Learning about case study methodology to research higher education

The following is a summary and some thoughts on Harland (2014). The abstract for the paper is

Learning about teaching through inquiry is a sound practice for professional development and the university teacher-as-researcher is now commonplace. With the proliferation of inquiry-based postgraduate programmes in university teaching, more academics from across the disciplines are learning new ways of doing research. In this paper, I draw on 10 years’ experience of teaching research methods in higher education. I teach on a one-year part-time course that aims to help academics change their practice and contribute to the theories of teaching in higher education through publication of their work. The preferred research method is case study and there are four questions that both inexperienced and experienced participants can find challenging: what is the potential of case study; what forms of data are acceptable; when does analysis stop and what makes a quality case study? I conclude with a set of recommendations for the new researcher aimed at enhancing the quality of research. Suggestions include properly integrating existing theory into published work, avoiding positivist analogues to judge research, using multiple methods in research design and avoiding writing descriptively or without a critical audience in mind.

My interest

As outlined previously, I have to write more journal articles. The current paper idea I have goes under the following working title “BAM, BIM, Blogs and Breaking BAD: What does it take to create quality e-learning?”. It’s currently conceptualised as a case study of the development and use of BAM and BIM to support the use of individual student blogs from 2006 through 2015. The basic argument is that it’s no surprise that most e-learning is not that great, given the difficulty of doing anything decent within the current institutional mindset around e-learning. The idea is to draw on the Breaking BAD paper, a presentation to MoodleMoot and various other publications round BIM/BAM over the years.

Given it’s a case study and they have limitations, it’s probably a good idea to be able to write up the method in a way that ticks all the right boxes. Hence my interest in Harland (2014).

Thoughts

Case study is a dominant/well accepted method. Tick.

How often does Computers and Education accept case study work?

Points out some interesting points for consideration by early case study researchers in higher education. Not a “how to” guide such as Baxter and Jack (2008)

Summary

Introduction

Researching own teaching practice one way academics learn to teach. Teacher-as-researcher, link to high schools and Boyer’s SoTL. Defines “dual researchers” people rsearching both their discipline and the teaching of that discipline.

Author from hard sciences. Research in academic development didn’t follow the science rules.

cites Tight (2012) that qualitative inquiry remains dominant research method in higher ed journals.

As a reviewer, author finds most articles are sub-par. Case study used in most articles read.

# of case studies published in four higher education journals: 2007-2012
adapted from Harland (2014, p. 1114)
Journal Location Case study Conceptual study Total #
Higher Education Europe 344 181 525
Studies in Higher Education Europe 238 62 300
Teaching in Higher Education Europe 176 111 287
Higher Education Research & Development Australasia 146 101 247
Total: 904 455 1359

“Case study consists of empirical inquiries of single cases that are contextually unique (Stake, 1995)” (Harland, 2014, p. 1114) – my emphasis added – typically addressing something of interest to the authors professional practice. Has instrinic value to those that benefit from the professional practice, but can also contribute to “the theories and practices of higher education”

There are four sticking points in learning case study research methods

  1. What is the potential of the case study?
  2. What forms of data are acceptable?
  3. When does analysis stop?
  4. What makes a quality case study?

These are used to structure the rest of the paper.

Has a para which appears essentially the research method para. Autoethnography is used. The four sticking points are addressed through a personal narrative.

What is the potential of the case study?

Specificity of case study research seen to limit contribution to theory. But that type of certainty of knowledge is very techno-rational. Case study inquiry involves individuals/teams interpreting data. Requiring new standards of judgement (Flyvbjerg, 2006) who contrasts rule-based and case-based knowledge. Case-based is always context-dependent.

As I see it, no two practice contexts are ever genu- inely the same and so rules and deterministic models for guiding thinking and action are not that useful. (p. 1115-1116)

Case study research cannot be truly replicated given the uniqueness of context, but it can be learned from. What each reader may learn will differ.

While its possible to generalise from case studies (Denzin, 2009), it’s unusual. Though it is argued that cases provide an opportunity for generalisation.

Case study research seen as better for generating hypotheses than theory building (Flyvbjerg, 2006) – depending on the definition of theory. Options include

  1. Explanatory and predictive of cause & effect and thus can direct action
  2. pragmatist perspective that has theory/practice intertwined. People generate theories to seek meaning in practice. A form of personal theory building.

Theoretical relevance enhanced if existing theories are integrated. Through which contribution can be made through new interpretation of data. “Existing theory should be seen as an integral part of the case” (p. 1116)

What forms of data are acceptable?

“case study may rely on multiple sources of evidence and be practiced as multi-method research (Denzin & Lincoln, 1994)” (p. 1117) as long as it helps answer the research question. i.e. it can use quantitive research methods. Apparently a surprise to some.

Tight (2012) found only 5% of 440 published articles in 15 higher education journals used a mixed quantitative/qualitative methodology.

What does analysis stop?

Outcomes of any analytic technique will depend on intentions, background knowledge, cognitive processes, mindset etc. Hence analysis is recursive.

Minimise the time between collecting data and writing the research account. “disciplined writing seems to be the most essential part of the analytical process” (p. 1118).

No genuine endpoint.

What makes a quality case study?

Better to engage wider theories than just describe practice. But not sufficient

Quality case research:

  • requires imagination (Dewey, 1938)
  • requires creativity (Morse, 1995)
  • must bring the reader as close as possible to the experience (Fossey et al, 2002)
  • provide conceptual insight (Siggelkow, 2007)
  • should be believable, which requires coherence and provide new theory and instrumental utility (Eisner, 1991)
  • “potential to create an impact on the field of practice” (p. 1118)
  • have something important to say
  • well structured and clearly writte

Argues that a case study should enable someone to learn from it.

Author explores the impact (from this measure) of one of his case study publications. Somewhat sobering results.

Conclusion

Summarises the key points to be “attentive to” and “cautious of” against the four challenges and some more general comments e.g. research must fulfil its purpose and this needs to be known before time to help align process and outcomes.

Does make the point that case study is a form of learning and that this can be seen in daily practice, more so than in research articles.

Also points out that publications on case study methods are “often complex or underpinned by unstated assumptions, following a procedure is never straightforward” (p. 1121). Case study research does allow you to learn from experience, so these methods should be seen as guidelines.

References

Baxter, P., & Jack, S. (2008). Qualitative case study methodology: Study design and implementation for novice researchers. The Qualitative Report, 13(4), 544–559.

Harland, T. (2014). Learning about case study methodology to research higher education. Higher Education Research & Development, 33(6), 1113–1122. doi:10.1080/07294360.2014.911253

2 thoughts on “Learning about case study methodology to research higher education

  1. You will likely find: Becker, H. S. (2014). What about Mozart? What about murder? : reasoning from cases (Kindle ed.). Chicago ; London: The University of Chicago Press. pretty handy.

  2. Pingback: Trying out a new writing process | The Weblog of (a) David Jones

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