Education in a Digital Era

Epistemological and Methodological Challenges in the Ethnographic Field

Convenors: Assunta Viteritti & Leonardo Piromalli (University of Rome “La Sapienza”)

Digital technologies are nowadays interwoven in the very fabric of our everyday lives: from health to the environment, from research to clinic, from media to politics, from economy to gender, from bank accounts to online purchases, from spiritual life to gym activities. Our personal and professional worlds are entangled in increasingly complex knots of digital technoscientific knowledges.

The phenomenon of digitalisation is emerging in education too. Its growing importance has been discussed in terms of a digital governance of education (Landri, 2018) that is being fabricated and enacted across Europe and beyond. Digital technologies are indeed relevant to the fields of school (Selwyn et al., 2016), higher education (Williamson, 2018) and lifelong learning (Romito et al., 2019).

Digitalisation opens up new methodological challenges for qualitative research. The ‘offline’ methods do not seem sufficient for thoroughly capturing digital-mediated educational policy and practices, within which multi-sitedness is inherent (Marcus, 1995) and spatialities as well as temporalities shrink, stretch and overlap (Elliott & Urry, 2010).

At least two visions emerge for investigating education in a digital era. A first relevant approach addresses the digital as an ontologically recognisable space. A continuity with the ethnographic tradition can be found in terms of guiding epistemology, range of methods, view of the field. Techniques such as a/synchronous internet-based interview (O’Connor & Madge, 2017) and digital ethnography (Pink et al., 2015) can be placed within this approach.

In other approaches, the digital is engaged as a space of non-continuity and multiplicity to be investigated through different categories than those employed for more consolidated explorations. Social reality is seen in terms of processes, relationships and assemblages constantly on the verge of becoming something different (Law, 2004; Lury & Wakeford, 2012). Techniques and methods are experimented and re/invented for inquiring education as it happens within and through the digital: genealogies (Williamson, 2018), diagrammatic analyses (Decuypere, 2016), semiotic analyses (Landri, 2018), etc.

This panel aims at opening a space for reflection around qualitative methods for investigating on formal, non-formal and informal education in a digital era. Existing methods have to be refined and new methods have to be constructed for analysing it and untangling its social effects – not least the ones related to the values inscribed in a platform society (Van Dijck et al., 2018).

Empirical and theoretical contributions are welcome that focus the mentioned approaches by bringing them together, relating them, pointing out their strengths and weakness, and – above all –engage education in a digital era not as a matter of fact but as a matter of concern (Latour, 2004).

Open Questions

- Which types of ethnographies emerge from the digital world of education?

- What do ethnographers do when they implement digital ethnography in the field? Which mistakes become resources?

- What must the ethnographer do when she acts in the field of digital ethnography?

- What should I do when I do digital ethnography in the educational field?

- Which new ways to construct the field and examine phenomena does the digital ethnography afford?

- Is it useful, possible – and how? – to engage actors and their knowledges as epistemic partners (Konrad, 2012) in the digital fieldwork? How (where, when, with whom, etc.) should the researcher position himself?

- How to investigate the users in their engagement towards the digital?

- Which methods and techniques to unravel the hidden cultures inscribed in invisible digital infrastructures?

- How to inquire from an ethnographical point of view digital platforms and platformization processes? How to visualize the recent events of platform societies (Van Dijck et al., 2018)?

- How to inquire from an ethnographical point of view the digital governance of education (Landri, 2018)? How to visualize the digital governance practice and the digitalisation processes?


Education, learning, digital, digitalisation, online, platforms, visualization.

Fields of Study

Anthropology of education, Computer design, Digital sociology, Pedagogy, Philosophy of education, Sociology of education.


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Konrad, M. (Ed.). (2012). Collaborators Collaborating: Counterparts in Anthropological Knowledge and International Research Relations. New York: Berghahn Books.

Landri, P. (2018). Digital Governance of Education: Technology, Standards and Europeanization of Education. London-Oxford: Bloomsbuy.

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Romito, M., Gonçalves, C., & De Feo, A. (2019). Digital devices in the governing of the European Education Space: The case of SORPRENDO software for career guidance. European Educational Research Journal, 1474904118822944.

Selwyn, N., Nemorin, S., Bulfin, S., & Johnson, N. (2016). Toward a digital sociology of school. In J. Daniels, K. Gregory, & T. McMillan Cottom (Eds.), Digital Sociologies (pp. 143–158). Bristol: Policy Press.

Van Dijck, T., Poell, T., & De Waal, M. (2018). The Platform Society: Public Values in a Connective World. New York: Oxford University Press.

Williamson, B. (2018). The Hidden Architecture of Higher Education: Building a Big Data Infrastructure for the ‘Smarter University’. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education, 15(1), 12.


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