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A Phenomenological Perspective

In document 1.1 The Focus of this Research (Page 106-113)

4.4 Methodological Considerations

4.4.2 A Phenomenological Perspective

The tradition of phenomenology underpins qualitative approach (Merriam, 2002). It focuses on identifying the ―essence of human experiences about a phenomenon, as described by participants‖ (Creswell, 2009, p. 13). It is important to differentiate between two uses of phenomenology: a general preoccupation with experience and understanding, and a more specific use of particular tools of inquiry employed within the school of phenomenology (Merriam, 2002). This study proposes to take the former usage by using unstructured accounts as an interview tool to elicit the immediate and lived experiences of the participants without necessarily taking on board the philosophical underpinnings of phenomenology. This reluctance to become entwined within a truly phenomenological approach stems from its epistemological perspective which does not appear to be consistent with sociocultural theory. As a key figure in the phenomenological tradition, Husserl (1931) writes:

That we should set aside all previous habits of thought, see through and break down the mental barriers which these habits have set along the horizons of our thinking, and in full intellectual freedom proceed to lay hold on those genuine philosophical problems still awaiting completely fresh formulation which the liberated horizons on all sides disclose to us. (Husserl, 1931, p. 43)

Under this view, attention should centre upon describing ―things in themselves, to permit what is before one to enter consciousness and be understood in its meanings and essences in the light of intuition and self reflection‖ (Moustakas, 1994, p. 27). In opposition to these beliefs, sociocultural theory maintains a radically different stance claiming that thought is mediated by cultural artefacts; thus, the focus of study should be upon how thought is shaped by these cultural factors. The concept that one can somehow sidestep ways of thinking and view things as they truly exist is untenable within sociocultural theory. Therefore, in order to maintain consistency in the research design, phenomenological tools are used but underlying philosophies are not espoused.

4.4.3 A Case Study Approach

A case study can be defined as ―an intensive description and analysis of a phenomenon or social unit such as an individual, group, institution, or community‖

(Merriam, 2002, p. 8). It is a ―functioning specific‖ (Stake, 2003, p. 135) which allows the inquirer to gain a detailed understanding of a phenomenon. Stake (2003) claims that the use of a case study does not involve decisions of methodology, but a decision about what is to be studied or what the inquirer can ―fence in‖ (Merriam, 1998, p. 27).

Case studies are useful for studying complex social behaviour (Yin, 1994) and they can provide a number of benefits for social research including the ability to acquire detailed, rich, and holistic descriptions of the unique characteristics of a case which aids in the transfer of the findings to other contexts and consistency with a relativist epistemology by recognising the complexity of multiple realities (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). Additionally, a case study bounds the data collection process by focusing attention upon a unit of analysis (the phenomenon which is to be studied). Therefore,

it guides decisions around sampling and data collection; it determines the field of vision (what is noticed and what is overlooked); and it allows the inquirer to employ a wide variety of data collection methods (Yin, 1994).

Given that the research is focused on describing and exploring complex social activity within real-life educational settings, a case study method appears to be a natural choice for this study. By focusing intently upon the situated experiences of students and teachers as they engage in an online learning activity, the worlds of others can be entered in order to discover the rich meanings people attribute to their experiences. A case study bounds the data collection process, acting as an anchor and providing a sense of focus and a feeling of containment. However, unlike conventional approaches which may use a person, group, or institution as the unit of analysis, this study proposes to use an activity system as the case study unit of analysis. This activity system is directed towards an object (for example, completing a learning task such as posting a discussion message to the website) and the subjects can be defined alternatively as the teacher(s) or EAL students engaged in this learning activity. The process of transforming the object (engaging in the learning activity) is mediated by many tools including physical tools (for example, computers, books, and pens), virtual tools (for example, the website interface), pedagogical tools (for example, the task design), and psychological tools (for example, learning strategies).

Van Lier (2005, p. 196) observes that the ―social, distributed side of behaviour, cognition, and interaction‖ can blur the boundaries of a case study. This vagueness can be problematic when identifying the boundaries of an activity system and ascertaining where the case study begins or ends. For example, learning activities are embedded within larger activity systems at the programme or institutional level.

Participants can be simultaneously members of a number of communities including the immediate student group engaged in the learning task, the larger group of students

in the programme, social groups such as family and friends, and the target communities of practice. This uncertainty about boundaries is observed by Barab et al. (2002, p. 79) who note that ―an activity system is made up of nested activities and actions all of which could be conceived of as separate activity systems or other instances of the same system depending on one‘s perspective.‖

In response to this complexity, it has been recognized that a case study which uses an activity system as the unit of analysis cannot be a fixed entity with rigid boundaries but rather a permeable and flexible frame of reference. The learning task or object has been used to anchor the data collection as the unit of analysis. Information relating to the local context (for example, the website interface or roles in the learning activity) and the broader context (for example, details about a learner‘s paid employment or institutional support for the professional development of teachers) has been recorded as data if it affects the learning activity in some way.

4.4.3.1 Multiple case studies.

There are three types of case study: an intrinsic case study is undertaken because a particular case is inherently interesting; an instrumental case study is a means to an end, undertaken to understand a particular so that a more general phenomenon can be explored; and a collective case study examines more than one case in order to better understand a phenomenon under investigation (Stake, 2003, pp. 136-138).

In order to address the research question, a collective cross-case analysis has been performed which generates interpretations spanning more than one case (Stake, 2006). It is intended that each case study can be read as a complete unit in relative isolation offering a different angle of vision upon eLearning as experienced by EAL learners and their teachers (an intrinsic study according to Stake, 2003), but it is also

intended that common themes be identified in the data so that global perspectives can be generated. Stake (2006, p. 39) warns that the unique nature of a single case study can become ―mangled in a cross-case analysis‖ as the focus of vision moves from the particular features of the case to what is common between the cases. Heeding this warning, the findings are presented in Chapter Five as individual case studies – each of which can be read independently as an holistic unit. A cross-case analysis is presented at the end of the chapter, synthesising key ideas and foreshadowing further development in Chapters Six and Seven. As discussed later in this chapter, the use of multiple case studies allows a degree of diversity into the study which may provide the reader with opportunities to identify commonalities between the study and their own teaching and learning contexts, thereby facilitating the transfer of the research findings.

In summary, the preceding section has discussed the selection of a qualitative framework for this study and has considered a number of methodological implications. Ethnographic, phenomenological, and case study approaches have been discussed in relation to this inquiry. In the next section, specific research methods supporting the qualitative paradigm will be discussed in relation to the practical implementation of the research design.

4.5 Research Methods

As noted previously, this study draws upon the fields of ethnography and phenomenology in order to understand and explore the meanings people give to their experiences within a sociocultural context. Through the process of participant observation which is ―a mode of being-in-the-world characteristic of researchers‖

(Atkinson & Hammersley, 1998, p. 249), the case study sites were entered and material collected from a variety of sources including interviews, online and

face-to-face observations, and documents. From an ethnographic perspective, the researcher entered the participants‘ teaching and learning worlds, talked with them, and watched them in an attempt to understand the social and cultural context from an insider perspective.

The research methods are summarized below in tabular form (Table 4.1).

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Table 4.1

A Summary of Research Methods in this Inquiry Research

Method

Description Frequency

Interviews Semi-structured face-to-face interaction where questions act as a guide, but the ability to deviate from the schedule is permitted.

Undertaken at least three times during each paper/course at the beginning, middle, and end. For the students, a group interview occurred at the conclusion of the course. All the teachers were interviewed individually.

Accounts Minimally structured evocative accounts where subjects are prompted to ―re-live‖ their experiences.

Undertaken several times (at least four times per participant) during the paper/course and scheduled as close as possible to participation in the learning activity so recollections were clearer.

Face-to-face observations

Field notes were taken during lectures, tutorials, teacher meetings, and workshops during the paper.

At a minimum, face-to-face encounters occurred at least weekly. Often, observations were made two or three times a week as appropriate.

Online observations

Screen shots were obtained of the posting areas in the relevant pages within the learning management system. Also, student postings were cut and pasted into Word documents.

The frequency of these observations varied between cases depending on the degree of activity. The website was checked several times a week with screen shots being obtained after posting activity was observed.

Artefact analysis Paper artefacts produced by the teacher were collected for analysis. These artefacts included course outlines, marking schedules, and resources for students.

Paper artefacts were often collected on a weekly basis depending on the case.

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Interviews played a major role in the data collection process by helping the researcher to access the inner worlds of participants. The term interview is defined as a ―specific professional form of conversational technique in which knowledge is constructed through the interaction of interviewer and interviewee‖

(Kvale, 1996, p. 36). In qualitative research, semi-structured and unstructured interviews are the tools of choice (Bryman, 2004) as they allow the participant to articulate their perspective, and also give the researcher flexibility to depart from pre-existing questions to respond to new directions suggested by the subjects. In this study, three types of interview were used: minimally structured evocative accounts, semi-structured interviews, and group interviews. These are discussed below in more detail.

In document 1.1 The Focus of this Research (Page 106-113)