On the case …

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Last night I was at the third of four sessions in the ‘Qualitative Research Methods Module 2” programme. In preparation, we had been asked to post an academic paper which illustrated a case study, together with a brief synopsis. I chose one which had come up during my literature searching; since it explores how Twitter supports teacher learning, it is of course related to my research – “Virtual induction: A novice teacher’s use of Twitter to form an informal mentoring network.” The focus of this study is a single, novice teacher during the period when she transitioned from student-teacher to full-time teacher, and how she developed an informal mentoring network. The research questions address how she interacts with those mentors, how they are chosen/assembled and how the network evolves. The methodology chosen to answer these research questions is drawn from techniques used in social network analysis and involved collecting her tweets and followers/followed over the duration of the study. Those tweets which attracted responses and subsequently developed into dialogue formed the foundations from which:

  1. the nature of the interaction could be interpreted;
  2. the nature of the respondents assessed as potential mentors; and
  3. the relationships between these individuals as part of the network could be viewed.

I singled this paper out for a couple of reasons. Given the use of SNA and the (to me) limited data gathered, did this actually constitute a case study approach? This paper, and the questions I posed then became a part of an extended and at times, heated, discussion which attempted to clarify what actually constituted a ‘case;’ whether the data collected were valid in illustrating the points it attempted to make; whether the data sample was sufficiently extensive; and whether what had been relayed about the methods used was sufficiently detailed to allow us to be critical or otherwise.

I see now that I had failed to ‘do my homework.’ Yes I’d done the task ask set, but had neglected the M-level-ness. I could probably have answered my own questions with a little more research. It’s not as though there’s a dearth of information and study resources which describe and explain case study. So, having now done that, I find that there are some crucial pointers I could have looked for in the paper. The case study method covers the whole approach from the design at the start, through the collection and analysis of the data, to the reporting of the results. It will be an in-depth study of an individual or small number of ‘cases.’ As Yin (2009) would have it:

An empirical inquiry about a contemporary phenomenon (e.g., a “case”), set within its real-world context

The case itself might be a person, organisation or event and multiple sources of evidence will be used in examining the conditions and context within which the case is set, in order to produce a rich account. Data are traditionally gathered from direct and participant observation, interviews, documents and other artifacts. They may be qualitative, quantitative or mixed data. Here then we begin to see one of my errors in thinking – I had associated particular methods with case study, thinking that SNA might not constitute a legitimate one. Stake (1998) makes it clear that the case study approach approach is defined by interest on ‘cases,’ not methods used.

To return to the paper, we now have a case (the novice teacher), but it appears there is only one source of data upon which the analysis is built – the tweets exchanged. Although supplementary information was used to select the participants, the findings were based on sixty ‘conversations’ only. This proved problematic in our peer discussion. The author did not define what constituted a conversation, beyond describing them as an exchange between the novice and a mentor. They could therefore have been a single question and answer, or a request for information and the provision of that information. Was it fair to claim those rudimentary exchanges as conversations or should they be more complex? There was certainly no distinction in the data; between simple and more complex exchanges. People also felt uncomfortable about a simple two-tweet exchange constituting ‘mentorship’ and it was here some began to see this being untenable as a case study. Tthe data collected were thin, both in breadth (a single method) and depth (too few data points). There was clearly scope for additional methods to provide more detail and resolve some of the unanswered questions, but the author never discussed this.

So I guess I got my answer, though for different reasons than I originally thought. In the interests of fairness, I should point out that the author never referred to this as a case study. Yes as a study and a case separately, but not as a whole. Is that sufficient mitigation? Though the group didn’t arrive at consensus, the process was far more valuable for me than the outcome. It was invigorating to have an extended discussion on a topic for which most people had an opinion, to be able to consider the different propositions they made and especially to hear how they articulate their arguments. I hope have the chance to enjoy more of those learning opportunities.

 

SMITH RISSER, H. (2013). Virtual induction: A novice teacher’s use of Twitter to form an informal mentoring network. [online]. Teaching and teacher education, 35 , 25-33

STAKE, Robert. E. (1998). Case studies. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Strategies of qualitative inquiry Vol. 2, (pp. 86–109). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

YIN, Robert K. (2009). Case study research : design and methods. [online]. 4th ed.. ed., Los Angeles, Calif.] ; London, SAGE.

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