Designing Personal Learning Networks as a Form of Professional Development: A Qualitative Perspective
A qualitative perspective to researching personal learning networks (PLNs) and professional development requires one to view information and knowledge differently than how one would view the same through a quantitative lens. Gay, Mills, and Airasian (2006) mention that “qualitative research differs from quantitative research in two key ways: (a) qualitative research often involves the simultaneous collection of a wealth of narrative and visual data over an extended period of time, and (b) as much as is possible, data collection occurs in a naturalistic setting” (p. 399). Case studies, archival research, and content analysis are types of qualitative methods that will be under review as they relate to studying PLNs and professional development among English-as-a-foreign language (EFL) educators.
Case studies typically are used to research the unique behavior of a person or group. A case study may or may not be under what Cozby (2009) refers to as a “naturalistic observation” (p. 115) or field observation study where the “researcher makes observations in a particular natural setting (the field) over an extended period of time, using a variety of techniques to collect information” (p. 108). And although data used to express a natural setting tends to be more qualitative in nature, current technologies have afforded researchers the means to quantify findings as well (Trochim & Donnelly, 2008). The Most Significant Change (MSC) technique (Davies and Dar, 2005) is a type of case study that focuses more on learning than on accountability. The technique (i.e., qualitative and/or qualitative approaches) focuses on programs that are
- “complex and produce diverse and emergent outcomes
- large with numerous organisational layers
- focused on social change
- participatory in ethos
- designed with repeated contact between field staff and participants
- struggling with conventional monitoring systems
- highly customised services to a small number of beneficiaries (such as family counselling)” (pp. 12-13)
Therefore, if case studies are mainly qualitative but can also be quantitative, may or may not be part of a naturalistic observation study, and can focus either on the change process or accountability (i.e., evaluation of a treatment or intervention), then the question becomes when to apply this type of research.
Case studies help shed light on the uniqueness of a particular context. When researching historical figures, for example, a psychobiography is oftentimes appropriate. Elms (1994) states that “a psychobiography is a type of case study in which a researcher applies psychological theory to explain the life of an individual, usually an important historical figure” (as cited in Cozby, 2009, p. 115). In teacher development, a case study on those teachers who are perceived as being “successful” would provide insight on not only the attributes of the teachers but on the process and perception of others who consider such teachers in such high regard. Another type of observational method that is commonly associated with qualitative data collecting is archival research. Archival research is data collected by someone other than the researcher but serves as important complementary data that supports a study. Statistical records, survey archives, and written and mass communication records are examples of archival research and are unobtrusive measures as well. Webb et al (1981) define unobtrusive measures as “measures that allow the researcher to gather data without becoming involved in respondents’ interaction with the measure used (as cited in Trochim & Donnelly, 2008). When researching teachers behavior, unobtrusive measures might include student evaluations at the end of a course, workshop attendance, and teacher certificates. And like the MSC technique mentioned above, these measures can be either qualitative or quantitative.
Analyzing statistical records, survey archives, and public records are collectively part of what is referred to as “content analysis of documents (Cozby, 2009). Trochim and Donnelly, (2008) define three types of content analysis as follows: (a) “thematic analysis of text, (b) indexing, and (c) quantitative descriptive analysis” (p. 151). Researching teaching development through supporting a PLN would include a thematic analysis of text through the categorization of topics that participants might provide in interviews, online forum chats, and personal reflections. An analysis of keywords (i.e., indexing) and word chunks would also be organized in order to detect tendencies of attitudes, beliefs, and opinions.
In researching PLNs as a form of professional development, qualitative methods through case study, archival research, and content analysis provide adequate measures for gaining relevant and meaningful, non-number data. The MSC technique in particular serves more as a monitor for change than an evaluation tool. To complement this technique, unobtrusive measures provide additional perspective with regard to teacher behaviors and personal approaches to professional development and the teaching profession in general. Qualitative research yields a richness to educational research that in conjunction with quantitative data views the investigative process through a more pragmatic worldview.
Bartels, N. (2005). Applied linguistics and language teacher education. New York: Springer.
Cozby, P. (2009). Methods in behavioral research. New York: McGraw Hill.
Davies, R. & Dart, J. (2005). The most significat change (MSC) technique: A guide to its use. Retrieved on July 28, 2010 from http://www.mande.co.uk/docs/MSCGuide.pdf
Gay, L., Mills, G., & Airasian, P. (2006). Educational Research: Competencies for analysis and applications. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
Trochim, W. & Donnelly, J. (2008). The research methods knowledge base. Mason, OH: Cengage Learning
The one primary advantage to using the case study method in your dissertation is that it usually allows you to concentrate on an issue, problem, or concern that is directly or indirectly related to your job or career. For every dissertation student I have worked with, who decided to use the case study method, their Purpose of the Study had something to do with their profession. They had been immersed in or had observed a situation that meant something to them. They cared a great deal about the people involved in the case.
For dissertations, when you start your case study research you may want to follow the recommendations of Robert K. Yin, who I believe is the best methodologist available. His book, Case Study Research: Design and Methods is regarded by numerous universities as the best primary source for the case study method. It is now considered the “bible” for case study methods. It is well organized and his writing style is easy to follow. This is rare bonus in academic writing.
Sources of Evidence
You will notice that he suggests six sources of evidence: documentation, archival records, interviews, direct observations, participant-observation, and physical artifacts. Most universities will accept at least three of these in a case study design. More sources of evidence are better, but only if these can be properly recorded and validated. If it is possible to conduct interviews with individuals, who are knowledgeable about the topic of the study, I suggest you do so. Interviews make it easier to humanize your study. You will no doubt gain more insights and better perspectives that would not be so apparent through other evidential sources.
Yin (2009) states, “For case studies, the most important use of documents is to corroborate and augment evidence from other sources.” (p.103) He also states, “Because of their overall value, documents play an explicit role in any data collection in doing case studies.” (p.103) This is a fundamental point for you as a dissertation writer to pay attention to – the credibility of your case study is directly related to the quality of the data you acquire from various sources of evidence.
Creating a Database
I suggest that you create a table or some sort of data file about the documentation and/or archival records you have gathered or plan to use. You might want to consider these categories:
- Code number
- Name (if it does not have a title, give it a generic name of your own)
- Date published or date obtained
- Type of data included, and
- One or more descriptive statements about the data.
Yin (2009) on pages 118 and 119 refers to what he calls Create a Case Study Database. By validating the importance of a case study database he states, “… without a case study database, the raw data may not be available for independent inspection.” (p. 119) He goes on to write, “…every case study project should strive to develop a formal presentable database, so that in principle, other investigators can review the evidence directly and not be limited to the written case reports. In this manner a case study database markedly increases the reliability of the entire case study.” (p. 119) I would add that without a database, it will be very difficult to present accurate findings and you could become overwhelmed with the data sources.
Why Use Multiple Sources of Evidence
By placing greater emphasis on your documents and archival records, you may better confirm the findings from the interview transcripts. This is a form of triangulation. In other words the documents help you to validate the findings from the interviews. Yin (2009) states: “Without multiple sources, an invaluable advantage of the case study strategy will have been lost. Worse, what started out as a case study may turn into something else.” He calls this something else an “interview” study. This is not what you want. He is not discounting the value of interviews. He is just claiming that without documents or archival records, it would be hard to adequately conduct a case study.
Triangulation of Interview Data
In qualitative methodologies, such as case study, grounded theory, and phenomenology, you can improve the validity of your findings if you use one of various forms of triangulation.
Here is an excellent and comprehensive definition of “triangulation” from Thomas A. Schwandt in his book, The Sage Dictionary of Qualitative Inquiry, 3rd edition, Sage Publications, (2007):
“Triangulation is a means of checking the integrity of the inferences one draws. It can involve the use of multiple data sources, multiple investigators, multiple theoretical perspectives, and/or multiple methods.” (p. 298) He continues: “The strategy of triangulation is often wedded to the assumption that data from different sources or methods must necessarily converge or be aggregated to reveal the truth.” (p. 298) This is the most comprehensive definition I have found for triangulation. It easily supports the following three-step approach I have suggested to many clients, who conducted interviews in their phenomenological or case study designs:
Step One – Interviews are conducted and audio-taped. Note-taking is not a good substitute for taping since it distracts the interviewer from what the participant is saying and contributes to missed opportunities for more probing questions for clarification. Two common issues that may need more description are the participants’ use of empty or fluff words like “tough.” What does tough mean? You will want to ask for more information and/or description. When they say “tough,” exactly what do they mean? A second issue comes up from time to time. A participant may be overly vague, such as “That was no fun.” This statement has no real meaning to you as a researcher. You will want to interrupt them and ask for the statement or comment in question to be described in some way. You could ask, “When you say ‘That was no fun,’ what do you mean? Can you tell me more about that?”
Step Two – Audio-tapes are transcribed and returned to participants for their review and approval. This is what W. Paul Vogt in the Dictionary of Statistics and Methodology: A Nontechnical Guide for the Social Sciences (2005) calls “member check (or validation).” His definition is “The practice of researchers submitting their data or findings to their informants (members) in order to make sure they correctly represented what their informants told them. This is perhaps most often done with data, such as interview summaries; it is less often done with interpretations built on those data.” (p. 190-191)
Step Three – Researcher collaborates with an “outside evaluator” or “external auditor” during data analysis (identifying meaning units from the transcripts and making the conversion into themes). Schwandt states, “This is a procedure (of auditing) whereby an independent, third-party examiner systematically reviews an audit trail maintained by the inquirer.” “An audit trail is a systematically maintained documentation system.” (p.12)
You will find that, with the inclusion of this form of triangulation in your data analysis procedures, your chair will appreciate your efforts to use a validation strategy and the university will be more willing to approve your methodology. Every doctoral student I have worked with, who has used my three-step approach to triangulation, has had their IRB application approved. It has two major advantages: (1) it is easy to conduct and (2) the audit trail is traceable. This process lessens the concerns many chairpersons have over possible subjectivity of the findings.
Convergence and Chain of Evidence
You may want to consult Yin’s (2009) Figure 4.2, Convergence and Nonconvergence of Multiple Sources of Evidence, on page 117 and Figure 4.3, Maintaining a Chain of Evidence, on page 123. Both of these should give you a visual snapshot and better understanding of the value of creating a case study database and using triangulation.
I would also encourage you to mention both Yin (2009) and Gerring (2007) or another researcher at the beginning of Chapter Three, Methodology, and state that you are “adapting” their guidelines for data collection, data analysis, and presentation. By adapting your approach from theirs, you reduce the requirement to follow precisely what each one recommends. Many students find it extremely difficult to follow all aspects of one approach. By incorporating various aspects from two or more sources, you will have more flexibility with your procedures. Some committee chairs may also view you as more creative since you are integrating your methodology from more than one source.
The process of analyzing transcripts and other sources of evidence for natural meaning units is an ongoing process. As you become more familiar with the data, you have new insights and a better understanding of what the participants are saying. So if you see a few natural meaning units without assigned idiographic themes, you can re-consider these and add appropriate themes. You also have the option of re-naming previously identified idiographic themes.
In case study data analysis, I believe it is best to first respond to each interview question and later try to summarize the findings relevant to the research question or questions.
Ellet, William. (2007). The Case Study Handbook: How to Read, Discuss, and Write Persuasively About Cases. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.
Gerring, John. (2007). Case Study Research: Principles and Practices. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Yin, Robert K. (2009). Case Study Research: Design and Methods, 4th ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications
Case Study Dissertations (Here are three that can serve as excellent models.)
Culbertson, Danielle M. (2012). Effective Mathematics Instructional Strategies for Middle School Students. Walden University, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Ruvarac, Angelica. (2010). Crisis Communication: Perspectives of Stakeholders in the Housing Crisis. Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana.
Saul, Robert. (2012). A Case Study of Online Degree Course Design and Performance of Online Learners. Northcentral University, Prescott Valley, Arizona.
Recommended citation for this report:
Wargo, W.G. (2014). A.I.C. Report #20, Case Study Method in Qualitative Research. Menifee, CA: Academic Information Center.
If you have questions about any aspect or point in this report, please contact me at email@example.com or call (951) 301-5557.
Tags:Angelica Ruvarac, Case Study method, creating a database, Danielle M. Culbertson, John Gerring, Robert Saul, Robert Yin, sources of evidence, triangulation of interview data, William Ellet