Ethnography of IT Organizations: The case of Blackboard @AU

I’m offering a project based ethnography course next semester (spring 2015), which involves real empirical research experience for Masters level students.

Ethnography of IT Organizations: The case of Blackboard @AU

Annette Markham


I’m offering (I offered) a project based ethnography course in spring 2015 that involved real empirical research experience for Masters level students.

This is part of an ongoing effort to build more interactive, non-lecture, research-based courses into the curriculum at our department of Communication & Culture at Aarhus University. Basically, I think students should have the opportunity to do real research that matters and get credit for doing it.  The trick is balancing this goal with the more traditional academic goal of learning more theories and concepts about how IT works within larger organizational structures.

Anyway, below, you can read the basics on the course I offered.  For the broader student-led project, including results and ongoing activities, see this site:

Ethnography of IT in Organisations: Blackboard Research Project

In this course, participants will participate as members of a research team studying the way that Blackboard is being introduced and experienced within the larger organizational culture of Aarhus University. In the autumn semester of 2014, under the guidance of Dr. Annette Markham, a student-led research team at AU began an ethnographic study of the Blackboard interface and more specifically, the Faculty of Arts deployment. Pilot studies have focused on the end user experience, student attitudes, and general perceptions towards the new system. In 2015, this project expanded to include larger surveys of faculty and students, in-depth interviews with a range of stakeholders, and organizational analysis of the information architecture and data flows that form the backbone of this LMS system at Aarhus University.  All of these studies contribute to the larger ethnographic project of studying the meaning of Blackboard within the larger AU organizational culture.

This course occurs as a research project rather than a typical classroom experience. Lectures and readings emerge as needed, so the curriculum depends on the specific sub-project the student elects to conduct. Of course, there will be a minimum of basic readings to get students up to speed on the overall approach (ethnography); the specific methods (survey, interview, user experience, user interface testing, organisational analysis); the concept and purpose of the LMS (Learning Management Systems; educational technology); and organisations as cultures.

Currently, the student-led research team consists of one principle investigator (Annette Markham), six core members (from the Digital Living Masters Programme), and 4 small groups of temporary members. These temporary groups are for students who enroll for a single semester or who are doing this project as part of another course. Students who enroll can join existing projects or propose new and innovative sub-studies. In either case, they can collect new data or use existing data to practice mixed methods empirical analysis. They might also explore the more theoretical aspects of this phenomenon.

Students will work in teams, building conceptual understanding through a variety of inductive and explorative methods.  Students have presented (and will continue to present) findings to major university stakeholders, which makes this an exciting and real research opportunity.

The product of the course can be a prototype of a new interface, a written report of empirical findings, a theoretical paper, a series of wireframe designs or storyboards along with a proposal, and so forth. Form and content will be decided in discussions with the professor.

For more information on the study, see our website at

For more information on the course, in terms of possible curriculum content and/or design, contact me at amarkham [at] dac [dot] au [dot] dk

ECTS: 10

Exam: Written Assignment (6-8 pages) and product ( i.e. report to stakeholders, design mock-up, website prototype of storyboards)

Note: A level 2 or B exam is not really appropriate for this course since it depends on participation in the larger AU ethnographic research study of Blackboard.

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