Ethics submission draft feedback – pilot methods

flickr photo by RLHyde https://flickr.com/photos/breatheindigital/4689159475 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

“Is the toolkit of methods I’m proposing for my pilot study realistic and feasible?” This is a question the feedback from my draft ethics submission suggested I need to answer, so it’s to that that I now turn in this post.

It’s perhaps worth reiterating at the outset that I’ve elected to employ an ethnographic approach to best answer my research questions. Which of course raises the question, what will that involve? Hammersley & Atkinson (2007) suggest:

ethnography usually involves the ethnographer participating, overtly or covertly, in people’s daily lives for an extended period of time, watching what happens, listening to what is said, and/or asking questions through informal and formal interviews, collecting documents and artefacts – in fact, gathering whatever data are available to throw light on the issues that are the emerging focus of inquiry.

The notion of ‘people’s everyday lives’ might not quite transfer across entirely to the online realm, and the context of my study is a little more specific. I’m using an ethnographic approach, rather than conducting an ethnography. However, the need to seek data wherever they may be also aligns with the actor-network theory sensibility I’ll be bringing. O’Reilly (2012) also advocates a range of methods in order to recognise, record and report the complexities of the social world(s) I’ll be involved in.

Ethnography is a practice that: evolves in design as the study progresses; involves direct and sustained contact with human beings, in the context of their daily lives, over a prolonged period of time; draws on a family of methods, usually including participant observation and conversation; respects the complexity of the social world; and therefore tells rich, sensitive, and credible stories.

So to recap, the pilot methods I’m proposing are a mixture of conventional techniques applied within a digital context, and new techniques made possible as a result of the digital field. Ethnographic techniques applied in the field typically involve participant observation, semi-structured and informal interviews, and secondary data analysis. These are largely the methods I’m advocating, but with the digital twists that the online environment brings. I’m also keen to include a focus group discussion, though recognise that this isn’t usually considered an ethnographic method. Suter (2000) however views them as being able to ‘allow access to a process that qualitative researchers are often centrally interested in: interaction’ and ‘…also allow researchers to observe a large amount of interaction on a specific topic of interest in a limited amount of time and offer peer-to-peer interactions which might be worthy of observation in their own right.’ I tend to agree here, especially in the more free-form #edchat context I’m keen to explore, compared with that of the traditional focus group setting.

The question my supervisors raised whether all this is manageable (or desirable?) is absolutely valid, so here I’ll attempt to answer that. First, I’ve tried to break down the time required for each of the methods, then sum the individual parts to establish the time demands. That is summarised in this table:

The total time required is around 70 hours, or around two weeks work. Although I should be able to schedule that into my summer programme, it’s likely that my inexperience may be underestimating the time demands of each of these methods. This will become manifest most acutely in the analysis of the data, so here I’m not proposing a deep analysis which will feed forward into the future findings. The aim is to test the methods being used, the processes which will be needed and any consequences such a variety of data might have for the subsequent analysis. The outcome then will be a series of memos which can be used to inform the next stages of the research, rather than hard data used for preliminary analysis.

If it transpires that I’m still wildly underestimating the time demands, then I will need to prioritise these methods, perhaps discarding those that are less significant. I’ll start then with the two core methods of participant observation and semi-structured interview, which means my Twitter immersion study first, so that can inform the question schedule for the interview. Next I’d place the #edchat focus group, since this offers the potential for both interview and participant observation in the same study. Also using observation would be the single practitioner study (tight observation) and informal interviews would take place through open dialogue on blog posts and within Twitter. Collecting tweets on a particular theme is more akin to secondary data collection, but, like the #edchat, does allow the study to spread beyond the bounds of those I follow. Although I’m quite keen to explore the different perspective a social network analysis might bring (who are the influencers, if any; how are people interconnected; what are the pathways through which interactions occur?), I’m also aware of that to do this justice might require expertise I don’t have, nor have the time to develop. There are tools which allow visualisations to be assembled quickly (including NVivo), but deep, meaningful interpretations would only be possible with prolonged practice. I’m obliged to ask myself whether a brief pilot study will provide sufficient detail to establish whether it is a technique worth taking further?

It’s important too not to maintain alignment with my research questions. Do the methods in the pilot adequately help to answer them? In the following table I’ve attempted to map out where I think they should contribute, though acknowledge this might be overly optimistic. But then, surely one of the purposes of the pilot should be to identify which methods are better at answering which questions?

⬇RQs Methods ➡ 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
How does the Twitter social media platform support the professional learning of teachers?
What forms of professional learning do teachers undertake using Twitter?
How does professional learning extend beyond Twitter into the wider social media ecosystem and other spaces?
What attitudes and dispositions do teachers need, to use Twitter for their professional learning?

The concern I have here is of potentially missing an opportunity. I proposed at the outset that one strand of my ‘contribution to knowledge and understanding’ will be methodological; investigating new techniques for gathering data. I feel that in the priorities I expressed above, I’m privileging the more traditional methods – observation and interviews, over the newer ones – focus group within a #chat. By narrowing avenues of enquiry, might I also be in danger of masking the complexity that ethnography seeks to illuminate (Wittel, 2000).

HAMMERSLEY, Martyn and ATKINSON, Paul (2007). Ethnography: Principles in practice. [online]. Routledge.
O’REILLY, Karen (2012). Ethnographic methods. [online]. Routledge.
SUTER, Elizabeth A. (2000). Focus groups in ethnography of communication: Expanding topics of inquiry beyond participant observation. [online]. The qualitative report, 5 (1), 1-14.
WITTEL, Andreas (2000). Ethnography on the move: From field to net to Internet. [online]. In: Forum qualitative Sozialforschung/Forum: Qualitative social research, .

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