A one-eyed look at classroom life: Using new technologies to enrich classroom-based research
Bruce Johnson, Anna M. Sullivan and David Williams
School of Education & Hawke Research Institute, University of South Australia
This paper is about examining life in classrooms. Authentic recording and interpretation of the complexities of classroom life have long been both fascinating and challenging for researchers. Typically, such research has been expensive, time-consuming and susceptible to claims that its intrusiveness pollutes the authenticity of the very context that it seeks to understand. Furthermore, it has usually been restricted to the visual focus selected for recording by the 'two eyes' of the researcher, the editor or the camera operator. However, developments in the 'one eye' of digital video technology and associated research software offer opportunities to look into classrooms in ways that are more cost and time-efficient, less intrusive, and more inclusive and representative of the totality of classroom life.
In this paper we report that, regardless of the limitations and challenges, we are convinced of the potential for research to be enriched through the incorporation of new technologies. Our experience in conducting research into life in six primary school classrooms supports the value of new technologies as methodological tools which are more manageable in practical terms, which increase and improve information-gathering, and which enhance the construction of datasets based upon the dynamism and complexities of classroom life. We recommend their use to explore, better understand and appreciate classroom life in fuller, richer ways.
Educational researchers have long been attracted to studying classroom life. Following the seminal work of Jackson (1968), successive generations of researchers have sought to understand the complexity of classroom life and thereby gain insights into why teaching is such a challenging and demanding enterprise. These researchers have developed ways to describe what goes on in classrooms; suggested how teachers can improve their students' learning and social development; identified historical and contemporary influences which influence what happens in classrooms; alerted teachers to their own classroom behaviour and its impact on students; and proposed theories and concepts that contribute to new understandings of classroom dynamics (Good & Brophy, 2003).
Traditional research into classroom life followed predictable lines of inquiry when investigating the relationship between sets of variables in process-product models of classroom teaching. The main data-gathering approach used various types of observational instruments to make systematic and highly-structured classroom observations (Hook, 1981). Typically, these instruments were prepared in advance and based on particular categorisations, taxonomies and schedules which directed the observation towards selected aspects of classroom life. Only in rare cases were emerging video technologies used to capture and examine classroom events and processes (c.f. Kounin, 1970). Even in these cases, in order to collect the data that was of most interest to them, researchers tended to direct or manipulate the events being recorded by focussing in or out to highlight specific items for coverage (Baker, Green & Skukauskaite, 2008). Using technology in such ways did not enrich the research process, but simply served to replicate the behaviour of non-participant observers making field notes.
The potential and value of technology's role in research were recognised, but the limitations were also apparent. In terms of gathering the information for dataset construction, these included the practical restrictions of standard lens cameras recording specific, selected samples of activity without necessarily contextualising these within the broader classroom dynamic. Despite the intrusiveness, expense and research issues, the fact that the use of video recording enabled researchers to "code more, and more subtle, aspects of both teacher and student behaviour" (Brophy, 2006, p. 28) promoted its inclusion in research to the extent that there are claims that "video analysis has become a dominant part of research in classrooms" (Baker & Green, 2007, p. 191).
Although researchers learned a great deal about classroom environments by using quantitative methods, they were also frustrated by the reductionist focus of much of their research on pre-specified sets of variables and statistical models. As Tobin (2006) declared, too much of what seemed to impact on classroom life was excluded from his analyses because it was not easily observable or quantifiable. He reported that
in many instances the most salient features of classroom life seemed outside of the statistical model and I found myself writing more and more about what I referred to in those days as context - the factors I had not identified a priori - that were surely shaping what happened in the classes in which I was an observer. (Tobin, 2006, p. 15)Qualitative approaches to classroom research became more popular from the 1980s as researchers searched for better ways to understand not only classroom events, but also the "the world views, values, meanings, beliefs, thoughts and general characteristics" of those who taught and learned in classrooms (Leininger, 1985, p. 5). Good and Brophy (2003, p. 19) noted that
[i]n qualitative approaches, observers do not concentrate on assigning classroom events to categories but instead attempt to collect detailed descriptive information about them. These rich descriptive data are preserved and then analysed with emphasis on qualitative aspects of the events recorded (i.e., on the specifics of how they unfolded and how they were likely to have been experienced by the teacher and students).In our research project, several features of qualitative research appealed to us as we sought to investigate classroom life in new ways, particularly the potential of using emergent digital technologies to provide rich authentic information about the project's focus on first-year teachers' approaches to classroom management.
What follows is an account of the ways in which we designed a qualitative research project that adhered to the principles of interpretive inquiry and used newly available technologies - high definition digital camcorders equipped with wide-angle lenses and Bluetooth wireless connectivity - to look into and record classroom life. The footage was imported into newly developed computer software for analysis. In identifying the potential of digital video in such research we believed, somewhat naïvely perhaps, that our optimistic aims would be implemented relatively easily and that any difficulties would be able to be addressed efficiently.
The first part of the following discussion reflects our commitment to linking qualitative research themes with new technologies and to establishing a research project without pre-conceived certainties about how it would develop, what challenges it would bring, and most importantly, what we would need to learn to complete it. The second part of the discussion considers the practicalities of using new digital technologies in classroom research and describes how unanticipated eventualities were handled.
Because of our project's focus on teachers orchestrating and navigating the demands of everyday classroom life, we wanted to see what happens on a regular basis in ordinary classrooms as teachers and students assume their usual roles, perform their work, and interact over extended periods of time. We wanted to ensure that our methods and the equipment supporting them were as unobtrusive as possible so that we could better capture the "authentic participation" of teachers and students in classroom life (Hickey & Schafer, 2006, p. 296). We also wanted to 'see' beyond the limitations of our 'two eyes'. Like Hickey and Schafer (2006), we recognised the potential of the 'one eye' of new digital video with Bluetooth wireless connectivity to help us achieve this.
In his pioneering efforts using video technology to look inside classrooms, Kounin (1970) went to extraordinary lengths to disguise cumbersome, tape-fed video cameras supported by 180 cm tall tripods in purpose-built boxes. He also had to provide outside broadcast facilities; trucks containing essential recording equipment were parked in schoolyards and linked to the classrooms by thick, multi-core cables.
Subsequent research using developing technologies still had to grapple with practical drawbacks such as bulky, intrusive equipment; multiple cables; artificial lighting requirements; restricted recording spans; audio differentiation and acoustic quality issues; and the presence of 'outsiders' in the form of the researchers and technical personnel such as camera operators and audio technicians. In stark contrast, the micro-technology available to us enabled us to be in the position of the proverbial "fly on the wall".
We purchased six Sony High Definition Handycam digital recorders with 30 GB hard drives. This hard disk capacity meant that several hours of classroom activity could be recorded with little or no need for intervention from researchers, technicians, or teachers. This also added to the cameras' unobtrusiveness since their reduced maintenance demands meant that they were not the subject of regular attention. The cameras were also very small - approximately the size of a large fist - so they merged easily in to the classroom background, especially when placed in out-of-the-way locations. The camera tripods were equally unobtrusive both in size and appearance. Each tripod leg was a 25 cm long series of interconnected 2 cm black, white and grey plastic ball joints - a significant departure from the previous generation of large, rigid wooden or stark metal tripods. The use of Sony wide-angle lenses enabled the capture of most classroom activity from a static, elevated position (see Appendix A). Coverage which in previous times had, at best, entailed the use of several remote-control cameras with noisy movement motors, was now achievable through the wide-angle lens of a single fixed camera.
In order to record an audio track during videoing, the teachers were equipped with inconspicuous Sony Bluetooth wireless microphones. These were worn as pendants or attached to the teachers' clothing by lapel/pocket clips. Such a mobile microphone system coupled with the benefit of Bluetooth interconnectivity ensured that recordings of high quality were acquired naturally and organically at the source of interaction.
In explaining our rationale for flexibility, we stressed the need for the research to reflect what normally happens in classrooms, rather than for the research to alter the natural ecology of the class. Our only stipulation was that the videoing was to take place early in the school year and again towards the end of Term 1. This was so that we could examine the teachers' management of early classroom dynamics and note developments that ensued in the following weeks.
Erickson (2006; 2007) reinforced Richards' point by arguing that videotapes are better regarded as sources of data than as data in themselves. He wrote that
[j]ust as other primary documentary records in qualitative research are not data but are information sources out of which data can be constructed - field notes, interview transcripts, site documents - so audiovisual records of social interaction are information sources. From such records, data can be defined, analytically. But it seems to me that it is naïve realism to think of them as data themselves. (Erickson, 2007, p. 153)The implications of such a view of data had a significant influence on our research approach. We knew that we would have to make datasets from the highly complex, unedited video footage recorded in classrooms and that this process would necessarily mean making selective decisions about what to consider or ignore in the videos. What we had not predicted accurately was the enormity of the mass of information captured and recorded by the new technologies. We experienced considerable shock when we viewed the initial footage and realised just how dynamic and complex was the classroom life that we witnessed. We already knew that 'seeing' was not going to be simply a passive matter involving the reception of sensory stimuli, but rather an active process of making sense of what we decided to pay attention to. What came as a surprise was the scale of information captured by the wide-angle cameras, to which such decisions had to be applied. This realisation challenged us to embrace Patton's fifth theme of qualitative research.
Our focus for understanding was to be on an appreciation of the nature of classroom life - the contexts in which the teachers were working rather than on other agenda such as the relative qualities of beginning teachers or the extent and effectiveness of their teacher-education preparation. We agreed to adopt a neutral, non-judgemental stance toward the teachers, respecting their status and phase of professional development and freeing us from the inappropriateness of micro-analysing and evaluating everything they did from our "expert" perspectives. Our focus was well and truly on developing verstehen - an in-depth understanding of our teachers within the context of the life energy of their classrooms.
Despite such deterrents, we liaised closely with Catholic Education South Australia (CESA) to find first-year teachers who were to commence teaching in Term 1. CESA's Beginning Teacher Consultant promoted the research among school principals and the Director of Catholic Education also sent a circular to schools to inform them of the research. Despite the late appointment of some new teachers and the usual busyness of the new school year, six first-year teachers agreed to participate - all with the active support of their principals and some with the encouragement of family members and support networks. They regarded the project as an opportunity for them to reflect on their classroom work and their professional development. They also valued the importance of classroom-based research in education.
When positioning the cameras we had to consider what sort of footage would be most valuable to us. We wanted to record as much as possible of the regular, everyday life of the classroom, so we needed to position the cameras to capture the areas of the classroom which best reflected this. Our assumptions about and experience in junior primary and primary classroom teaching methodology and teacher activity led us to expect that the teacher's desk would be less of a focus than the students' desks or 'the carpet'. The angle of view of the camera lenses and the tall cupboards or bookshelves meant that most of the classroom was in the frame (see Appendix B). In the double open-space classroom, the camera was positioned to limit its field of view to the immediate classroom area and the carpet and interactive whiteboard. This avoided recording the class that shared the open area space but which was not participating in the project. In another classroom, we had to be creative because there was no suitable high-level furniture or fitting. The size and weight benefits of miniaturised digital technology really came into their own as we found that the tripod and camera could be attached to a curtain rail (see Appendix C).
The teachers controlled recording. On our introductory visits, we explained the operation of the equipment. We also ensured that all equipment was functioning correctly and left instruction sheets with the teachers. As recording progressed, we had a significant, if temporary, problem that stemmed from that most basic piece of equipment, the battery. The manufacturer-supplied lapel microphone batteries lost their charge extremely quickly, resulting in a loss of audio and disruption to the recording schedule whilst the problem was rectified. Lithium replacement batteries were installed and produced much better results. Spare batteries were left with the teachers. Probably the least technologically complex component temporarily stalled our research. However, once this matter had been resolved, the clarity of the audio recordings from all parts of the classroom was excellent and provided us with another enormous, high quality source of information from which we could construct datasets.
Recordings also suffered from several other unforeseen but critical events. For example, one teacher forgot to activate the camera-mounted Bluetooth receiver, so the microphone could not operate. Similarly, we had not anticipated that the school cleaners would disconnect an extension cord and forget to re-connect it. One frequent event that is now obvious but which we had not predicted was that of students from other classes who were not participating in the project entering the classroom while recording was in progress. A continuing part of the editorial process involves the deletion of this footage or use of pixellation and other techniques to disguise these students' identities.
To our consternation, the process of downloading from each camera's hard drive to the computer took many hours and demanded huge amounts of disk space. For example, one 3.5 hr video session produced a 9 GB video file (most laptops have hard drives of about 60 GB). In terms of the computer technology available to us in our workplace, we were under-resourced for such a demand. Initially, we overcame this storage problem by purchasing several 500 GB external drives and saving our video files on these and on a large-capacity remote server at our workplace.
As preparation for the research project, we had decided to use the innovative software program NVivo 8 (QSR, 2008) to help us manage the videos and analyse datasets made from them. NVivo 8 became available in late March 2008, part-way through our videoing. The publicity information about the program on QSR International's website was alluring:
Videos. Interview recordings. Documents. Photos. Media clips. Music. Podcasts. Whatever your materials, whatever your project, whatever your background - Nvivo 8's superior technology lets you explore, analyse and glean insight from your information like never before.We purchased the software, completed the training and began importing some of the many video files we had accumulated. To our dismay, we found that most of the files could not be imported into the software. After days of frustration we discovered that NVivo 8 could only import video files that were smaller than 2 GB . We overcame this problem by splitting the large files into a number of smaller sub-files that NVivo 8 could accommodate and by experimenting with other software to compress our large videos into smaller, more-manageable files . Once this was done, we could use the impressive array of tools offered by NVivo 8 to select our data from the unedited videos, code them and develop an elaborate system of nodes in which we stored our video clips. Despite this breakthrough, the technological limitation of file size still proved to be an inconvenience in having to move between numerous files and in the associated breaks in coding continuity.
If you need to handle very rich information, where deep levels of analysis on both small and large volumes of data are required, NVivo 8 is your solution. (QSR Website 18th July 2008 )
Reporting these technical difficulties illustrates that even skilled and experienced qualitative researchers need to learn new things very quickly if they are to harness and manage the potential of emerging technologies and associated software. All of our theoretically-driven good intentions propelled us into uncharted territory in which we had to learn "on the run" if we were to achieve our goals.
In this paper we have described the experiences of using digital video technology and associated software to create authentic, qualitative data gathered from six primary classrooms. In terms of our core research project, despite the challenges and hurdles that we have encountered, we are convinced that the use of such technologies offers researchers new tools to create authentic datasets on classroom management. We are also excited by the unanticipated bonus of realising just how much more information can be made available to researchers through the use of a technological 'one eye' that sees and records far beyond the limitations of two human eyes. The potential for digital technologies to enrich qualitative research and provide opportunities for researchers to contribute new knowledge has become clear.
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|Authors: Professor Bruce Johnson is a Professor of Education at the University of South Australia. His current research interests include human resilience, classroom management and school change. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr Anna Sullivan is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the University of South Australia. Her current research interests include early career teachers, pedagogy and classroom management. Email: email@example.com
David Williams is a Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of South Australia. His current research interests include classroom management, teachers' careers and teacher-education. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Please cite as: Johnson, B., Sullivan, A. M. & Williams, D. (2009). A one-eyed look at classroom life: Using new technologies to enrich classroom-based research. Issues In Educational Research, 19(1), 34-47. http://www.iier.org.au/iier19/johnson.html