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Embarking on a Journey with NVivo (or 3 lessons from Middle-earth)

29 July 2013 - BY Megan Walker Grimaldi IN coding, Communities, evaluation, in, NVivo, qualitative, queries, research, Schools

Update: Find out more about Megan's work in her recorded eSeminar Using NVivo to support evaluation and enhance organizational learning in a non-profit network .

Qualitative researchers like to think in metaphors.  It makes qualitative data and the experience of others more approachable.  When I thought about how to structure this blog, I had just finished watching LOTR, which happens at least twice annually.  I started to reflect on the journey I had taken at my job in the past few years.  I work at a national education nonprofit, Communities In Schools, where our local affiliates endeavor to

...surround students with a community of support, empowering them to stay in school and achieve in life

As member of the Research, Evaluation, and Innovation team at Communities in Schools, I am tasked with analyzing and synthesizing information from interviews and reports for decision-makers throughout our network. Though I do not encounter any orcs or save the world from destruction, I have learned some lessons that parallel a hobbit-like adventure.  Hopefully these lessons will be useful to you.

Lesson #1: Bring the Right Tools with You

There are many tools I bring with me as a qualitative researcher, but like a sturdy pony or speedy steed, the most important vehicle for my journey is NVivo.  In the projects that I do for the national office of Communities In Schools, I use NVivo in multiple ways. 

First, I use it as a tool to organize interviews that we conduct at our affiliate offices.  We have conducted hundreds of such interviews with multiple stakeholders at each affiliate we accredit, and having a software program that can house all these interviews in one cohesive, connected project has proved invaluable. 

Second, I use NVivo to code my data.

The information we receive in interviews is used for multiple purposes, and after we are done coding the data, it is rich with dozens of topics and themes that will help us to inform decision-makers in our office and in our national network about network trends, challenges, and innovations.

I am able to easily pull up information on these trends because NVivo allows you to run queries.  For example, when one of the leaders in our office wants to know about accredited rural affiliates who have ESL programs, I am able to run a query in our NVivo project and report back immediately.

That being said, no hobbit is prepared for her journey without some additional elven trinkets. 

There are several tools that I use to support my work in NVivo.  I use Microsoft Excel to create a classification sheet to cut interview data with quantitative data.  Interview scripts have been especially helpful as well.  When I set up my interview scripts in Microsoft Word, I can select headings for specific questions and review how a group of stakeholders answered the same question by querying for subheadings.  Finally, to be sure that none of the magical qualitative data is lost, I record my interviews with a simple recorder.

Lesson #2: Select Faithful Travel Companions

Just as Frodo had Sam and Pippin had Merry, I have fantastic coworkers to discuss my thoughts throughout the project.  While we were creating the project, I was able to think through the unit of analysis with my coworkers.

During coding, my coworkers and I decided how we defined each node.  This has been an iterative process, and as our team composition changed and the project continued, I have been able to discuss the nodes with several people who view the project in different ways.

During the analysis phase of our work, my coworkers have helped me to refine theory and prepare for presenting to decision-makers in our office and our network.

A qualitative journey is not a journey that a researcher can take alone.

Lesson #3: Never Lose Hope

A qualitative journey can be daunting.  With mountains of data to traverse, I sometimes felt like I should have chosen to stay in the comfort of my hobbit hole.  But as Frodo sought inspiration from Galadriel, I looked to people who had gone on journeys such as these before to assist me.

While I was learning NVivo, and during the analysis, I was able to reference Pat Bazeley’s book Qualitative Data Analysis with NVivo.  This book has screenshots that make it easier for users to navigate the software.  Bazeley writes in an approachable style and uses examples to illustrate how the software supports the qualitative analysis journey.

I also used Johnny Saldaña’s book, The Coding Manual for Qualitative Researchers, as a reference when the journey became difficult.  In The Coding Manual, Saldaña shares helpful tips on coding, qualitative analysis, and memo-writing, all of which have been essential as I work through my NVivo projects.  He also gives a higher-level view of different qualitative methodologies, which helped me to think more broadly of the project in terms of future research.

Finally, when we started reporting out on the first phase of research, insights from Michael Quinn Patton’s book, Utilization-Focused Evaluation, were incredibly helpful.  Nonprofit professionals are especially busy.  During interviews, stakeholders often referred to the concept of “putting out fires”.  Knowing the intended user, and designing the project and the resulting tools to fit their needs, are essential as I bring learning from our research into the field.

Enjoy the Journey

Though there are difficulties along the way, any researcher (or hobbit) knows that there are plenty of opportunities to enjoy the journey.  Being able to use NVivo to inform decision-makers throughout our network has certainly helped to make the qualitative journey enjoyable.  

What's your journey been like? Would love to hear about it.