Digital Ethnography Projects: “Writing” Historical and Cultural Narratives

27 May

Digital Ethnography Projects: “Writing” Historical and Cultural Narratives
Graduate Multimedia Fellows Seminar
Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, Harvard University
By Irina Uk


Many educators agree that digital literacy is an increasingly important skill. However, in academic settings educators struggle with how to incorporate digital media in ways that enhance the students’ understanding and mastery of the content. Carla Martin’s digital ethnography project in the African American and African Studies (AAAS) Department at Harvard University is an exemplary model of a multimedia assignment. It was intentionally designed to guide students to reach understanding and create meaning of the topic that would otherwise be impossible to make. The digital ethnography project is a part of a larger project, entitled “Social Portraits,” which is funded by Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching (HILT). Under the HILT grant, the course is responsible for addressing issues of copyright and fair use through multimedia assignments infused into the curriculum. The students in this course are committed to studying African American and African communities. There are two objectives for this particular project. First, the first is for students to explore the history and culture of one African or African American ethnic group in the Boston area. According to the project guidelines, the second is to capture and record a “digital ethnographic representation of ‘other African American’ groups in the Boston area.”

 AAAS_97 Sophmore Tutorial Course Syllabus 2013

In this case study, I will start with an overview of the assignment description and the methods that I used for collecting information for the analysis. I will continue by demonstrating how assigning a multimedia project helps students meet the digital ethnography project’s intended objectives. In that section, I will discuss the professor’s motivations for assigning a digital ethnography assignment and how those motivations are consistent with the assignment’s objectives. Then, I will illustrate how the professor’s prepared the assignment and facilitated this assignment. This information will be complemented with a discussion of the preparation students did to meaningfully engage with this assignment. Next, I will explain the students’ processes of curating their final products and how these processes informed students for meeting the objectives of the assignment and the course. I will continue with a synthesis of the students’ reflection, as well Martin’s reflections on the students’ gains from doing the digital ethnography projects. I will then outline how the digital ethnography projects were assessed. Finally, I will summarize how integrating a multimedia assignment enhanced students’ learning experiences in the course and in life. I will provide recommendations for how the greater Harvard teaching community can further implement similar assignments to promote deeper mastery of the objectives in various courses.


Assignment Description

Students worked in groups and chose one ethnic group in Boston. Each group completed three components in the digital ethnography project. The first included creating a custom map of sites that were important to the chosen ethnic group. Students used Google maps and were encouraged to embed other media, such as audio, video and hyperlinks, into the maps. Another required component was creating a reference list, in the form of a Zotero bibliography that included web links and scholarly books and articles relevant to the group. The third component was updating the Wikipedia page pertaining to the chosen ethnic group with transformative content. Additions to the Wikipedia pages in the form of images or hyperlinks were encouraged. For the final submission, students had to accompany the three components with an Individual Response Form, in which each student had to answer reflective questions about the assignment.


To complete this case study, I gathered information extensively in a variety of ways. For the motivation and preparation portions of the case study, conducted a pre-assignment interview with Carla Martin, read the syllabus and assignment guidelines, and observed the class when the assignment guidelines were introduced. To describe the students’ processes and evaluate reflections of the assignment, I observed the class when students had an in-class reflection session on the day that the assignments were due, and I interviewed two students- Yasmin Rawlins in the Dominican group and Ralph Hunt in the Cape Verdean group, about the process of preparing the assignment. For explaining the professor’s reflection of the assignment and the assessment of the assignment, I conducted a post-assignment interview with Carla Martin and I also looked at finished products.

Why Digital?

Ethnographic work could be done in a variety of ways, including traditional writing. As a Graduate Multimedia Fellow, I have spent time with other fellow thinking about and discussing the benefits of multimedia assignments, especially as the compare with traditional assignments, such as essays. Multimedia is so pervasive in society, making it easy to fall into the trap of integrating it for the sake of appearing up to date. On the other hand, in many subject areas, including African and African American studies, it is a challenge to assign multimedia projects in an enriching way. Multimedia must somehow improve the meaning that students make when they prepare the assignment.

When I conducted a preliminary interview with Martin, the first question I asked about the digital ethnography assignment was why she chose to make it digital. She highlighted several reasons, some of which were linked to the objectives of the project itself and some of which were linked to the objectives of the course. Her commentary on why she chose to make it digital could be organized into two categories: how the assignment improved the students’ learning experience and how it was beneficial to other communities, namely the ones being addressed in the projects. The dichotomy in the rationale for making the project digital reflects the two objectives of assignment.
The first point she made was that students need digital skills to be successful in doing scholarly work in their course of study. She reiterated this to students in her course during the session when she introduced the assignment. Further in our conversation, she described that by doing the ethnography digitally, students have the opportunity to document the expressive and creative nature of the community members in a way that is impossible by just describing it in text. The part of the project in which students embed video and audio into the Wikipedia pages and Google maps functions to capture the expressiveness and creativity of community members. Capturing the genuine creativity and expression make it possible for students to better understand the history and culture of the ethnic group in question. Therefore, using multimedia makes it possible for students to better meet the main objective of the assignment. Lastly, with regards to students’ growth, Martin mentioned that many students are motivated by knowing that their work will be public, so student engagement was a key factor in making the assignment digital.

Martin continued to discuss how students could benefit a greater community of people by producing digital artifacts as their projects. Creating and embedding audio and video of community members speaking in their native languages generates good material for students and other community members to use in learning those languages. For example, Martin mentioned that a video interview conducted in Cape Verdean Creole could later be used as a teaching tool for Cape Verdean Creole language learning. This is critical because there are not many resources for learning Cape Verdean Creole. Furthermore, by creating digital materials, students can contribute to a body of media that counters the negative images of African Americans that are prevalent in mainstream media. In addition, this project is a means for creating archival and research tools related to African American communities. According to Martin, this project had a social mission. All of the digital ethnographies will be included on the Harvard University African and African American departmental Social Engagement website. Therefore, having these open source materials allows people in other countries to view the material, which would not be possible if the work was not done digitally. Ultimately, Martin hopes that people abroad will view these projects and be inspired to create their own social portraits and post them to the web. All of the reasons for making the assignment digital also served the second objective of the assignment, to create an ethnographic representation of African American groups in the Boston area.


Carla Martin was strategic about introducing the assignment to students in a way that prepared them to succeed in meeting the objectives of the assignment and creating exemplary products. To prepare students for doing the assignment, Martin created an assignment guidelines packet that she thoroughly discussed with students in class. In class, in addition to clarifying the structured guidelines, Martin explained what ethnography was and described the rationale for making the assignment digital. She proclaimed that it is “a unique assignment”; nobody had ever recorded ethnography in such a way- the mapping exercise is particularly unique. Martin made several clarifications related to students being mindful of security concerns when mapping, such as not including private sites residences on their maps, and a detailed account of how to write a Wikipedia entry in Encyclopedia style writing. I will discuss later in this case study how this advice helped students produce quality products that reflect high levels of integrity.
AAAS 97 Digital Ethnography Assignment Guidelines

Another element in the students’ preparation for this assignment was a class section in which students learned how to use the tools required for completing the assignment. Rawlins and Hunt found this section useful in directing their attention to which tools to use. When asked if students would prefer more coaching in using the tools, both students agreed that an introduction was sufficient. They were easily able to figure out what they needed to do to deliver their products in the most desirable way- to highlight elements significant to the content, rather than to highlight capabilities of the tools. I impressed by the students’ cognizance that the tools are a means to an end rather than the end. This displays that students were fully aware of the objectives of the projects, delivered to them through the assignment guidelines and in the class session which introduced the assignment.
I also learned that students were preparing to complete this assignment all semester by their engagement with other assignments. For example, they conducted interviews with community members for their midterm papers. Martin described that before the scheduling interviews, students practiced soliciting the interviews by writing mock emails. For many groups, the interviews they ultimately conducted were a reference for important sites of community and other community members that they could reach out to in gathering information for the digital ethnography deliverables.

Creation Process

Both students that I interviewed reported being incredibly engaged in the process of creating their digital ethnography projects. Hunt gave me an in depth account of how his group approached completing their project. He described that his group members first referred to the resources they used for their midterm papers to compile their Zotero bibliography. They had more sources than what was required, so they had to think critically about which would enhance their ethnography projects most. To create the Google maps, the students recalled that it was straight forward once the sites were chosen. Again, they pulled from the information they collected for the work they did for their midterm papers to select the best sites for community for their ethnic groups. Once they knew the destinations that they would map, they interviewed people that played key roles at those destinations. For example, the group working on digital ethnography of Dominicans, focused on Dominican food. They interviewed the owner of a restaurant that they included in their maps. During the interviews, they created photos and videos that they could embed in their maps.

Ethiopian Map

Figure 1. Google map prepared by students doing digital ethnography of Ethiopians in the Boston area. This displays an example of media embedded into the map. A link to the map is in the Appendix.

Rawlins and Hunt both felt that the work they did for their midterm papers and the interviews they conducted for the oral histories to be included in their final “Social Portrait” projects led them to collect ample research based content to choose from for including in the Wikipedia pages they were updating.

The students were well prepared to complete their projects. Both of my interviewees told me that it took a couple weeks to sift through all of their resources and information to choose what would be included. In the class reflection session on the day that the assignment was due, students discussed that, through the course of the putting the project together, they did additional ethnography. They had many resources and collected a lot of information, so it was difficult to narrow down what was the most significant. However, once they knew what to include they spent only two or three full days compiling their projects. Choosing which information to focus on is a great exercise in this digital age, when we are presented with heaps of information on a daily basis. Moreover, Rawlins reflected that the process was enjoyable because it forced students to work at the intersection of research and ethnographic practice. They had done a lot of rich reading and conducted research that they were now working hard to bring to life- to make relevant to more people.


Student Gains

Student learning extended beyond meeting the objectives of the assignment and the course. I will start with learning that directly relates to the objectives of the digital ethnography project and the AAAS 97 Sophomore Tutorial Course. Then I will describe other lessons that students learned. One of the objectives of the digital ethnography project was for students to learn about the culture of the group they were representing. In the class reflection session, I learned that students met many interesting people from the ethnic group’s community when conducting interviews for the ethnographic work. For example, the group that met a Dominican restaurant owner, learned about traditional Dominican dishes from him.

Dominican Wikipedia screenshot

Figure 2. Food section of Dominican American Wikipedia page.

Martin described how the group working on ethnography for Ethiopians sent their deliverables to a community member. He responded to them with the informative feedback that their Wikipedia page did not fully represent Ethiopian religions. He then followed up with a meeting with the group in which he gave the group an overview of the religions represented in Ethiopia. The group learned more about Ethiopian people and reflected that learning in a revision of their Wikipedia entry.

In an interview with Martin, I found out that she hoped for students to learn more about leadership and expression of the communities they were studying, and to portray those themes in their deliverables. Rawlins described that she learned about leadership when preparing the Google map. When she interviewed community members about important sites of community, she learned what leadership roles they played at those sites. She then explained that preparing the Wikipedia page helped her gain insight on how Dominicans express themselves. Her group focused on Dominican food, so she learned a lot about how they express themselves through preparing authentic Dominican cuisine. Hunt described that his group focused on representing the general history of Cape Verdeans, and the expression of the community members was highlighted in the dance and music sections of the Wikipedia page that the group updated. Similar to Rawlins’ group, his group interviewed Desire Fernandez, a Cape Verdean performer, and learned about expression through her. They used this insight for their updates.

In the class reflection of the assignment, I learned that many students were concerned with accurately and positively representing the communities in their deliverables. They were aware that their products would be living on the web, and expressed that they felt a lot of responsibility as the voices of the community members. One of the objectives Martin had for the digital ethnography projects was for students to create web content that would capture the history and culture of the community members, to be used as a learning tool for viewers. Students took this objective seriously. For example, Rawlins recalled that her group created a section on the Dominicans Wikipedia page for Dominican food. Dominican food had never been represented on Wikipedia, so her group played a role in displaying original content about Dominican culture on the web. In the class reflection session, students mentioned that they discovered that basic information about the ethnic groups was missing on Wikipedia. For example, the group representing Ethiopians noticed that the relevant Wikipedia page did not contain information about why Ethiopians came to the United States. They made relevant inputs so that readers would be better informed. Similarly, the group representing Nigerians discovered cultural and community hubs that had annual gatherings. They displayed this information in their Google map, so that people looking to get involved in the Nigerian community of Boston could find information on where to do so. Examples of such contributions are countless. These contributions will potentially transform other’s understanding of and involvement in the communities that were represented.

The objective that HILT had for students in carrying out the “Social Portraits” project was to gain a better understanding of copyright and fair use issues. The digital ethnography project played a role in improving students’ grasp of these issues. Students discussed how difficult it is to post information on Wikipedia without citing courses. They thought critically about how to display accurate information that was originally presented. Moreover, students made choices about which images and videos to include, some of which were open source materials.
In addition to meeting all the objectives of the project and the course, the digital ethnography project provided students with a greater understanding of digital content that is available to everyone. In the class reflection session, students explained that they understood how much information is available on the Internet and how they have to be critical in reading it. Students encountered some inaccurate information on the Wikipedia sites, which they updated. This heightened their awareness of the need to dig deeper before accepting information that they read on the web as fact. This will serve them in their future research efforts.



Martin strategically approached assessing the digital ethnography projects. She wanted to assess students at the same time as engage in a conversation with them about their work. She had a conversational assessment format for students’ midterms and they reported to her that they appreciated it. The last page of the student assignment guidelines contained a reflection questionnaire, to be turned in on the day that project was due. One of the questions asked students to write what questions were outstanding for them about the project after completing it. When students turned this reflection in, they began the assessment conversation with Martin and her teaching fellow. Although the project were done in groups, Martin and her teaching fellow gave each person individual feedback. They identified each person’s individual contribution through the students’ response forms. Martin and her teaching fellow used the assignment guidelines as a rubric. They presented the assessment of students’ digital ethnography projects to them in a letter through email. Each letter had three components:

1. They started the letter with a paragraph outlining the positive aspects of the group’s project. They strategically used “you” in describing what the group and individual did well.

2. The second paragraph provided students with constructive feedback on what they could improve. They were careful to not personalize this feedback, addressing the work and not the person. An example of feedback they included in this section was that a project could have been enhanced with more embedded media in their Google map.

3. The last paragraph included suggestions for future development of this project or similar work, as well as responses to the students’ questions. This was where Martin and her teaching fellow continued the dialogue with students about their work. For example, one person noted in their response form that they had difficulty keeping information concise. Martin and her teaching fellow provided suggestions for how to do that.

Martin and her teaching fellow closed all letters with a “thank you.” Rawlins and Hunt reported that they really liked the personalized feedback- they said it contained constructive criticism, which was not overly critical. They both plan to refer to it when doing future projects.


Figure 3. Example of feedback from teaching fellow.


Learning Summary
While I have already mentioned many gains that were reported by Martin and her students, in this section, I would like to highlight some of the most notable and impactful learning gains. Firstly, it was overwhelmingly apparent that students were very engaged in creating their digital ethnographies. In the class reflection session and in interviews, students discussed that this project was much better than taking a test. Students explained that they were invested in this sort of project because of the human aspect- they were representing people and felt that they played some direct role in making a difference in their lives. Hunt further to described that he was more invested in creating a quality product because it was not transient like a test. He knew that his groups’ deliverables would be informative tools for others that would exist on the web indefinitely.

Furthermore, Martin explained that HILT gave funding to a sequence of three courses that were implementing “Social Portrait” projects. Some students were planning to take other courses in this series. Completing the digital ethnography was preparing students for future engagement with digital tools to make meaning of historical and cultural information. Students with an AAAS concentration will have to complete a junior paper and possibly a senior thesis. Digital ethnography equipped them with tools and understanding that they could incorporate and use to enhance these future projects. In the reflection session, when students were listing the benefits of doing “digital” ethnography, Martin urged them to consider similar practices in their future work. For instance, she mentioned embedding media to help more fully develop cultural narratives, as the students had done in their digital ethnography projects.



Martin and her teaching fellow strategically planned and prepared students to complete the digital ethnography projects. It is difficult to make recommendations to improve this assignment because there were phenomenal student gains. Rawlins and Hunt had little to say about what changes they would make to the project guidelines. Rawlins suggested incorporating some elements of the “Social Portraits” into the digital ethnography. She thought a YouTube component would make the project fuller. This idea is worth exploring. To further involve community members, it would benefit sending deliverables to the community members that were interviewed for feedback. Martin said that she has plans to invite community members to view the projects in the future.

In sum, this assignment was a success because of the detailed guidelines Martin prepared for students, the preparation that students received through preceding assignments, the section introducing students to the digital tools required to complete the assignment, and the conversational assessment format through which students received feedback for the entirety of the semester. Of course, the most important element was the intentions for each component of the assignment. The objectives of the assignment were clear and the project tasks led to students to meet those objectives. The project could be scaled with such deliberate and careful planning. It will most likely look differently for each course depending on its objectives.



Students in Carla Martin’s Sophmore Tutorial course in the AAAD department of Harvard University achieved many objectives through completing their digital ethnography projects. While traditional students probably would have learned about the culture and history of vairous African American groups through completing a traditional report, doing ethnography digitally gave way to other learning. Students exercised using digital tools which are useful to their future work, tackled with copyright and fair use issues, and were able to impact a greater community of people with their work. Their work is archived on the web for others to learn from. This would not be possible with just a traditional paper assignment.



Digital Ethnography Products for the Ethiopia Group

custom Google map:

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