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In the spotlight - Re-using qualitative data for teaching

Article dated: 18 May 2011

ESDS Qualidata has always been committed to facilitating the use of its data collections in both undergraduate and postgraduate teaching.

Since the establishment of ESDS Qualidata in 1994, the content of these teaching resources has changed significantly from a modest set of printed materials to a far larger collection covering methods and diverse substantive subjects such as gender and crime. They are now offered in a range of digital formats, such as MS Word documents, PDFs and web enabled HTML.


Just as importantly, there have been changes in how ESDS Qualidata develops its materials. With the benefit of additional resources since 2003, emphasis has shifted from rather basic promotion of a small but growing collection, to far greater engagement with instructors to understand their requirements and develop materials in line with their needs, as well as much more far-reaching outreach and promotion.

Before describing these cases in more detail, it is useful to note several factors (including some recent changes in the wider context of social science research) that increase the value of re-using existing data for teaching.

Filling the 'hungry gap'

Existing data can help fill a space in the early years of teaching when course loads are high but new data harder to come by. Newly minted Ph.D.s emerge from years of very often narrowly focused work, and then are expected to take on teaching duties, sometimes outside their areas of expertise. While they have their own data to draw upon, that data may be neither sufficient nor suited for the courses they are obliged to teach. ESDS Qualidata provides a wide range of data collections for extending and supplementing the data available to new instructors.

Useful for teaching methods

This is timely as promoting advanced methods instruction is a recent strategic priority of the ESRC. While it is true that the emphasis has been on advanced quantitative methods, there has remained a commitment to deepen all methods skills, included qualitative and mixed methods, as is evident from the substantial investments in NCRM, Realities, Timescapes and others. Having access to data allows students to understand in far greater depth how a previous researcher developed research questions, defined samples, and conducted analysis. Most methods teaching focuses on collecting and coding data. Such skills are indeed essential, and there is no substitute for first hand experience of data collection, but working with existing data frees time to focus on other equally important methods skills, such as defining research questions and samples.

Learning about research ethics

It is generally acknowledged that research regulation, especially regarding data protection and ethical review, has become more challenging. In most cases student projects are not subject to full review, but they are still subject to departmental review which can be daunting and time-consuming. In the most difficult cases - such as students in social health trying to do research with children - chances of ethical approval are slim indeed. For all these reasons, access to existing data and customised teaching resources is invaluable.

ESDS Qualidata's early teaching work

In the late 1990s, ESDS Qualidata developed printed study and teaching packs that highlighted individual collections. These focused on some of ESDS Qualidata's classic studies such as Peter Townsend's The Last Refuge and Paul Thompson's The Edwardians. Early feedback was helpful in expanding into new areas. Instructors indicated that they needed materials that were strongly focused on core substantive areas, so thematic guides were created on topics such as youth, ageing and health studies. In some cases, these new guides were accompanied by outreach events and papers written for specific targeted audiences e.g. UK Data Archive Resources for Studying Older People and Ageing. While effectively communicating content, these materials did not have detailed or extensive structured teaching exercises included, but that deficit was addressed in the next wave of development.

From 2003 onward, ESDS Qualidata continued to be very active in teaching. Numerous sessions were run focused on students, sometimes by an ESDS Qualidata staff member leading a lecture or class session in various social science courses. In other cases, staff did presentations at events such as graduate department research conferences. In one instance, staff conducted a workshop intended to help students improve their skills with qualitative data analysis software practising with ESDS data collections. The session covered data preparation, importing data, 'coding' data (attaching thematic labels to segments of data), searching and retrieval of coded data, and use of annotation tools.

Later enhanced teaching resources

In 2008-2010, ESDS Qualidata produced two online, open-access teaching resources specifically designed to assist in qualitative methods teaching.

teaching resources

Exploring diverse interview types distinguishes different styles of qualitative interviewing whilst highlighting and promoting ESDS's data collections. It offers summaries of seven distinct interview types: structured, unstructured, semi-structured, feminist, psycho-social, oral history, and life story interviews. Each typology begins with a summary of what characterises that particular type of interview and is illustrated by selected extracts from the wide range of research materials held at ESDS Qualidata.

Exploring non-interview methods focuses on five additional 'non-interview' qualitative methods: focus groups, the written word, ethnography, visual methods, and online data collection. Each section provides a brief but considered description of the method in question and uses extracts from archived data collections for illustration. Most significantly, they contain suggestions for activities for users and for tutors to utilise in classroom activities. These existing teaching resources from ESDS Qualidata have been designed as reference points for students and as teaching tools for tutors. Along with the thematic guides they are a useful entry point for introducing students to the collections held at ESDS Qualidata.

In both the thematic guides and the methods teaching packs, ESDS Qualidata made deliberate efforts to engage fully with both researchers and with prospective users of these materials to solicit their input. For the guides, advice was sought from experts in the Department of Sociology at the University of Essex and from other universities on the brief introductions to the topic and on the collections promoted. For the teaching packs, ESDS Qualidata consulted closely with the depositors to get full consent for public use of these materials including how their work was classified and categorised.

Collaborating with teachers

ESDS has been able to promote the re-use of data for teaching by collaborating with others doing the same, in some cases also using ESDS data and in others, using data held in other archives.

In 2010, ESDS convened a session at the ESRC Research Methods Festival (RMF) on 'Re-using qualitative data for teaching purposes'. In all sessions, similar topics were covered, such as the benefits for students in evaluating the design, execution and conclusions of original studies and developing their own skills in re-interpreting data. The key challenges that were recognised are that students have difficulty in: generating research questions different from those of the original researchers; and finding and interpreting available documentation to help contextualise the data. There can also be ethical challenges of re-use, most typically involving protecting participants' confidentiality.

Presenters included Bethany Morgan Brett for ESDS Qualidata, Jo Haynes of the University of Bristol on using ESDS Qualidata collections in postgraduate teaching, and Sarah Irwin and Mandy Winterton on teaching with data from the Young Lives and Times Study, part of the Timescapes project and archive. A paper based in part on this RMF event ('Using archived data for teaching, and issues of anonymisation and ethics' by Libby Bishop) will be published in a forthcoming special issue of International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 'Perspectives on Working with Archived Textual and Visual Material In Social Research' edited by Graham Crow and Ros Edwards.

The exchange with Jo Haynes has been especially productive, as she has provided invaluable advice for improving ESDS' teaching materials, such as highlighting the need to create subsets of data so that students can be presented with a manageable quantity of data and not overwhelmed with all the data collected in the original study. Moreover, Jo is pioneering in the level of proficiency her students are achieving from their reanalysis projects. One of Jo's students, Demelza Jones, produced such a high quality paper for class that she and Jo have gone on to co-author an article based on the student's re-analysis of the ESDS collection British Migrants in Spain: the Extent and Nature of Social Integration, 2003-2005 deposited by Karen O'Reilly.

Recent funded projects with teachers at Essex

In the past two to three years ESDS saw a rise in people using data for teaching purposes and a rise in the number of undergraduates accessing data. This presented an opportunity to increase the usage of ESDS data collections by creating dedicated teaching resources aimed especially at undergraduate students.

At the same time, the UK Data Archive was collaborating with the local Department of Sociology at the University of Essex and helped construct the application process for the ESRC Doctoral Training Centre (DTC) by highlighting the unique resource of the UK Data Archive. The Archive will potentially benefit from strong ties with the DTC and with more opportunities to teach postgraduates about Archive resources available for them. The Graduate School and ESDS are exploring a collaborative Ph.D. framework for 2012 where a student would be registered in a department but be co-supervised and perhaps conduct an internship in ESDS.

The strong relationships established, especially with several members of the Department of Sociology at the University of Essex, set the stage for even more extensive collaboration in a subsequent project. In October 2010, Jackie Turton, a criminology lecturer at the University of Essex, teamed up with Bethany Morgan Brett from ESDS Qualidata to implement a University of Essex Teaching and Learning Innovations Fund (TALIF) project. This collaboration came about as a result of the sociology department's continuing need to develop new and innovative digital student assessment schemes and assignments.

A model assignment task was produced for one sociology module in criminology. This incorporated the use of research methods with the practice of accessing and analysing qualitative research data archived with ESDS. Sixty University of Essex undergraduate students were guided through the ESDS registration process before completing an assignment that involved exploring the service's qualitative collections relating specifically to issues of crime and social control. The students were required to examine the research methods used in the collections and to consider alternative methods and alternative research questions. Finally they were asked to formulate a research question for their own third-year project.

The main project consists of three phases, starting with a full evaluation of the pilot project. The second stage will extend the pilot by developing online assignments for other sociology modules. The final stage will develop an online template for additional assignments in new subject areas that can be adapted and used in other sociology courses and across departments, possibly serving as a model for working with other universities as well. It is expected that the new TALIF-funded project will offer a valuable opportunity for the UK Data Archive to collaborate on university teaching at Essex. It will also become part of a wider strategy to encourage the use of data in teaching and to develop more exemplar strategies and resources.

Teaching students how to look after research data

The final area of teaching that ESDS has engaged in is not limited to qualitative data, but extends to the topic of managing all forms of research data, including qualitative data, so as to enable them to be more easily shared.

The project, Data Management and Sharing for Researchers Training, is funded as part of the ESRC's Researcher Development Initiative (RDI). It is providing practical training and training materials for students, researchers and support staff in the social sciences on key issues pertinent to managing and sharing social science research data. The training concentrates on the core skills that are vital for the practices of both primary data collection and secondary analysis such as ethics, copyright, storage and data security. Extensive resources including both self-paced and tutor-led exercises will be completed by September 2011.

In addition, working with another RDI project, ESDS has produced a self-paced guide on how to use NVivo 9 to aid data management. This exercise has been written for researchers across the natural and social sciences and humanities who are using NVivo 9. It was created as a self-study exercise that gives an overview of using NVivo 9 for managing qualitative data primarily with a focus on the pre- and post-analysis stages and developed as part of the MANTRA project.


Clearly, ESDS Qualidata has come a long way since the days of a handful of hard copy teaching packs. While pleased with these accomplishments, ESDS Qualidata continues to seek out further opportunities.

Items under development include a fully digital and enhanced teaching aide for The Last Refuge and a collection specific guide on Gender Difference, Anxiety and the Fear of Crime, 1995 by Hollway and Jefferson that will explore the prominent qualitative methodology of psycho-social interviewing. And yet more extensive teaching resources on data management will be available in late 2011 at the conclusion of the Data Management and Sharing for Researchers Training project.

The materials are being improved in all ways by being responsive to teachers' needs and sensitive to their requirements. ESDS Qualidata is continually seeking opportunities to collaborate with postgraduate and other instructors.

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