Software Tools for Qualitative Analysis
This semester, TLI's coverage has highlighted work by the Engineering Education and Engineering Practice research teams for the NSF-funded How People Learn Engineering project. Although the teams use different methods to explore different questions in different settings, many of their research tasks--and, thus, their needs from the tools they use to aid their work--are the same.
Both groups face the challenge of organizing and analyzing vast quantities of data in the form of audio and video recordings, transcripts, field notes, and other documents and multi-media files. In what some researchers jokingly refer to as "the bad old days," all of the bookmarking, coding, cross-referencing, tabulation, and validation associated with the groups' research methods would have to have been performed by hand. This resource review introduces two software tools that automate many of these essential tasks for educational researchers. Meet Transana and NVivo.
The project's Engineering Education group works primarily with Transana, which was created (and continues to be developed) at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research (WCER). Transana is designed to support qualitative analysis of transcripted audio and video data but is used in novel ways for many other applications, including training and self-study in fields like counseling. The Engineering Education team uses the program to analyze their recordings of high school Project Lead The Way classroom lessons and teacher interviews. Individuals interested in learning more about the features Transana offers for research or other educational activities should start with the Guided Tour, written by Transana developer and WCER researcher David Woods. Transana is available as inexpensive open-source software.
In addition to interview transcripts, the Engineering Practice group needs to analyze field notes, survey responses, and other documents that do not fit into Transana's transcript-centric paradigm (that's where the trans in Transana comes from). Thus, their tool of choice is NVivo, a commercial offering from QSR International. NVivo allows users to import audio and video files in addition to many kinds of text documents (Word, PDF, rich and plain text) and still photographs. Like Transana, its intended use is for qualitative analysis, but one can again imagine useful applications within many types of research; see, for example, this tutorial on using NVivo with geographic information system (GIS) data. An introductory overview of the most recent version of NVivo is available here.
As the scholarship of teaching and learning continues to inform curriculum, instruction, and assessment in engineering programs across the country, engineering faculty are increasingly likely to interact with colleagues using state-of-the-art software for educational research. To learn more about what these tools have to offer, contact your colleagues already using them with an eye toward improving the quality and relevance of engineering education at all levels.