Phenomenology is a type of research that follows a qualitative methodology that focuses on the “lived experiences” of its participants in order to get to the “essence” of the experience. Phenomenological research studies consist of rigorous methods that make it a natural choice for studying educational technology.
Why Use Phenomenology in Educational Technology?
(Following excerpt taken from An Examination of Teachers’ Integration of Web 2.0 Technologies in Secondary Classrooms: A Phenomenological Research Study (Boksz, 2012).
Roblyer and Knezek (2003) called for a research agenda for instructional technology, particularly ones studied in practice that focused on teaching practices and student learning. Most research has focused on outside factors such as access to technology, support for professional development to encourage integrating technology, and how a teacher’s beliefs about technology impacted their integration of technology. However the standardized measures used in most studies cannot measure the subjective nature of the teachers’ experiences. Therefore, previous research has fallen short of providing the answers needed to close this present digital divide between teachers and their students. Conducting research that would focus on teachers’ lived experiences while adapting pedagogy that makes the best use of the technology will be a step toward bridging the divide. This insight might give additional data to aid in finding solutions to the present problem.
History of Phenomenology
The focus on researching lived experiences came to the forefront with Moustakas’ (1994) textbook on phenomenological research methods. He defined phenomenology (p.26) as “… knowledge as it appears to consciousness, the science of describing what one perceives, senses, and knows in one’s immediate awareness and experience. The process leads to an unfolding of phenomenal consciousness through science and philosophy ‘toward the absolute knowledge of the Absolute’.” The word “phenomenon” comes from the Greek word “phaenasthai” meaning to “flare up, to show itself, to appear.” Therefore, phenomenon is a suitable place to start an investigation, but the challenge for human science researchers is to describe things in themselves with intuition and self-reflection. This process involves blending what is present, with what could be imagined, and looking from the point of possible meanings to be gained from the investigation. Therefore, phenomenological researchers need to develop epoche.
Moustakas credits the development of Epoche to Descartes, and states that Epoche requires the elimination of suppositions, and raising knowledge above doubt. In Greek, it means to “refrain from judgment” and stay away from looking at things in an ordinary way, and be open to looking at things in a naïve way. Researchers construct a question or problem to guide the study, but refrain from making suppositions. The results may provide a basis for further research or reflection.
Once the researcher has completed the reflection phase, the researcher constructs a full description of the conscious experience of the participants’ into a textual description that includes thoughts, feelings, examples, ideas, and situations which portray the experience. Evidence of something that shows itself again and again points to confirmation of the phenomenon. When the participants articulate and describe their experiences, intersubjective validity becomes evident as patterns are perceived in their combined narratives. The researcher’s task, known as phenomenological reduction, is to describe the participants’ experiences, and look again, and describe repeatedly until a textural description can be written of the “essence” of the experience as described by all the participants.
Cilesiz (2011) felt that phenomenological research should be adopted as a proper methodology for researching the adaptation of pedagogy and technology because it looks at the “essence” of the meaning of the experience for teachers. Examining this essence could uncover vital processes of using technology to learn and teach that may not have been recognized previously.
Cilesiz (2011) built a contextual framework, and proposes a theoretical framework, for using phenomenological study for an in-depth look at educational technology in classrooms. The contextual framework shows a strong research base focusing on teachers’ experiences with integrating technology into classrooms. Cilesiz classified the current streams of research on educational technology into three main categories. The first stream of research examined students’ experiences in learning through online education, the second stream focused on the experiences of teachers, teacher candidates, and their instructors integrating technology in their teaching, and the third stream investigated users’ psychological experiences with computer applications. However, even with those existing research categories, gaps exist in the literature and the literature does not have a framework or construct to focus the research. Creating a framework and construct will unify researchers and make it easier to share a coherent body of research. Cilesiz proposes that a phenomenological approach will create a unifying framework and methodology for such a research agenda. In order to facilitate the adoption of this methodology in the field, it needs to provide clear guidelines on sample selection, data collection and analysis, and ethics and validity.
As per Cilesiz, the systematic attempt utilized in phenomenological research methodology may lead to a deeper understanding of what a teacher goes through in trying to adapt pedagogy and content to utilize the technology effectively. This belief corresponds and agrees with Creswell’s (2007) definition of the proper domain of phenomenology as aiming to develop a deeper understanding of several individual’s common experiences so as to lead to developing practices or policies. In addition, Creswell claimed that the essence of human experiences as determined by the participants’ descriptions of an experience makes phenomenology a philosophy as well as a method. Cilesiz’s (2011) proposes that phenomenology should be used as an approach to studying experiences because it enables an in-depth, comprehensive, and multi-faceted look at educational technology. Giorgi (1997) reminded researchers that a rigorous phenomenological study includes a philosophical background, data collection and analysis and a description of the experience as its output.
A Phenomenology methodology proposed for Educational Technlogy
The research methodology proposed by Cilesiz (2011) is based on the phenomenological concept of experience. A pre-condition of studying experiences is the selection of participants who have meaningful and significant experiences. Therefore, criterion sampling, or choosing participants who fulfill certain criteria, is the most suitable method (Creswell, 2007) of choosing participants. A sample size of 3-10 participants is considered appropriate for this methodology (Creswell, 2007). The collection of data can be collected through interviews, observations, or written self-descriptions. In-depth interviews are the most suited method for collecting data in transcendental phenomenology and are the framework for use in research in educational technology. Three interviews, of about 90 minute’s length, are conducted with the first interview identifying the participant’s qualifications for participating in the study. During the second interview, the participants reconstruct their experiences and reflections on those experiences. For the third interview, they are considered to be co-researchers because they give feedback on the interpretations created by the researcher during the data analysis stage.
The data analysis stage includes three parts: phenomenological reduction, imaginative variation, and synthesis (Moustakas, 1994). Horizonalization of the data, or treating each statement as having equal value and reading it multiple times looking for things related to the topic area, is the first basic step of the phenomenological reduction stage. The use of a peer review is suggested at this stage to examine the selection of relevant statements. The researcher then transfers the data into meaning units, or word/phrases that represent only one meaning, by splitting them whenever there is a transition in meaning. Any repetitions or overlaps are eliminated and meaning units across all participants are listed. Then individual textural descriptions or narratives of each participant’s experiences are created.
The second part, imaginative variation, begins with reading the textural descriptions several times from different points of view to understand the underlying individual manifestations of the experiences. This involves identifying the common meanings, making comparisons between statements within individual descriptions and original transcripts, looking for elements that contradict the data at large, then creating individual structural descriptions.
Synthesis involves finding the similarities in structure between the textures of participants. Meaning units shared across all or most of the participants are designated as shared meaning units and combined into a single narrative. The narrative is written in third person to represent the group as a whole and is called the composite textural description. The essential structural elements or representations of experiences common to participants are identified and integrated to create a single group narrative called the composite structural description containing common essential structures. This description then becomes the textural –structural synthesis that contains an in-depth description of the experiences and is the essence of the phenomenon.
Validity in phenomenological studies comes from implementation of a range of validation techniques and procedures. An essential component is the researcher’s engagement in the epoche process, or disciplined, systematic efforts to suspend their own natural standpoint and prejudgments regarding the phenomenon. Creating a subjectivity statement at the beginning of the study can facilitate epoche. Bracketing the researcher’s words during data analysis and consistently revisiting the subjectivity statement can minimize the impact of the researcher’s idea on the findings. Similarly, utilizing member checks and peer reviews can lessen the impact. Member checks include sharing the researcher’s interpretations of the data and soliciting feedback from the co-researchers at the beginning of the second and third interviews. Peer review can be utilized during the horizonalization process to make sure individual statements by participants are given equal value, and all relevant statements are included. In addition, transparency, or enabling readers to understand the context of the study so they can evaluate the findings of the study can increase the validity. The author’s subjectivity statement can be part of that transparency, as well as explicitly outlining the steps taken during the analysis, and giving detailed descriptions of things like participant selection, and reporting limitations of the study.
Ethical consideration and reciprocity are two further considerations for any research studies. Due to the reflective nature of sharing the experiences and the possibility of sharing intimate details, the privacy and confidentially of participants must be protected. The use of pseudonyms for locations or names can protect privacy and guard against damaging professional reputations. In addition, sharing the final report with participants can add to safeguarding privacy. Reciprocity is the ethical consideration that research should benefit both the researcher and researched. Since the shared details of a life cannot be compensated financially, researchers are encouraged to reciprocate by providing a service such as additional training or mentoring on advanced skills in their field.