Wednesday, November 6, 2013

On Field Research

From time to time, I write in this blog about some of my graduate school experiences at Penn. This time, I want to say a few words about "field research." Not in streams, forests or meadows. I'm talking about a different kind of field - the kind where, for the purpose of qualitative case study research, the investigator visits the people that are the subjects of the research, at their locations. 

My current dissertation research on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) involves visiting other universities and collecting data at those locations through interviews, observations, and documents. These form the raw data of qualitative case study research. Later, coding brings structure, and analysis leads to the findings that are the product of the research. That's what I'm up to.

I have some thoughts to share - but not on what I'm learning about my research topic. I'll probably do that here some other time. Instead, what I want to share today is what I've been learning about being out in the field.

For starters, I'm lucky to be visiting some pretty great universities – Duke, Columbia and Harvard – and getting to appreciate their unique character. From the Duke Gardens to the stately Morningside campus of Columbia to Harvard Yard, these are some great places. Walking among the beautiful architecture, and getting to know each campus through its sights, sounds, and smells is intoxicating. 

Beyond the appreciation, there are the practical matters. While I'm on campus, I'm nomadic. I have no office, no home base, and this means I must focus on some basic needs. 

First of all is figuring out how to get from each interview to the next on an unfamiliar campus, generally with a paper map in one hand and my iPhone and the map app in the other. Along the way, I try to find handy places to rest and write a few notes. Finding a well-located bench on the campus (when the weather is pleasant) or a handy library study room (when it isn't) can be a real winner.  A comfortable chair near an electrical outlet to charge my phone and laptop is a great find, and all the more a treasure when it is near to my next interview. Wifi access is crucial, and it varies by campus. Luckily, because of my "day job" I know the network operators at these universities and they have all accommodated me with network access and even the occasional lunch. I owe each of them, and won't forget!

There's the joy of finding a place or two to get a decent cup of coffee, or a sandwich. And since I've been finding myself on these campuses for days at a time, finding a spacious, modern bathroom in a handy location helps.

Sometimes I think that by the time I really start to figure out a campus, my time there ends.

Finally, there are the people I'm there to visit with and interview. All are very smart and dedicated, and they are giving their time to my research. I'm truly grateful. If I'm being entirely honest, though, some are great interviews and some are not. Some are talkative people, some are quiet. Some are organized in their thinking and in their speech, others are a little more erratic. Some are suspicious of my motives or afraid of saying more than they should, afraid that they'll somehow embarrass their university.

Some of the people I've interviewed have been amazing. They speak with passion and have insights into my research topic, and I learn a great deal from them. Some have been gossipy, and at the end worry that they've said too much – such as a senior faculty member who spoke somewhat roughly of upper administration and then only at the end as I was walking out asked if I was "masking" names. I was not, I had said so in advance, I had the recording, and I had the signed consent form that made all of this clear. But I have no reason to get anyone in any trouble and so, of course, I will be cautious and kind.

Field research has been an interesting adventure for me, and is a part of my doctoral education in a way that I hand't expected. Like much of what I do as I dive into my research, it's exciting and a little scary. But most of all, I'm grateful for the experience and trying to make the most of it.

Perhaps others who do this kind of field research will add to my observations by leaving a comment and sharing their experiences.

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