Distancelanguagelearning/English Web/writing/Academic Writing/Research/Qual Design/case study

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Case Study, Archival Research, & Content Analysis

A qualitative approach to researching personal learning networks (PLNs) and professional development differs from a quantitative approach in that the former reports information using non-numerical data. Gay, Mills, and Airasian (2006) mention that “qualitative research differs from quantitative research in two key ways: (a) Qualitative research often involves the simultaneous collection of a wealth of narrative and visual data over an extended period of time, and (b) as much as is possible, data collection occurs in a naturalistic setting” (p. 399). Case studies, archival research, and content analysis are types of qualitative methods that will be under review as they relate to studying PLNs and professional development.

Case studies typically study the unique behavior of a person or group. A case study may or may not be under what Cozby (2009) refers to as a “naturalistic observation” (p. 115) or field observation study where the “researcher makes observations in a particular natural setting (the field) over an extended period of time, using a variety of techniques to collect information” (p. 108). And although data used to express a natural setting tends to be more qualitative in nature, current technologies have afforded researchers the means to quantify findings as well (Trochim & Donnelly, 2008). The Most Significant Change (MSC) technique (Davies and Dar, 2005) is a type of case study that focuses more on learning than on accountability. The technique (i.e., qualitative and/or qualitative approaches) focuses on programs that are:

  • “complex and produce diverse and emergent outcomes
  • large with numerous organizational layers
  • focused on social change
  • participatory in ethos
  • designed with repeated contact between field staff and participants
  • struggling with conventional monitoring systems
  • highly customized services to a small number of beneficiaries (such as family counseling)” (pp. 12-13)

So if case studies are mainly qualitative but can also be quantitative, may or may not be part of a naturalistic observation study, and can focus either on the change process or accountability (i.e., evaluation of a treatment or intervention), then the question becomes when to apply a case study.

Case studies help shed light on the uniqueness of a particular context. When researching historical figures, for example, a psychobiography is oftentimes appropriate. Elms (1994) states that “a psychobiography is a type of case study in which a researcher applies psychological theory to explain the life of an individual, usually an important historical figure” (as cited in Cozby, 2009, p. 115). In teacher development, a case study on those teachers who are perceived as being “successful” would provide insight on not only the attributes of the teachers but on the process and perception of others that classify teachers with such a prestigious status.

Another type of observational method that is commonly associated with qualitative data collecting is archival research. Archival research is data collected by someone other than the researcher but serves as important complementary data that supports a study. Statistical records, survey archives, and written and mass communication records are examples of archival research and are “unobtrusive measures” as well. Webb et al (1981) define unobtrusive measures as “measures that allow the researcher to gather data without becoming involved in respondents’ interaction with the measure used (as cited in Trochim & Donnelly, 2008). When researching teachers' behavior, unobtrusive measures might include student evaluations at the end of a course, workshop attendance, and teacher certificates. And like the MSC technique mentioned above, these measures can be either qualitative or quantitative.

Analyzing statistical records, survey archives, and public records are collectively part of what is referred to as “content analysis of documents (Cozby, 2009). Trochim and Donnelly, (2008) define three types of content analysis as follows: (a) “thematic analysis of text, (b) indexing, and (c) quantitative descriptive analysis” (p. 151). Researching teaching development through supporting a PLN would include a thematic analysis of text through the categorization of topics that participants might provide in interviews, online forum chats, and personal reflections. An analysis of keywords (i.e., indexing) and word chunks would also be organized in order to detect tendencies of attitudes, beliefs, and opinions.

In researching PLNs as a form of professional development, qualitative methods through case study, archival research, and content analysis provide adequate measures for gaining relevant and meaningful, non-numeric data. The MSC technique in particular allows the treatment or intervention to act more as a change agent than an measurement tool. To complement this technique, unobtrusive measures provide additional perspective with regard to teacher behaviors and personal approaches to professional development and the teaching profession in general. Qualitative research yields a richness to educational research that in conjunction with quantitative data views the investigative process through a more pragmatic paradigm.


Bartels, N. (2005). Applied linguistics and language teacher education. New York: Springer.

Cozby, P. (2009). Methods in behavioral research. New York: McGraw Hill.

Davies, R. & Dart, J. (2005). The most significat change (MSC) technique: A guide to its use. Retrieved on July 28, 2010 from http://www.mande.co.uk/docs/MSCGuide.pdf

Gay, L., Mills, G., & Airasian, P. (2006). Educational Research: Competencies for analysis and applications. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Trochim, W. & Donnelly, J. (2008). The research methods knowledge base. Mason, OH: Cengage Learning