Sunday, September 13, 2015

Digital tools for qualitative research: A world of possibilities

Trena M. Paulus, Ph.D.
Professor of Qualitative Research Methods
University of Georgia

     These are exciting times to be a qualitative researcher. The human experience that we seek to understand is ever evolving, and we are the ones who study its ebbs and flows. Perhaps the most recent shift in our social worlds has been the digital turn –the layers of interaction that we engage in through smart phones, social media and other technologies. Exploring what it means to be human can no longer be limited to in-person observations, interviews and face-to-face relationship building. Today, we must also explore the online self and how the digital world impacts how we go about our daily business. Technology, ever marching forward, has not only changed what it means to be human, but also what it means to engage in qualitative research. Whether described as “digital natives” or “Millennials”, new researchers need, and want, to know how to harness the power of their mobile devices, cloud computing and social media culture in their inquiries. 

      I have explored these issues in my book Digital Tools for Qualitative Research and am looking forward to my visit to the Eagle QuaRC community next month. A late adopter myself, I have had to be convinced of the importance of staying current with new technologies and their impact on qualitative research by my students over the years as well as my own research experiences. My colleagues and I have recently established the Digital Tools Special Interest Group as part of the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry. Here we hope to foster conversations among qualitative scholars interested in the intersection of new technologies and qualitative inquiry, starting with a special issue of Qualitative Inquiry that reports on the state-of-the-art use of digital tools.

      While most researchers have at least heard of qualitative data analysis software (QDAS) packages such as ATLAS.ti , NVivo  and MAXQDA – tools that were developed by qualitative researchers, for qualitative - fewer think about how QDAS and other digital tools can impact every phase of the research process. I only began using ATLAS.ti myself when faced with large amounts of data from a study of how blogging activities can help instructors identify student misconceptions during large undergraduate nutrition courses. Now a certified professional trainer for ATLAS.ti, I integrate the software into my graduate research methods courses at the University of Georgia, starting with its use for literature reviews. Working with colleagues from the University of Tennessee and the University of Tasmania in Australia, we recently completed a literature review of how researchers report the use of ATLAS.ti and NVivo in their studies, noting that while overall use is increasing few scholars are using these tools to their fullest capacity.

      From connecting with collaborators to reviewing the literature to generating data to representing findings, digital tools are, or should be, changing every aspect of our practice. Blogs and social media can be used to share research updates with stakeholders and the participants themselves. Cloud-based note-taking devices, such as Evernote, can be used on smartphones to capture images, audio and video segments in the field and then synchronize them for analysis on more powerful desktop computers. Literature reviews no longer need to involve sifting through and highlighting piles of papers alone in a dark room. Instead, PDFs of articles can be stored in Dropbox, uploaded to an iPad and annotated with an app such as GoodReader, shared with collaborators on Mendeley, and analyzed using your favorite QDAS program. Interview transcripts, dry relics devoid of the emotion with which the words were spoken, can be given new life with programs such as Inqscribe which, with one click on a line of the transcript, re-plays the recorded conversation.

      Even more exciting are the online communities that provide new contexts for qualitative inquiry. Trained as an applied linguist, discourse analyst, and instructional designer, I have long been interested in how groups talk and work together online to accomplish tasks and specifically how to identify evidence of learning in online conversations. I am one of the founders of the Microanalysis of Online Data Network, an international group of scholars interested in developing language-based methodologies for understanding online talk and texts.

     I appreciate this opportunity to briefly introduce myself and my work. I look forward to meeting each of you in a just few weeks as together we explore the world of digital tools and qualitative research.

Trena M. Paulus, Ph.D.
Professor, Qualitative Research Methods
University of Georgia
Twitter: @trenapaulus

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