Wednesday, 25 February 2009

H809: Thoughts on week two

Technically, I guess H809 is in week three, but it seems to make sense to post about the previous works activities (some of which are carrying on) rather than on trying to provide some sort of 'this just happened' account. I thought it would also be worth sharing some wikipedia links that came up in the forums for anyone who was having trouble with the stats reported in last weeks paper - the first concerns F-ratios, and the second ANOVAs. It might also be useful to look at the course wiki (sign in required) to see how some of the students have used it to integrate their different accounts of how technology has been used in education over the years. This activity will help prove useful further on in the course as we start to consider how to contextualise educational research. A link that might be useful for finding relevant articles was also posted in the cafe for Journals in the field of technology enhanced learning.

Week two's reading was ‘Using computer-based text analysis to integrate qualitative and quantitative methods in research on collaborative learning’ (Wegerif & Mercer, 1997). Juliette has a nice summary and some reflections on it here. Some interesting things that have come out of the forum discussions so far include the distinction between quantitative and qualitative methods in terms of their level of abstraction, the strengths and weaknesses of different methods of both collection and analyses e.g. the fact that textual analysis of speech will miss out on non-verbal communication and about how adequate a control group comparison was (not very, it would seem in this case). On a personal level, I think I enjoyed reading this paper more than last week's one, and I especially liked the introduction section for providing a kind of pros and cons to quantitative and qualitative research. The promised solution to the divide between the two sounded promising but as the students discussions have indicated there are some issues about the control group used (where they subject to the same analyses or not) and about whether the computer-based textual analyses carried out really does address all the issues it set out to do.

I think the most interesting aspect of this paper is that it has got everyone talking about quantitative and qualitative methods, with students considering issues such as how different is positivism to evidence-based practice? The debate over quantitative vs. qualitative is a long one and unfortunately not an easy one to jump into. When I was doing the MRes last year, I found it helpful to think about how these approaches differ on an epistemological basis. Essentially, positivists view research as a way to uncover what is already there while constructivists argue that reality is socially constructed, and so "research findings are created rather than discovered" (Badley, 2002). One of this weeks references, Richard Pring's article "The false dualism of educational research" (the link is accessible only if you're signed into OU StudentHome), provides another interesting insight into the debate. The paper provides a really useful outline of the quantitative and qualitative approaches, especially in terms of their philosophical basis, but ultimately argues that this does not have to be an either/or issue. Instead, the author concludes that "the qualitative investigation can clear the ground for the quantitative--and the quantitative be suggestive of differences to be explored in a more interpretive mode" (p. 259; Pring, 2000). This doesn't mean that a researcher should always use both, but that she or he needs to consider methods in terms of what is most appropriate to address the research questions. There is a lot to get your head around in Pring paper, but it is well worth a read as it provides a really interesting account of the debate, and an alternative option. In addition, it was suggested in the forums that next weeks reading by Oliver et al. (2007) also helps to clarify some of these perspectives (specifically positivism and constructivism), though I haven't read this yet.

The reason all this is important from a research perspective is that no matter what area it is you are focusing on, once you've figured out a research question/problem, you're going to have to think about methods. And when you think about methods, you have to be able to defend the choices you make and this means being able to talk about what you rejected and why as well. At the moment it looks like I'm going to be adopting a case-study based approach because I'm not looking to prove a hypothesis, but to explore certain processes, and because I want an in depth account of these process. So I have to sacrifice breadth for depth in terms of my results. It looks then like I will be taking a more qualitative approach since I will be using observation and interviews. However, I have also been thinking about getting some more "objective" data, such as physiological measures e.g. galvanic skin responses. The idea here is to gather a variety of measures to explore an phenomenon in depth, which may eventually lead to a framework of some sort, which could then be tested for it's generalisability. As for whether I think reality is socially constructed or not? I think I've tried to avoid answering that in the past but I guess I do agree, up to a point. I'm going to go with Pring on this one, and say I think I agree that our interpretations of reality are constrained by it's own features, so we can still say that some constructions are more likely than others. Otherwise, a lot of research might seem somewhat futile and I'd be out of a job!

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