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Tools of Data Collection

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Much of the workings of the world today are controlled and powered by information, giving credence to that famous quote, “information is power”. Professionals, researchers, organizations, businesses, industries and even governments cannot function without information serving as “fuel” for decision-making, strategizing, gaining and storing knowledge. But information is not something that is handed to anyone on a silver platter. It starts with a small raw fact or figure – or a set of raw facts and figures – that are not organized and, all too often, without meaning or context. These are called “data”. By itself, and in its raw form, data may seem useless. Data will cease to be useless once it undergoes processing, where it will be organized, structured and given context through interpretation and analysis. Processing gives it meaning, effectively turning it into information that will eventually be of great use to those who need it. Collectively, all information will make up bodies of knowledge that will, in turn, benefit various users of this knowledge.

THE MEANING OF DATA COLLECTION

Data collection is described as the “process of gathering and measuring information on variables of interest, in an established systematic fashion that enables one to answer queries, stated research questions, test hypotheses, and evaluate outcomes.” Depending on the discipline or field, the nature of the information being sought, and the objective or goal of users, the methods of data collection will vary. The approach to applying the methods may also vary, customized to suit the purpose and prevailing circumstances, without compromising the integrity, accuracy and reliability of the data.

There are two main types of data that users find themselves working with – and having to collect.

  1. Quantitative Data. These are data that deal with quantities, values or numbers, making them measurable. Thus, they are usually expressed in numerical form, such as length, size, amount, price, and even duration. The use of statistics to generate and subsequently analyse this type of data add credence or credibility to it, so that quantitative data is overall seen as more reliable and objective.
  2. Qualitative Data. These data, on the other hand, deals with quality, so that they are descriptive rather than numerical in nature. Unlike quantitative data, they are generally not measurable, and are only gained mostly through observation.

Narratives often make use of adjectives and other descriptive words to refer to data on appearance, color, texture, and other qualities. In most cases, these two data types are used as preferences in choosing the method or tool to be used in data collection. As a matter of fact, data collection methods are classified into two, and they are based on these types of data.

Thus, we can safely say that there are two major classifications or categories of data collection methods: the quantitative data collection methods and the qualitative data collection methods. From the definition of “data collection” alone, it is already apparent why gathering data is important: to come up with answers, which come in the form of useful information, converted from data. But for many, that still does not mean much. Depending on the perspective of the user and the purpose of the information, there are many concrete benefits that can be gained from data gathering.

In general terms, here are some of the reasons why data collection is very important. The first question that we will address is: “why should you collect data?” Qualitative Data Collection Methods Exploratory in nature, these methods are mainly concerned at gaining insights and understanding on underlying reasons and motivations, so they tend to dig deeper. Since they cannot be quantified, measurability becomes an issue. This lack of measurability leads to the preference for methods or tools that are largely unstructured or, in some cases, maybe structured but only to a very small, limited extent. Generally, qualitative methods are time-consuming and expensive to conduct, and so researchers try to lower the costs incurred by decreasing the sample size or number of respondents.

SYSTEMATIC OBSERVATION

Observation entails the systematic noting and recording of events,behaviours, and artifacts (objects) in the social setting chosen for study.The observational record is frequently referred to as field notes —detailed, non-judgmental, concrete descriptions of what has been observed. For Studies relying exclusively on observation, the researcher makes no special effort to have a particular role in the setting; to be tolerated as an unobtrusive observer is enough. Classroom studies are one example of observation, often found in education, in which the researcher documents and describes actions and interactions that are complex: what they mean can only be inferred without other sources of information. This method assumes that behavior is purposeful and expressive of deeper values and beliefs.

Observation can range from a highly structured, detailed notation of behavior structured by checklists to a more holistic description of events and behavior.In the early stages of qualitative inquiry, the researcher typically enters the setting with broad areas of interest but without predetermined categories or strict observational checklists. In this way, the researcher is able to discover the recurring patterns of behavior and relationships. After these patterns are identified and described through early analysis of field notes, checklists become more appropriate and context-sensitive. Focused observation then is used at later Stages of the study, usually to see, for example, if analytic themes explain behaviour and relationships over a long time or in a variety of settings.

Observation is a fundamental and highly important method in all qualitative inquiry.It is used to discover complex interactions in natural social settings. Even in studies using in-depth interviews, observation Plays an important role as the researcher notes the interviewer’s body language and affect in addition to her words. It is, however, a method that requires a great deal of the researcher. Discomfort, uncomfortable ethical dilemmas and even danger, the difficulty of managing a relatively unobtrusive role, and the challenge of identifying the big picture while finely observing huge amounts of fast-moving and complex behaviors are just a few of the challenges.Whether a researcher is simply observing from afar or finding a participant-observer role in the setting, some contexts may present dangers. Street ethnography is a term that describes research settings which can be dangerous, either physically or emotionally, such as working with the police drug users,cults, and situations in which political or social tensions may erupt into violence (Weppner, 1977).

Observations involve more than just “hanging out.” Planful and self-aware observers use observation systematically ( DeWalt & DeWalt,2001) . At the proposal stage, the researcher should describe the purpose of the observing, the phase of the study in which it is likely to most fruitful, and the use of field notes to respond to the research questions. Field notes are not scribbles. The proposal writer should have explicit note-organizing and note-management strategies provides an example of edited and “cleaned-up” field notes for a study Of kindergarten teachers.

O'Hearn-Curran (1997) has formatted descriptive notes in a column on the left while reserving a second column on the right for her comments. These include her emerging analytic Insights about the behaviour. Observers’ comments are often a quite fruitful source of analytic insights and clues that focus data collection more tightly (more on this in Chapter 5). They may also provide important questions for subsequent interviews. In this method, the researcher takes a participatory stance, immersing himself in the setting where his respondents are, and generally taking may be used, such as video and audio recording, photography, and the use of tangible items such as artifacts, mementoes, and other tools. (+) The participatory nature may lead to the researcher getting more reliable information. (+) Data is more reliable and representative of what is actually happening, since they took place and were observed under normal circumstances. (-) The participation may end up influencing the opinions and attitudes of the researcher, so he will end up having difficulty being objective and impartial as soon as the data he is looking for comes in. (-) Validity may arise due to the risk that the researcher’s participation may have an impact on the naturalness of the setting. The observed may become reactive to the idea of being watched and observed. If he planned to observe recovering alcoholic mothers in their natural environment (e.g. at their homes with their kids), their presence may cause the subjects to react differently, knowing that they are being observed. This may lead to the results becoming impaired.

PARTICIPANT OBSERVATION

Developed primarily from cultural anthropology and qualitative sociology, participant observation (as this method is typically called) is both an overall approach to inquiry and a data-gathering method. To some degree,it is an essential element of all qualitative studies. As its name suggests,participant observation demands first hand involvement in the social world chosen for study. Immersion in the setting permits the researcher to hear, to see, and to begin to experience reality as the participants do. Ideally, the researcher spends a considerable amount of time in the setting,learning about daily life there. This immersion offers the researcher the opportunity to learn directly from his own experience. Personal reflections are integral to the emerging analysis of a cultural group, because they provide the researcher with new vantage points and with opportunities strange familiar and the familiar strange (Glens, 1999).

Characteristics of systematic observations

  1. Observation is a Systematic Method: Observation is not haphazard or unplanned. The length of the observation periods, the interval between them, the number of observations, the area or situation of observation and various techniques used for observation are carefully planned. Often there are systematic managements for controlling the situation if special factors are to be studied, for example study of honest behaviour, sportsman spirit, leadership qualities etc.
  2. Observation is Specific: It is not just looking around for general aspects of human behaviour. Rather it is directed at those specific aspects of total situation which are assumed to be significant from the standpoint of the purpose of the study. The layman may frequently overlook what is crucial while observing an event or phenomenon, but the scientific observer should look for some definite things which suit his purpose of study so as to economies his time, money and effort for observation.
  3. Observation is Objective: Observation should be objective and free from bias as far as possible. It should generally be guided by a hypothesis. The observer must maintain ethical neutrality. He must consider hypothesis as something to be tested. But at the same time he must maintain a flexible attitude, so that he can deviate from his original plan when such deviation appears inevitable.
  4. Observation is Quantitative: Although many important phenomena cannot be quantified, it becomes almost an imperative to use some means for quantifying observations in order to increase their precision and to facilitate their analysis. Even the quality should be converted into quantity, because qualitative data is subjective and quantitative one is objective and can further be interpreted in objective manner.
  5. Observation is an Affair of Eyes: P.V. Young remarks that observation is a systematic and deliberate study through eye. An observer gathers the data which he has seen in his own eyes. Collecting information through eyes is probably the most trustworthy technique of data collection in social research.
  6. Definite Aim:Observation must have some definite aims and objectives. It should be clearly defined before the beginning of the actual observation process. Without the proper aims and objectives observation will be unsystematic and expensive.
  7. The Record of Observation is Made Immediately:During the observation period it is very difficult on the part of the observer to remember each and every element of observation. He may forget much important information. If we rely on memory the factor of forgetting will enter and affect the data of observation. Therefore the observer should record all important information as soon as the observation is completed.
  8. Observation is Verifiable: Observation result can be checked and verified. Observation must be verified with usual criteria of reliability, validity and usability. It may be possible to check the findings of the observation by comparing the results of different observers by repeating the study.

FOCUS GROUPS

Focus groups are a data collection method. Data is collected through a semi-structured group interview process. Focus groups are moderated by a group leader. Focus groups are generally used to collect data on a specific topic. Focus group methods emerged in the 1940s with the work of Merton and Fiske who used focus groups to conduct audience studies. Characteristics of focused groups The design of focus group research will vary based on the research question being studied. Below, we highlight some general principles to consider: Standardization of questions — Focus groups can vary in the extent to which they follow a structured protocol or permit discussion to emerge Number of focus groups conducted – or sampling will depend on the 'segmentation' or different stratifications (e.g. age, sex, socioeconomic status, health status) that the researcher identifies as important to the research topic Number of participants per group – the rule of thumb has been 6-10 homogeneous strangers, but as Morgan (1996) points out there may be reasons to have smaller or slightly larger groups Level of moderator involvement – can vary from high to low degree of control exercised during focus groups (e.g. extent to which structured questions are asked and group dynamics are actively managed)

Focus groups may be used:

  • To explore new research areas
  • To explore a topic that is difficult to observe (not easy to gain access)
  • To explore a topic that does not lend itself to observational techniques (e.g. attitudes and decision-making)
  • To explore sensitive topics When you want to collect a concentrated set of observations in a short time span
  • To a certain perspectives and experiences from people on a topic, particularly when these are people who might otherwise be marginalized

In combination with other methods, focus groups might be used to: gather preliminary data aid in the development of surveys and interview guides clarify research findings from another method Recording of focus group datas One of the challenges in recording focus group data is knowing who is speaking at any particular time, since often multiple people speak in overlap. Consider audio- or video-recording focus group sessions (or even both). Video will be helpful for identifying who is speaking. Recordings also provide access to nuances of the discussion and the ability to replay sessions during analysis Transcribe focus group discussions Have a least 2-3 researchers (in addition to the moderator) attend the focus group and take notes. The focus of each researcher's note-taking efforts might be different (e.g. nonverbal behavior, group dynamics, emergent themes). Note taking is important to capture nonverbal data. Even if one is video-recording a group, some nonverbal behaviour will be lost that might be recorded by a note-taker. Benefits Ability to produce a large amount of data on a topic in a short time Access to topics that might be otherwise unobservable Can insure that data directly targets researcher's topic

CONCLUSION

A general review of the studies based on a systematic observation schedule reveals many aspects that are inherently questionable. There has been considerable debate within the systematic observation tradition, concerning the validity and reliability of the results produced (Hamersley, 1993). A general criticism is related to the predetermined nature of systematic observation categories. The researchers adapting this point of view (Walker & Adelman as cited in McIntyre & Macleod, 1986) claim that a framework irrelevant to the setting being observed may be imposed when using systematic observation schedules as many systems are not suitable for all kinds of classroom contexts. Similarly, Delmont and Hamilton (1986) propose that systematic observation techniques fail to understand the perspectives in which the classroom interaction occurs and specifically the intentions of the teachers and pupils involved.

In addition to these concerns, systematic observation has been proved weak in providing any evidence on the mental activities of the participants due to the fact that direct behaviour is being observed. Therefore, the observer is not allowed to discover why people do things. A counter argument is presented by McIntyre and Macleod (1986) who support that the observer is able to understand the shared meanings within a classroom as he is a member of the same culture, and thus the categorization of the events occurring can be based on these shared cultural values. Apart from that, the main strength of systematic observation is based on the objective description of children's and teachers' behaviour in regular classroom situations (Martin, 1977). It has also been asserted that the prespecified coding systems are unable to go beyond the established categories. The potential of systematic observation to uncover any global concepts that lie behind the small parts of the observed behaviour is limited. Consequently, the natural patterns of classroom interaction are disregarded by the use of arbitrary time sampling (Delamont and Hamilton, 1986).

Another methodological concern of systematic observation is related to the interference of the technique. For instance, reactive effects may occur if the teacher or the students change their behaviour due to the presence of the observer. Moreover, systematic observation has come under criticism in terms of its tendency to focus predominantly on one particular system, that of Flanders (1970). According to this perception, the procedures used by Flanders and consequently by all other systematic observation schedules are ideologically committed (Delamont, 1976). However, McIntyre and Macleod (1986) argue for the value of systematic observation by highlighting that FIAC is only one system among many. It has to be remembered that, in the field of social research most of the methods used are ideologically based as the researchers usually focus their attention on particular aspects while neglecting others (McIntyre & Macleod, 1986).

Finally, certain criticisms have been implied in connection with the issue of generalizability (Stenhouse, 1975). As Blatchford (2005) observes, due to the time consuming nature of data collection, the analysis is usually based on total frequencies of behaviours. Consequently, many of the conclusions about what happens in classrooms are based on quantification, thus generalization could be misleading as numbers cannot reflect social reality. Evidence against this assumption is provided by Croll (1986) who underlines the practical advantages of systematic observation in that it allows data to be collected on a substantial scale, producing cumulative and replicable results. As he notes: Systematic observation techniques can be used across a large number of classrooms and a long period of time by a large number of observers all engaged on a common purpose (Croll, 1986, p. 6). Ober et al., (1971) gave weight to this view, by emphasizing the distinct and analytic qualities of the method which allow the observer to provide an accurate description of classroom activities.

Obviously, there are some undeniable limitations to systematic observation. However, the reasons for conducting a study using this method prevail. It is certainly accurate and effective as a methodological tool when direct behaviour is the focus of the analysis. Moreover, the combination of systematic observation with methods that provide evidence on the meanings of the observed behaviour can contribute to the field of research (McIntyre & Macleod, 1986).

Considering all the above, there is no doubt that many areas of the educational research can be benefited from the use of systematic observation.

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