, T. & Fiedler, S.H.D. (in press). Going digital: literature review on e-textbooks. Will be presented at HCI International 2014 Conference, sub-conference: 1st International Conference on Learning and Collaboration Technologies.


Warlick, D. (2006). Textbooks of the future. It’s time the textbook industry redefined what they do and how they do it. Technology & Learning, 28-29.

Väljataga, T. & Fiedler, S.H.D. (in press). Going digital: literature review on e-textbooks. HCI International 2014 Conference, sub-conference, 1st International Conference on Learning and Collaboration Technologies.

“Future classroom” conference retrospectively

The Tulevikuklass conference brought together more than 100 participants from different fields: teachers, school principals, HITSA people, researchers, publishers, IT companies. 4 demo lessons demonstrated that there are interesting scenarios, which change the roles of teachers and students, allow meaningful ways to use technology for learning and teaching, make lessons interesting and motivating.

The following panel- discussion was a good starting point for bringing together different stakeholders. The participants, despite of their fields, showed willingness and motivation to engage in school developments and improve education. The participants realised that in order to bring in innovation in schools we have to start dialogues between different stakeholders and work together. We hope that this event created a solid basis for further discussions and collaborations.


Learnmix in a math textbook research seminar

The Learnmix project was invited to a math textbook research seminar. On December 5th Terje was presenting the Learnmix project and its ideas to researchers of math textbooks. This two-day research seminar brought together researchers from Norway, Sweden, Finland, Island, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The main research focus of this group is on textbook content, level of difficulties, cultural differences, etc. However, the presentation “Going digital: reconceptualising textbooks” presented some forthcoming challenges in the midst of digital transformation in education in general and reconceptualising textbooks in particular. We would definitely keep an eye on their research to understand the importance of content in textbooks.

Thanks a lot for the invitation!

“A future classroom” conference

Tallinn University and Association of Information Technology and Telecommunications are going to organise a future classroom conference on October 28th at  Tallinn University premises, Uus-Sadama 5, room M218. The conference is titled as Technology, Innovation and Future Classrooms: The Role of ICT Enterprises in Educational Innovations. 

The main goal of the conference is to involve ICT enterprises, publishers, Ministry of Education, schools and universities in discussions about the meaning of learning and teaching in the digital era and its requirements for learning and teaching strategies, materials and outcomes.

The conference language is going to be  Estonian, however, there are two presentations in English, by researchers from Sweden and Denmark.


In the middle of school visits

As soon as schools got into their everyday schedule, Learnmix project team started with their school visits. The purpose is to continue visiting schools and different lessons to get an idea of how and what technology is used in classrooms. The collected information and knowledge will be used to develop a new concept of an e-textbook. We have visited already Kiili Gümnaasium (12th grade history lessons), Pelgulinna Gümnaasium (11th and 12th grade biology lessons), Tallinn Reaalkool (5th and 6th grade English lessons and 7th and 9th grade geography lessons). We are planning to visit also Inglise Kolledz, Lilleküla Gümnaasium and Tallinn Kesklinna Vene Gümnaasium. Looking forward to participate in some interesting lessons.

Presenting Learnmix project in a seminar “Digital heritage in digital books”

Last week, Mart Laanpere introduced Learnmix project in a Tallinn University’s seminar “Digital heritage in digital books”. The purpose of the seminar was to gather people from the university and outside to discuss about digital heritage and opportunities for learning. This was the first gathering for the series of seminars about digital heritage initiated by Baltic Film and Media School.


In search for appropriate methodological approaches

Currently we are analysing our collected data from the initial school visits and reflecting on our own activities as researchers and ethnographers. An ethnographic study is usually a long, time-consuming process, but due to the significant time pressures and a small budget we have to choose the most reasonable way to go about our ethnographic approach. Thus, we are exploring ways to combine different interdisciplinary ethnographic approaches (HCI, sociology, anthropology). The features from a rapid (Millen, 2000) and a focused (Knoblauch, 2005) ethnography seem promising to be combined.

The rapid focused ethnography restricts itself to concrete elements of observed culture being theoretically defined and derived by research questions. The entities studied “are not necessarily groups, organisations or milieus but rather situations, interactions and activities, i.e. the situative performance of social actions” (Knoblauch, 2005, p.8). We also have to take into account that the “place” of our ethnographic practice is expanded across internet (Horst et al. 2012) by connecting online and locality-based realities where online and offline boundaries are blurred.

The main methodological features of our rapid focused ethnography are currently the following (according to Millen (2000) and Knoblauch (2005)):
– narrow focus of the field to observe
– short-term field visits in various intervals
– multiple observation techniques and intensive data collection/analysis
– researcher as a field-observer as opposed to a participant
– data session groups among participating researchers for creating concept maps and causal scenario models from the collected data
– background knowledge collection relevant for understanding the practices
– finding informants for defining the most suitable sampling

Due to the pluralisation of school contexts our ethnographic study will consist of multiple sites, which allow us to trace inherently fragmented and multiply situated research objects across different contexts (Nadal & Maeder, 2005). These sites will be initially determined by our theoretical reflections. Although multi-sited approach is comparative in nature (Nadal & Maeder, 2005), we don’t aim to compare different sites, but rather synthesise gathered information.

Ogbu (1981) has pointed out that “school ethnography should be holistic, it should show how education is linked with the economy, the political system, local social structure, and the belief system of the people served by the schools” (p.6). Unfortunately our resources are limited and we are not able to study the phenomenon under investigation thoroughly outside school boundaries. However, we acknowledge that artifact ecologies, learning and interaction happen also outside of school, which might be discontinuous with those of the classroom setting and that knowledge gained from other cultures can further elucidate classroom events and can be useful in improving classroom practice. By interviewing educational technologists, school principals, stakeholders from the Ministry of Education we try to understand various societal forces, including beliefs and ideologies of the larger society and their influence on the behaviors of participants in the schools.


Horst, H., Hjorth L., & Tacchi, J. (2012). Rethinking ethnography: An introduction. Media International Australia, 145, 86-94.

Knoblauch, H. (2005). Focused ethnography. Forum: Qualitative social research 6(3), 1-10.

Millen, D.R. (2000). Rapid ethnography: Time deepening strategies for HCI field research. 280-286

Nadai, E. & Maeder, C. (2005). Fuzzy fields. Multi-sited ethnography in sociological research. Forum: qualitative social research 6(3), 1-13.

Ogbu, J.U. (1981). School ethnography: A multilevel approach. Anthropology & Education Quarterly 12(1), 3-29

First school visits

In May we had a great chance to visit some of the schools, observe lessons and pilot our research methodology. We visited Tallinna Inglise Kolledz 1st grade math lesson, Tallinna Reaalkool 3rd grade math lesson and Tallinna Kesklinna Vene Gümnaasium 5th grade math lesson.

Inglise kolledz

These lessons were built up in a way that learners had to practice their math skills with iPads and laptops. It was obvious that they were very excited about this option and used technology with great interest. These visits gave us the first impression of how to design a lesson with technology, how is it currently done and what is the overall situation in schools. Thank you very much for learners, teachers and educational technologists for hosting us! We so much hope that we can continue our collaboration in autumn.

Photo by Arman: Ilya and Terje taking notes in Inglise Kolledz while trying to solve 1st grade math problems with iPads.


Mart Laanpere, the head of the Centre for Educational Technology and one of the project members has published a few articles in our local newspaper Õpetajate leht. These articles talk about the vision of e-textbooks and technological solutions in schools. They give a nice hint regarding the direction we are planning to move on with our LEARNMIX project.

Although they are in Estonian I present them here:

Igale õpilasele oma arvuti (Own computer for every learner)

Haridustehnoloogia ja reformpedagoogika (Educational technology and reform pedagogy)

E-õpik (E-textbook)