Editor’s Note: Alexander Cho (@alexcho47) is a doctoral student in the University of Texas at Austin’s Department of Radio-TV-Film. In addition to conducting fieldwork for the Connected Learning team in Austin, he helps coordinate the team’s qualitative data management and analysis efforts. His chief research interests involve how LGBTQ youth use social media in their daily lives. We are excited that he is contributing to this month’s theme on ethnography in education with and exploration of the lived experience of economically disadvantaged and minority high school students who are attending a low-income high school in the midst of a wealthy suburb of Texas. His group’s ethnography brings home the importance of experiences of place – both school and neighborhood – to what it means to be “suburban poor,” a phenomenon that is quickly becoming a defining feature of American cities.
When our Austin research team was initially designing “The Digital Edge” as part of the Connected Learning Research Network, we wondered: what would be the best way for us to gain a picture that was as comprehensive as possible of the daily lives and digitally-mediated learning ecologies of youth—especially youth from under-resourced minority communities? We were intrigued, for example, by Pew Internet and American Life Project reports that showed that youth of color were more likely than their white counterparts to use mobile internet. This was provocative survey-based quantitative information, but it left us wondering – what was the quality and character of this sort of access? Far from being celebratory, could it be that this was in fact because their quality of home access was poor? This was just one of many questions that we felt quantitative data on youth digital media practices left unanswered. And if we were going to marry youth digital media practices with their potential for informal and connected learning, we were going to have to figure out how to understand and describe these practices in much greater detail.
We realized that two facets of traditional ethnographic method would be invaluable to us: long time on task and nuanced qualitative data gathering. We wanted to pick up the stories where the quantitative data left off. What were these youth actually doing, why, and how? How were their lives impacted, what happened when something changed (If a mother lost her job? Or a college scholarship fell through?). We wondered: Can we begin to paint a picture of the daily lives, rituals, opportunities and challenges that youth on the “Digital Edge” experience in school? And what, if any, is the potential or affordance of digital technology for these young people in creating education environments that develop the skills and literacies necessary to thrive in their next steps, be they post-secondary education, vocationally-oriented aims, or other sorts of civic opportunities?