On the development of technological ‘aids’ for study purposes

On the development of technological ‘aids’ for study purposes

When engaged in my ‘Learning Developer’ role, the look of incredulity crossing students’ faces when I reveal to them that during my first undergraduate year there was no Google, no Wikipedia, that I handwrote my first essays in fountain pen (with corrector-pen aid) does make me chuckle. Such things are unthinkable to them. They simply don’t chime with current undergraduate assignment-completing processes. ‘But where did you start?’ ‘Erm…at the library….’

And now I get similar surprised expressions when admitting to having not used EndNote or NVivo for PhD1. ‘Reference Management Tools’ were only beginning to come into play at the end of my project, and the thematic analysis of interview transcripts involved highlighters, post-its and copy-pasting into what I labelled ‘quote compilation documents’, (which I proceeded to print out and attack with highlighters again). How things do change.

There are developments in student technology that I just adore. The iPad and Apple Pencil are pure bliss for note-taking, mind-mapping/planning, minute-taking etc.; the apps available are just brilliant for synchronising research materials across multiple sites, and for the carting around of copious numbers of journal articles, (with the added bonus of still being able to write on them). Essentially the appeal of the digital aids I now employ has been in there being no real need for paper/pens, and the corresponding result of less backache/shoulder-pain due to excessively-heavy bag-lugging. Mobile studying has certainly been facilitated, and this definitely works for this part-timer needing to get on with it wherever and whenever she can.

Still, there is nothing like exposure to apparently universally-applicable ‘digital helpers’ to shove your increasing age in your face. I have attended training sessions on what generally seem to be the ‘core’ packages, (or ‘university approved’ tools), where I’ve either had the light switched on, or basically crashed and burned – the former for NVivo; the latter being the case with EndNote.

Let me address the negative first. Admittedly the idea of something to help with referencing (in making it, essentially, perfect) is attractive. Indeed, perhaps such digital assistance would be good as a means to not spelling your external examiner’s name incorrectly, (as I, ahem, managed to do last time). But here’s the thing, whilst I appreciate the creation of a library/bibliographic-record aspect, and the ability to attach PDFs etc., the whole insert-citation-whilst-writing part is just cumbersome, outright frustrating, and totally distracting. My note-taking style is such that I record citations directly after any quotes or paraphrases; I do not need, nay want, to go into separate software to insert from one file to another. The inserted citations require revision anyway, especially if specific page numbers are necessary. In short, and at the risk of toddler-fying myself, I don’t like them. I do feel guilty about my view of reference manager applications – it’s one of those, ‘everyone else uses them so I should probably do that too’ sensations. Supervisors and departmental colleagues all stress I MUST use a reference manager. I have a sense that the view is my endeavour can’t possibly go completely well if I don’t get my act together here….but then the last PhD went ok without such ‘help’… So, whilst I am tinkering with Mendeley, (though more out of curiosity rather than actual work value, and because to me its interface appears more user-friendly than EndNote), overall I’d say I am still (comfortable) in the citation-dark-ages.

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NVivo, however – can’t wait to give that a shot! Genius idea. I had misgivings about its value – other PhD colleagues have told of their dislike, stating it doesn’t really actually help. It takes, they said, a long time to input data, and you still have to analyse all the data yourself, develop the nodes and codes etc. One friend reported it ‘doubled’ the amount of time she needed for analysis. But I came away from an initial training session rather cross, impatient that I won’t have data to input for about another year – (again with the inner-toddler) I wanna analyse now! Having all data in one tidy place most definitely beats the option of multiple printed-out, soft-bound, highlighted ‘quote books’ that can’t be searched easily or swiftly. So to build up knowledge, and having seen other examples of a similar process, although it may sound rather peculiar, I’m going to practice using it in building my literature review. I aim essentially to think of the literature sources as I would respondent transcripts. After all, there are multiple layers to the themes ‘grief and bereavement’ and ‘family and siblings’, which should offer scope to code and query the notes from my readings. Must just remind myself to stay focused on the content, not just get lost in playing and familiarising myself with this form of academic toy…

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