Module 1: Using an Ethnographic Approach

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And for case study in this section, we have Professor Sahana Murthy, who teaches in the
Interdisciplinary Program in Education Technology at IIT Bombay. Professor Murthy's focus has
been on exploring how learning can be enhanced through the use of technology.

Towards this, she and her team have been designing, implementing, and evaluating different
kinds of learning systems in the engineering and science disciplines. Many of her students and
colleagues have explored different forms of research to understand how people learn, how they
solve problems, and how they make sense of complex phenomena. They have also employed
ethnographic methods for this.
Professor Murthy will share with us one such project in which her students use Cognitive
Ethnography to learn how scientists solve a hypothetical problem. Sounds intriguing, does not it?
Let us hear more about this from Professor Murthy.

Professor Sahana Murthy: How does cognitive ethnography compare with traditional
ethnography? How is it similar, and how is it different?
(Refer Slide Time: 01:18)

Cognitive ethnography is rooted in the practices of traditional ethnography. It employs some of
the traditional ethnographic methods such as participant observation, interviewing, artefact
analysis, and so on.
(Refer Slide Time: 01:31)

The goals, the broad goals at least, are to understand a cultural group or a community of practice
and to build a knowledge base, which is then used to understand certain specific episodes of
activity, and all this happens in real-world settings.
Cognitive ethnography extends and sometimes even deviates from traditional ethnography in a
couple of ways. One is in the usage of media to record and interpret and analyze the data. While
field observations are used similar to the traditional methods, digital media such as recorders,
film, screen-captures, these are very common in cognitive ethnography.
One is because of their wide availability and usage these days. And secondly, these media afford
interpreting a particular episode from multiple perspectives.
(Refer Slide Time: 02:30)

Another difference is in the purpose of cognitive ethnography, which is how people create
meanings, how people use various resources in their activities. And this is slightly different from
the traditional ethnographic purpose in the sense, it is not only about, or it is not about what
people do and trying to understand why people do it but the process underlying their activities,
the 'how' part of it.
In order to go a little deeper into the methods and tools for engaging with participants, for
recording and representing of data, for interpreting and analyzing data, let us look at a specific

(Refer Slide Time: 03:16)

The specific thinking skill that we wanted to focus on in this project is what is called
Engineering Estimation. Estimation is an ill-structured problem, not all information is known,
yet the engineer or the engineering student has to solve this problem using various principles,
and using various techniques.
(Refer Slide Time: 03:33)

Expert engineers routinely solve such problems. They use it to select certain materials for design;
sometimes, preliminary design estimates are made using this method. Estimation is used to

determine the feasibility of a certain solution or to eliminate certain candidate solution, so it is a
very, it is a wide practice that experts do.
(Refer Slide Time: 03:56)

So given this context, the goals of our research was to develop an understanding of estimation
problem-solving processes, and what I mean by understanding here is the cognitive processes as
well as the resources people use, the various strategies, and so on.
(Refer Slide Time: 04:14)

The project is based on the PhD thesis of my former student, Dr Aditi Kothiyal. So, our solution
approach had various stages, various iterations like any research project, and cognitive
ethnography appeared early on here. After some preliminary literature survey, we got some
conjectures about how people do estimation, but there is really not much knowledge about it.
(Refer Slide Time: 04:42)

So, we used this method to study experts, to understand their processes of engineering
estimation; that is to identify and characterize authentic expert practice.
(Refer Slide Time: 04:59)

Our guiding research questions were what are the practices that experts use while doing
estimation and what cognitive processes lead to good estimates; and by good, some sort of order
of magnitude good estimates by these experts. So this were, these were our questions.
And for this, we chose two experts. These were experienced engineers. They had several years of
experience, both in industry and academia. And we gave them three problems to solve each three
estimation problems. Now, why did not we do this? Why did we choose such a setting and so
So it turns out that if we want to understand how experts do something, they are really good at it.
And if we go and ask them, "hey, how do you do it?" We ask them the question, how do you do
it? We get answers which are really not that useful because of what is called expert blind spot
sometimes. It is very hard to reflect on one's own practice, and also get at to what difficulty
students have, and so on.
(Refer Slide Time: 06:06)

So what we do in our research is we give problems, or we give tasks to experts which are
challenging for them at their level, and then we study how they do it. We, some of these studies
go on for hours, sometimes it is days, it is often in authentic settings; I will come to that. And
then we use it to reconstruct the cognitive processes of experts.
So in that sense, cognitive ethnography is a really suitable method here. The problems we gave
these experts were of the power estimation type.

(Refer Slide Time: 06:43)

So one of the interesting problems was that can a human heart power a wine opener, an electric
wine opener? We asked these experts where they wanted to solve these problems, and we did
them one by one individually, and both of them said they wanted to do it in their respective
We gave them the problem on a sheet of paper; we gave them many other sheets of paper, we
asked them to solve the problem; they could write, they could refer to anything, books, the
computer, internet; they could solve it in their natural mood, if they want it to be silent, that was
fine, if they wanted to talk that was fine.

(Refer Slide Time: 07:20)

Often, there are things on their table we saw, which are used very naturally, it might be a little
toy that they take and turn in this manner, maybe a little piece of notepaper.
(Refer Slide Time: 07:31)

So in terms of authentic practice or authentic location, the office is, in fact, a natural setting for
academics. So at an abstract level, this is true to the primary goals of ethnography of studying
people in their natural setting. In different context, different settings are natural. So this was an
important point in our method.

(Refer Slide Time: 08:03)

We recorded multiple forms and multiple types of data. There were video recordings, there were
screen capture logs, so when one of our participants went on to her laptop and looked up a lot of
things on the worldwide web, there was something that captured all her, the pages she visited,
the what she typed, and so on.
There were researchers' observations, field notes, and especially marking what could be a critical
event, and I will come to that, especially when I talk about analysis.
(Refer Slide Time: 08:33)

There were participant-generated artefacts and in this case, it was mostly what they drew or
wrote on the sheets, like the pictures you see.
(Refer Slide Time: 08:42)

So one of the persons tried to model it as a system of pulleys, the wine opener, and the heart
(Refer Slide Time: 08:50)

Sometimes they wrote equations, another person modelled it in terms of a pump. So a lot of the
drawings were the artefacts that we captured.
(Refer Slide Time: 08:59)

And then we did what is called stimulated recall interviews. So these are interviews with
participants on why they did what they did, but we did not interrupt them, these were
retrospective in nature.
So after they finished solving the problem, it was anywhere between one and a half to two and a
half hours, we showed them some of the screen captures and the film, and we asked them
specific questions; what made you use this equation, what made you think of a system of pulleys
to try to probe why they did what they did.

(Refer Slide Time: 09:32)

To analyze the data, we use a method called micro-genetic analysis, and I will not get into too
many details here, it can get a little technical. We used a software called ELAN, and there are
many equivalent ones, there is Atlas.ti and a few others.
It, ELAN worked very well because we had multiple sources of data, and we could synchronize
the various data sources with the timestamp and many other things.
(Refer Slide Time: 09:58)

You can see a screenshot of one ELAN screen.
(Refer Slide Time: 10:10)

The steps that the researcher took was after getting familiar with the data; she tried to identify the
critical events, so let me give you an example here. She saw in the video that for a long time, the
participant was sort of staring off into space, not doing much, just staring.
And at one point, right after that, the participant jumped in and did a search for animations of
pumps. So there was a jump between the actions, and this was a critical event, because we
wanted to understand what triggered the pump, the idea of a pump, and we probed more there.

(Refer Slide Time: 10:45)

There were transcriptions of the data done within ELAN and after that for each participant, a
workflow, it is like a block diagram of the main critical events was created, and this is an
example that you can see.
(Refer Slide Time: 10:55)

The analysis progresses there, after that, there is identifying of the key processes, there is an
abstraction of those processes, some literature can come in at this point, and then there are some
validity checks. So this is a very careful, painstaking, and iterative process.

So what did we find? And why was ethnography so important here? There were one or two key
results from the understanding of learning perspective.
(Refer Slide Time: 11:30)

One of it was that estimation is actually a three-phase model-based reasoning process and I am
going to skip this because there is a, again, a lot of detail here. But it, this was what I would like
to say that this was something that was not known in the theory so far. An interesting finding that
we saw was in trying to understand what sort of cognitive mechanisms participants use.
(Refer Slide Time: 11:50)

So we saw that they use gestures a lot and they use diagrams a lot. And when we probed them in
their retrospective interviews, we found that what they were trying to do in their minds, was to
form a simplified version, which means they were trying to model the heart.
One participant said that the heart is a pump, and that is why she had the pump and the equations
related to it. Another participant said, look the heartbeat, so it goes back and forth.
(Refer Slide Time: 12:25)

So he uses these gesture, or sometimes these gesture. You can see that in the picture. So we
zoomed in to those screenshots, we magnified it, and we tried to understand why exactly are they
moving their hands in such a way. And we found that these gestures were, in fact, a stand-in for
the modelling that they were doing in their minds. This is also called mental simulation.
What did we conclude from this, and what were its implications? So when we started off, we had
only some broad conjectures on how estimation happens because we had some idea of how
problem-solving happens. But we had to do these several hours of recording and several dozens
of hours of analysis to understand the details, the deeper cognitive mechanisms of how experts
did estimation.

Some of our conjectures were validated, and many got new details. We also got some new
insights. For example, we found that experts use what are called meta-cognitive processes a lot;
reflection, evaluation. So they would calculate something and immediately before anybody else

could ask them anything, they would say, hey, does this make sense? So these are called meta-
cognitive processes.

There was a shift in some understanding. So, for example, we all know that domain knowledge,
disciplinary concepts are important. But why are they important and what do people use it for,
what do experts use it for?

(Refer Slide Time: 13:58)

What we found is that experts are using this knowledge to contextualize the problem into the
actual physical system. It was not that the knowledge was just being used as a set of facts of
principles, but the contextualization was where these, the deep disciplinary concepts were
playing a role.

This set of insights, this shift, and understanding was possible only because of the really minute,
detailed, and long engagement with the participants and with the multimodal data. And cognitive
ethnography is really all of this.

That was a really absorbing presentation and a new way of applying ethnographic research.
Through this course, we have discussed the purpose of ethnography as a means to understand the
meanings that participants assigned to a phenomenon. Professor Murthy's presentation takes us a
step further.

In the projects that she described, ethnography is used to understand how participants make
meaning. Even in this new domain of cognitive ethnography, we can identify some of the
fundamental principles that we have discussed. For instance, think of how the researcher
observed her participants as they thought through the problem they had been asked to address.

She observed that visible behaviour. This behaviour was quite subtle for the most part. People
thinking, people speaking to themselves, making gestures, or scribbling. It is through observing
this behaviour that she tried to understand their process of problem-solving.

This also reminds me of something we had discussed while talking about ethnographic
interviews and observations, which is the importance of paying attention to people's silences and
nonverbal expressions. Recall the moment when the participant moved from staring into space to
searching for a pump. It is these moments that became critical points for analysis for the
researcher. These were for the most part, moments of silence and nonverbal expressions.

This project shows us how such expressions can act as a window into a person's inner-most
processes of thinking. In our next section, Professor Alka Hingorani will share with us her
experiences of using ethnographic research in a participatory and collaborative way.Professor: Now, we have a presentation by Professor Alka Hingorani, who teaches at the IDC
School of Design, IIT Bombay. Professor Hingorani's area of interest includes film,
photography, storytelling, and visual narratives. She has used ethnographic research as a method
of inquiry in many of these areas.

(Refer Slide Time: 00:27)

Among these is a study of the makers of sacred mask called Mohras in the Kullu Valley in
Himachal Pradesh. In this section, she will share with us a project that she has been working on
for some time now.
(Refer Slide Time: 00:42)

It is called LETS, Learn English Through Stories; LETS. In this project, she uses an
ethnographic approach and takes it a step further towards participation and collaboration. Let us
hear about it from her.

Professor Alka Hingorani: There is a project that I am going to talk about for a little while; it is
called LETS, which is an acronym that stands for Learn English Through Stories.
(Refer Slide Time: 01:15)

It began four years ago on my visit to a tiny village at about 10,000 feet above sea level in
Himachal Pradesh. A village called Khun, and a High School, a Government Senior Secondary
High School in Khun, where a teacher approached me to say that the resources that they had at
hand, in order to teach English to the children of the school were really limited.

Their own English was limited, and an important reason for that was that it did not have much
use, it did not serve much purpose in that context. So far, even though it had been a subject that
the government imposed as part of the curriculum, they had not felt any real urge to learn or
teach it well.

But now, with access to the Internet and with smartphones that all these teachers owned, they
realised that it was possible to add interest through different pedagogical tools in a classroom by
using some of the material that was available on the web, to teach students different subjects. But
more of that material on the web is in English. To this day, I think two-thirds of the material that
is available in the web or near about is in English, and so a lack of knowledge of English became
a real barrier to learning other things.
They knew that English as a second language or English as a foreign language had been taught
forever and more, there are hundreds, tens of hundreds of pedagogies that are available on the
web for English as second language and English as foreign language. The request was to cull
from those pedagogies, those that might work for them in their context.
And that is how we began this project. It seemed like a small exercise, maybe 6 months to a year,
and we began to look at what was available.

(Refer Slide Time: 03:12)

One of the early beautiful interventions, design interventions that we came across is something
called Bookbox. This is a project run by Professor Brij Kothari, who used to be at the IIM
Ahmadabad and has now returned to the U.S., in which he used highlighted captions at the
bottom of television screens when popular programs ran on TV in order to increase reading
efficacy of the viewing audience.
So, Bookbox is a company that makes animated shorts of Pan-Indic stories, and there are
voiceovers that read that story out with highlighted captions going at the bottom of the screen.
That seemed like a wonderful idea; these were Pan-Indic stories; they belonged to us. So in some
ways, they spoke of our context is what we thought.

(Refer Slide Time: 03:56)

When we took these things back to the village in Himachal Pradesh, the young people in those
schools, of course, jumped on it. In order for us to understand the efficacy of this intervention,
we wanted to run an experiment, and we wanted both teachers and students to be responsible for
data gathering. And so we ran an artwork shop in Himachal Pradesh then.
The results of that art workshop astounded us. We had just asked them to write short stories and
illustrate them as they liked. It is not so much that they did this that surprised me; it was that I
was surprised by what they did. That surprised me.
I was not aware of the prejudices that I was carrying there. We pay lip service all the time to the
idea that everybody has potential, everybody has the capacity to convert on that potential, given
the opportunity to do so. I thought I believed it and I think most of us sincerely believe that we

(Refer Slide Time: 05:06)

And yet when we encounter it in areas that we think of as resource-constraint, we are taken
aback by that potential being expressed. I was. And so we wondered whether it would not be a
good idea to become facilitators in an exercise where the people who were learning had a greater
participation in the content that they used to learn.
And the seed of that idea began in that first artwork shop in Khun, in Himachal Pradesh. That
was our very first workshop.

(Refer Slide Time: 05:43)

And from there, we connected with schools closer home. The Gram Mangal School in Dahanu in
the village Aina was one of them.
(Refer Slide Time: 05:53)

We also collaborated with an organisation called the Agastya International Foundation, which is
based in Kuppam in Andhra Pradesh. We introduced these story gathering, storytelling
workshops, and also these art workshops with students from different schools through Agastya
International Foundation and began to create books with these young people.

(Refer Slide Time: 06:10)

Mostly these were students from Sixth to Eighth standard, and they would bring their stories to
us in their native language. So it was Varli in Dahanu, Pahadi or Hindi in Himachal Pradesh,
Telugu in Andhra, and the teachers would translate them for us into either standard Hindi,
Marathi, Telugu, or if possible, into English like a basic translation.
We would bring those stories back with us, dozens of them; select two or three that lent
themselves very easily to a sort of visual representation and return to these places in order to
hold art workshops.

(Refer Slide Time: 06:59)

There was a book designer, there was a language expert working with these young people and
when we liked somebody's drawing, say we liked a tree that someone had drawn or a monster
that another student had drawn, we would make them draw 40 trees or 400; make them draw
house, 40 houses; a monster walking backwards and forwards, a sideways look from the
monster, a straight-on, a head-on look from the monster.

(Refer Slide Time: 07:27)

And we collected all these bits and pieces that these people had made and the book designer sat
down with background illustrations, with trees and houses and monster and protagonist, and built
a book around that story.
When we took these books back to them, once they had jumped out of their skin seeing their
work in published form, they had very little to do with the book itself. Once that book was ready,
we realised two things.
One was that when we translated from their story to our story, to a story that was shared, theirs
and mine, we have worked more on the basis of someone who understood English very well. We
were not entirely aware of how limited their access to, and therefore, their comfort with English
Because we are talking about populations and places where since the language is neither heard
nor spoken, you could often meet a 12 or 14-year-old who barely knew the alphabet and could
not read at all. How do you approach a person of that age with just the alphabet? Their mind is
developed enough to understand complexity; storytelling, narrative form, is something that they
can easily grasp, and they could give you a run for your money. But language is the stumbling
And so we thought that if we could create books in which language was graded within a single
book, where we went from really simple text, small words, short sentences, in the first few
pages, to increasing the complexity of language as it went forward, perhaps the excitement to
know what the story was going to be like, would be the impulse, the driving impulse to turn the
page and struggle with language. And so that is what we began to do.
(Refer Slide Time: 09:05)

And so we split the same book into three different parts. The illustrations remained the same, but
we had an easy language, a moderately difficult language, and a difficult or complex language
It also did not make sense to have three different grades of language with exactly the same
illustration. Why would a child or a young person who already has difficulty with language
return to the same story, the same characters, the same narrative arc, with language that is
difficult? It did not make sense at all.
But these were all things that we learned as we went, we returned to these people over and over
again. They took us by our hands in some sense, walked us slowly on the path that they were
walking to showcase to us where we were stumbling. One of the ways in which this worked even
better was when, for instance, some of us tried to learn Varli, encountering a language that we
knew nothing of, which maps itself to some extent to Marathi, but not really; gave those young
people the confidence to laugh at us.
(Refer Slide Time: 10:11)

And in that laughter was the first connection that was fearless. This is the other thing that
ethnography allows you to stay with and learn. Already by this time, we are beginning to
understand how complex design can be and what are the ways in which knowing the people that
you are working with, that you are working for, and that you are working beside, can make all
the difference, both in the efficacy of design intervention and in the sustainability of design that
design change, or the change that design brings.
(Refer Slide Time: 11:12)

Through our various workshops, we realised more and more, how much less we wanted to be
present in the solution making. And so from treating these young people as assembly line

workers, drawing 40 trees or 400 houses, or 4 different ways of encountering a monster, we
began to work with them to teach them storyboarding, to teach them to visualise the stories that
they were telling us to, figure out what were dramatic moments or the key points in a story,
where does it turn and how, and to pin those down on paper.
(Refer Slide Time: 11:26)

As they worked with key moments, or dramatic moments in the story, we also worked with them
on the text-image relationship, on page design, on what they needed to do where in order to

entice the interest of the viewer who is going to look at books that they were already seeing
produced in quality or in value that sort of shocked them out of their skins.
As they worked with key moments, or dramatic moments in the story, we also worked with them
(Refer Slide Time: 11:53)

Not because they had never seen books like that, which was also sometimes the case, but they
had never seen books like that, that had their names on them. And that changed the picture
entirely. That is also when we realised that co-creation is such a powerful tool, that co-creation
implicates the learner in the learning process, through creation of content and then a study of that
content. The things that we have realised in these four years through working with different
groups of children have also transformed us.
(Refer Slide Time: 12:27)

It has made us realise that we need to step further and further back from the process, we need to
become facilitators that provide the resources that are unavailable on the ground and then to
watch the drama unfold in the place where the learning is to happen.
We have come a way wanting to fight with them over their stories, we have come a way wanting
to own their stories, and that is where we feel that conversation is now beginning to happen on
equal ground. This was not always the case. This was not a case that was recognised by us, or by
the people that were working within these villages.
(Refer Slide Time: 13:04)

We also wanted them to become independent of us as they created more content, so that LETS,
Learn English Through Stories, could knock its E down to a lowercase and become Learn
Through Stories.
We understand that as designers, we have access to certain skill sets that can be transferred quite
easily, and others that are specialist or specialised skill sets. So we began to separate the project
into pieces where this could happen. Portions of this pipeline of creating books could move to
the area where the learning had to happen. The students of the school, the teachers of that school,
could work together in order to create the books.
Once those books came to us, we would be allowed to work with those stories and with the
illustrations using our design team to translate those books from native languages into English
and then send them back published in a polished way. It is the kind of thing that would happen to
anybody who writes a book.
If I were to write a book, I would expect that there would be a team that would be, that would
include an editor, a publisher, a jacket designer, perhaps a book designer who would put together
pictures and text for me and yet, authorship would be mine. We wanted to change that.
(Refer Slide Time: 14:27)

We wanted to change the idea that there is a single author as a genius that has any truth to it.
Most creativity is collaborative, you know this, and I know this.

(Refer Slide Time: 14:46)

We are now beginning to let it enter the world of our language, which we have not permitted it
so far. But networked knowledge and combinatorial creativity are phrases that are becoming
(Refer Slide Time: 14:54)

What you see in our books on the front pages is an expression of that combinatorial creativity.
We are involved in teacher-training workshops right now so that they can take charge entirely of
the bookmaking process until the design team steps in to, as I said, polish and publish it.
As we are transferring this process entirely to schools, the design team remains part of the
project still.
(Refer Slide Time: 15:18)

These books are converted into animated shots, again with highlighted captions running beneath
so that they become pedagogical tools for language learning. They are also being transformed
into a mobile app, which can be downloaded on mobile phones, in village libraries, in rural
schools all over the country. The idea, and it is an ambitious idea, no way for it to be completed
by a design team as small as ours, but certainly possible to be completed by all the people who
have begun to contribute to this process and participate in it.
The idea is for schools around the country, to create their own books, to illustrate them using the
talent, the skill, the joy, and the energy of these young children, and to contribute to design
studios, again around the country, so that they can translate these books into animation films,
perhaps, and mobile apps and use those things as pedagogic tools for learning all kinds of things.
In the first instance, now it is language learning, but it could move, as I said, to other subjects as
well. As I speak about this project and as I think about where it has brought us through this
project, it seems to me that ethnograpy