Technology & Data Collection

For the last two weeks, I have been writing about qualitative research methods courses that are typically offered at the doctorate level. I began by discussing my experiences with just being able to teach such a course. I followed that up by looking at what goes on in introductory level qualitative research courses (in my experience).

Today, I want to say one more thing about the issue and then move on.

I want us to stop and think about the role of technology in data collection and how we are/are not using qualitative methods courses to help students learn about it. What do I mean by technology in data collection? Well, I have a few points to make here.

Collecting Data in an Online Environment

I know two doctoral students who are collecting data that was generated online.  One has collected data on Tumblr and the other on Pinterest. They collected data that was already generated by others. What I mean is, they did not go into these platforms and ask people to do/create specific things. They had questions they asked that looked at data users of these sites had or were generating.

There are many questions and issues to sort out when doing such work. The first thing I learned about was IRB. How does one get approval for doing such research? How does someone get permission from participants to use what they have created?

twitter mingleThe first time around, I sent the student directly to IRB to speak to someone. I just had no clue about how to help her or how IRB would want her to address any of the questions we had generated about how to get approval. Turns out the whole thing – from the University’s perspective – is very simple. If someone has posted public material online then anyone is free to go in and analyze it. You do not have to get permission from the person who created it even if that person is a minor. If the material is public, then you can use it.

IRB does require that you complete their application. Then they tell you you are exempt. That’s how it works here. I know this generates a ton of ethical questions, but I’m just here to tell you how it is. Ethics is a long and separate post for another time.

What Counts as Enough Data?

When I am helping someone think through how much data to collect, I understand what should be a good amount when we’re doing things like interviews and observations. What happens when the data becomes a collection of Pins on Pinterest or posts on Tumblr? What if you had a student who wanted to look at twitter?

These platforms move quickly. Content is constantly being created. And even if you are following a specific person (Tumblr), board (Pinterest) or hashtag (twitter), you are going to compile way to much data in a very short amount of time. When advising my students about Tumble and Pinterest, we were just guessing as to how much data would be enough. How do you confine something like this? How do you set boundaries?

With Tumble and Pinterest, we just came up with some educated guesses about how to bound it all. Then the students went home and tried it out. Usually we were off base. It was generally too much or the boundary lines we had drawn just didn’t work and needed to be redrawn. It took the students playing around a bit to get a handle on what might work. In an advisory position, I often didn’t know what to do except to tell them to keep messing with it. I didn’t know what would be good myself. And I have no clue what journal reviewers and editors would think was good either. We don’t have good models to work from here.

Using Technology as a Data Collection Site

Recently, I started a project where I took up engaging in the practice of live field notes. I love it. I use twitter and Instagram to push my field notes out as they are happening. When the session is over, I bring it all together using storify. Then, I write up something about my experience and publish it on medium. When I do the write up, I’m not just rehashing my field notes (because you can see them on storify). Instead, I’m taking a larger issue or question I have about the project and writing about it.

Translating to Class

When I taught the introductory qualitative methods class, I was able to have the student who did Tumblr research come in and share her project and experiences. But, moving forward, I don’t think that’s going to be enough in and of itself. I think we need to find ways to help students consider how to collect data in online environments as well as think through what it means to share data publicly. Are we doing this at all? I’m sure there are a few people out there that do it and do it very well, but my suspicion is that they are not the norm.

We do need to start thinking about how we help students understand these issues. I’m not sure how we go about that, storyand I’m not about to suggest there’s just one answer here.  From what I have experienced, this could be a class in and of itself. I would want students to have taken an intro course first. I think that some of these issues could be embedded in an intro or advanced qual course. However, students who have real interest in learning about these things could easily spend an entire class engaged in examining them. There’s a lot there to uncover.

One Year Ago Today

Next Week: Thoughts on Teacher Education Programs