Network Ethnography Applied: Understanding the evolving Health and Physical Education knowledge landscape

Year: 2016

Author: Sperka, Leigh, Enright, Eimear, Hogan, Anna

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Understanding the progressively global, neoliberal, privatised, and digital education environment poses new methodological challenges for educational researchers. Numerous educational scholars have suggested that these methodological challenges have not yet received sufficient attention and greater methodological innovation is required to keep pace with the evolving education knowledge landscape. This paper considers the benefits and challenges associated with the use of network ethnography as method. A network ethnography of the outsourcing of Health and Physical Education (HPE) curricular work to external providers is used as an illustrative case. The outsourcing of HPE is a practice that is situated in the broader neoliberal and privatised education environment, in which traditionally non-educational private enterprises are increasingly investing in education. These entities are designing and selling programs, products and services to teachers to implement in curricular time. Considering these organisations commonly advertise, communicate, and conduct business through online media, network ethnography was deemed an appropriate methodological technique to generate insight into the outsourcing phenomenon. The first phase of the network ethnography involved undertaking internet searches to identify the number of organisations seeking a role in delivering HPE curricular work in Australia. The type of programs, products, and services they have available was then charted as well as which HPE related curriculum areas they target. Using this information, network diagrams were constructed to visually portray the evolving HPE delivery landscape. Drawing on our illustrative case, we argue that network ethnography produces different knowledge and produces knowledge differently by engaging seriously with the internet as a research medium. We may not have accessed some of the knowledge we did had we relied on more ‘traditional’ methodologies. Nevertheless, there are significant ethical challenges that need to be addressed when engaging with network ethnography as method, and there are additional challenges associated with the ability of network ethnography to extend beyond description to explanation and critique. Our engagement with an illustrative case in this paper demonstrates the capacity to generate rich and deep data through network ethnography, and the potential value of educational researchers working to continually expand their methodological repertoire.