Using a conceptual framework to manage your data

Information overload
Information overload?

One of the problems with any research endeavour is that you collect a lot of data. Not just the primary data you get from your interviews and so forth (though, if you’re doing it properly, there’ll be a lot of that), Rather, I am referring to the ideas that you generate as you read the literature.

I think students struggle with this. I know I do.

If you just make notes at random, you will eventually have to organise them, and to do that you need an organising principle. All the text books suggest that you should have a “conceptual framework” in advance and try and relate your reading to that. “Conceptual Framework” is one of those phrases that researchers use, a bit like “ontology, epistemology and axiology” to frighten new research students.

I’ll try and explain. I’m currently interested in the way information is managed inside Virtual Learning Environments. The reason for my interest is that students are often heard complaining that academic staff use Blackboard, or Moodle, or whatever it might be “inconsistently”. So the concept of “inconsistency” is one element of my conceptual framework. When I come across something I’m reading that talks about this, I can make a note of the author’s argument and whether I agree with it or not, and why. I might even help myself to a particularly pithy quotation (Keeping a record of where I got it from, of course).

That’s simple enough, except that one concept does not make a framework. The point is that you have to have multiple concepts and they have to be related to each other. Firstly in creating my framework I should probably define (to my own satisfaction) what I mean by “inconsistency”. It might be a rather hit and miss approach to the types of learning material provided (e.g. on one topic there’s a PowerPoint, on another there are two digitised journal articles, on another a PowerPoint and half finished Xerte object), or it might be that one member of the teaching team organises their material in a complex nest of folders, and another just presents a single item which goes on for pages and pages, or it might be that one of a students modules is organised into folders labelled by weeks (When did we study Monmouth’s Rebellion, was it week 19, or week 22?) or by the format it was taught (Now, where did she present those calculations – was it in the “lecture”, or the “seminar”?). So for the purposes of organising a conceptual framework it’s not so much defining inconsistency, as labelling types of inconsistency. You might say they’re dimensions of inconsistency.

Also as researchers we try to explain things. So it’s likely that much of the literature will offer explanations. That’s another part of our framework then – explanations, or perhaps we’ll label it “responsibility”. This inconsistency might be the teacher’s fault, for being technologically illiterate, not understanding the importance of information structures, or just being too idle to sort it out properly. Another researcher will argue that it’s the students’ own fault, because that’s the nature of knowledge, and if they spent more time applying themselves and less time on their iPhones…. I’m being a bit flippant to make the point that there are always many dimensions of any conceptual framework. You do have to make some decisions about what you’re interested in.

Even if you do, your framework will get quite complicated quite quickly, but it is a useful way of organising your notes, and ultimately will form the structure of your thesis, or article, or whatever it is you are preparing. Nor will you need all of it. You have to be quite ruthless about excluding data. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I should say why we need a conceptual framework for note making.

One of the problems of making notes is that it tends to be a bit hit and miss. If you’re working at your computer, you probably have lots of files, (though you may not be able to find them, or remember what’s in them) but if an idea hits you on the train, or in the kitchen, or someone else’s office you might enter it on a note app on your phone, scrawl it on a post it, say something into a digital recorder, take a photo of it, or you might, as I do, rather enjoy writing into a proper old fashioned notebook. The result is that, conceptual framework or not, you have a chaotic mess of notes. To bring some order to this I recommend the excellent (and free) Evernote, (which is available for virtually every conceivable mobile device, and synchronises across all of them) and though I do like fountain pens and paper, Evernote is my main note making tool. (Incidentally this blog post started life as an Evernote note, as I was thinking about my own conceptual framework – I thought it would be helpful to my students to share this) As with any digital tool it is only as good as the way you use it. Which takes me back to the conceptual framework. Evernote allows you to create as many “notebooks” as you like, and keep these in “stacks”. Think of a filing cabinet full of manila folders as a stack of notebooks. But you can also add tags to all your notes which is a way of indexing your folders. (E.g. if you had a filing cabinet full of folders on inconsistency in VLEs, red paper clips attached to the folders might indicate the presence of a document indicating teacher responsibility for it, and a green clip indicate the presence of documents arguing about student responsibilities). Obviously with verbal tags you can have as many “coloured clips” as you like.
You do of course have to tag your folders consistently, and you have to bring all your notes together. No matter how good your digital note management app is it can’t really do anything about the folded post it note in your back pocket. So good practice for a research student, is, once a week, to bring all your notes together, think about your categories and your tags. (if you do use Evernote as I’ve suggested you will also be able to print a list of tags, which will help you develop a much more sophisticated conceptual framework)