"A rich miser made his wife promise that when he died she would bury all of his money with him. After he died, at the funeral, she placed a box inside the casket with him. Later that day, a good friend asked the widow if she actually put all of his money in that box. The widow replied that she complied fully with her husband's wishes. 'On the day that he died, I put all of his money...'"
I'm going to be a little cruel and not tell you the punch line right away. What gives? Well, I'm doing this to make a point. And don't worry, I'll finish the joke near the end of this post.
Here's the main idea: Like good comedy, timing is important in good teaching and learning. For example, if you are a science geek like me and someone shows you a cool experiment with results that don't match your expectations, you want a full explanation of what's going on right away. (I always refer to this as the "Mr. Wizard Approach," in honor of Don Herbert and his teaching strategy on his popular TV shows of years long ago.) When curiosity and interest are piqued, a teacher has a unique learning opportunity, sometimes referred to as a "teachable moment." The need or wanting to know something is a powerful force that the best teachers leverage. Of course, if the teacher waits too long or doesn't recognize the opportunity, the moment will be lost, perhaps forever. How long is too long? Well, it all depends, doesn't it? Perhaps you've already lost interest in my joke and have moved on to checking Facebook. Or, more likely, you've skipped all this blather to try to find out the punch line below. (Well, maybe it's not there - boy, that would be cruel.)
OK, now let me get to the specific point of all this. I have recently been collaborating with Brandy Walker and Rich McCline of the Fanning Institute here on the University of Georgia (UGA) campus on the topic of using Q sorts within an instructional or learning setting. Brandy and Rich do a lot of outreach to community groups and organizations within the state of Georgia. Their work is not so much instructional as it is facilitative - that is, they try to help groups clarify goals and issues so that these groups can make good decisions. They have been using Q sorts within many of their workshops as a way to help the participants understand their subjective perspectives on the various important issues that the group is facing.
Brandy and Rich have been implementing paper-based Q sorts, so they are interested in the opportunities afforded by the digital tool I've slowly been developing. However, in one of our recent meetings, we began to talk about just what are the affordances of a digital approach, and also what are the affordances of the paper-based approach. To be sure, there are many excellent affordances to the paper-based approach. The tactile and visual elements of having a large Q sort board lying in front of you as you move the small statement cards about are very strong. It's also a very intuitive process. You know exactly what you are doing and it is easy to make quick modifications. The other significant affordance is the ability to have a Q sort with a large number of statements. The most I've seen in the literature is around 65 or so. After all, you have the entire space of the table at which you are sitting to use.
In contrast, my digital version currently only allows a maximum of about 25 statements and this is a real limitation to any serious Q sort researcher. It's not a big limitation for my purposes given my interest in using the Q sort activity as an instructional activity, but I know I need to think about ways to expand the number of statements while remaining true to the original Q sort procedure of having all of the statements available to the user as the sorting activity proceeds. Other electronic versions I've seen perform the activity in a fashion where you group the statements in stages, starting with low, middle, and high piles as step 1, then only work with those piles sequentially in the subsequent steps. I admit that I'm resisting that approach as I think it violates some aspect of the true Q sort approach. (I may be wrong.)
OK, So What Are the Affordances of a Digital Version of the Q Sort Activity?
Despite the charms and history of the paper-based version of the Q sort activity, I firmly believe that my digital tool offers significant advantages over paper-based approaches. As Brandy, Rich, and I quickly discussed the pros and cons, I agreed to come up with a tentative list of affordances for my digital approach. So far I've come up with four main affordances:
- The easy preparation of an unlimited number of Q sort activities.
- The easy and quick administration of any single Q sort activity either in a face-to-face or online environment (synchronous or asynchronous).
- The ability to administer multiple Q sort activities within a single session easily and quickly.
- The ability to provide real-time data analysis (suitable for instructional purposes) quickly to the participants during an active Q sort activity.
To conduct a Q sort with my digital tool, you enter a special code given to you by the instructor to bring up the Q sort activity. This code simply queries an online database that transfers the statements needed for the Q sort and also produces a Q sort board with the right number of slots. After the person finishes the Q sort, the answers are uploaded to the database. If I want everyone to do another Q sort, all I have to do is give them another special code and the app automatically and immediately resets. Creating the Q sort itself takes maybe 10 minutes once you have the list of the statements. I built the database to make it easy to duplicate and revise any Q sort in the library.
Why are these affordances so noteworthy? Again, you have to consider all this from a teaching and learning point of view. It's one thing to conduct a research study using Q methodology where the data are collected, analyzed, and reported. This involves a process that can take weeks or even months. The goal of traditional Q methodology is to better understand what are the different profiles within a group describing their subjective interpretations of a particular issue or topic. For instructional purposes, the goal is to get people to think deep and hard about a particular topic, followed by having some good discussions, reflections, and more discussions and reflections during a period of time when people actually care about the topic. These reflections are enhanced if you also know and consider your classmates' points of view.
Comparing the Digital to Paper-Based Q Sorts for Instructional Purposes
When Brandy and Rich conduct their Q sorts in their workshops, they have to prepare sufficient copies of the paper-based statements for every person attending the workshop. They also have to prepare a paper-based Q sort board for each person to use. The materials then have to be carefully assembled and distributed during the workshop. Brandy and Rich also prepare and post the statements on large flip chart paper mounted on walls around the room. Everyone then completes the Q sort individually. When finished, everyone is prompted to write down the statements they placed at the extreme ends of the Q sort scale. They are given a sheet of sticky green dots and red dots and told to find those statements on the flip chart paper on the walls, putting a green dot beside those statements they agreed with the most and red dots by those statements they agreed with the least. Then, Brandy and Rich use the flip chart paper and pasted dots to lead and facilitate a reflective discussion about the topic with the group.
It should be noted that the Q sort topic that Brandy and Rich conduct is based on a well-researched survey instrument that Rich has produced and validated over the years. Therefore, the statements they use in the Q sort are not submitted by the participants. Obviously, if the procedure was to engage the participants first in producing their own individual statements, they would have to figure out a way to get those statements far in advance of the workshop in order to have enough time to prepare the statement cards. In their case, they recycle the cards for the next workshop. I don't know if they would ultimately find tiresome the labor needed to constantly produce new statement cards for a new Q sort for each workshop group. That is, I wonder if they would abandon the Q sort activity under those circumstances. The other consideration is that the number of Q sort statements would have to vary, which would mean having at the ready Q sort boards with the right number of slots.
Most of the comparisons we could make between a paper-based and digital Q sort boil down to logistics, but there are cognitive issues at play here too. For example, I think it makes a profound difference if the Q sort statements are based on the participants' own views. I think this makes the Q sort itself much more meaningful and authentic because each participant is given a window into the thinking of their peers as they complete the activity. It's also quite meaningful and motivating to see your statement among the list. But, I think there is another important cognitive issue that relates (finally) to the issue of timing.
The Clock is Ticking
There are many things one can conclude from comparing paper-based and digital Q sorts. Let's say that you are perfectly willing to spend whatever time it takes to prepare the paper-based materials. But, consider the time it takes between a single person completing the Q sort and the start of the reflection and then the small- and large-group discussion. I assert that if too much time transpires then the "teachable moment" is seriously threatened. That is, people may either lose interest or forget the point of the exercise. Of course, knowing that Brandy and Rich are expert workshop leaders, they likely use the time well and engage people in conversations while everyone is up and about putting their red and green dots on the mounted flip charts. And, I can see some real affordances to the social aspect of this milling about that an expert workshop leader can leverage. Still, I think reducing the time between completing a Q sort individually, reviewing the group results, and then holding the reflective discussions is overall the preferred approach.
(I heard this joke from Professor Young-Suk Kim of Florida State during her excellent talk at the 2016 AERA Conference in Washington, DC.)
I'm obviously a little biased here given the many, many hours I've spent developing my little digital Q sort tool and the web site with the database backend I've designed to support it. To be sure, there are many limitations to my digital approach. The most noteworthy is one I've already mentioned - the relatively limited number of statements that can be used. Another limitation is the fact that my tool is not web-based. You have to download and install a client-based app on your computer, which many people are reluctant to do, or simply find very bothersome to do. There is also a certain level of opaqueness in using any digital tool when compared to the totally intuitive nature of moving slips of paper around on a table, a difference that is not trivial.
As I end this posting, I think an additional and noteworthy point to be made is that my tool can also be used for traditional Q sort research. That is, my digital tool quickly and easily collects data in the needed format for uploading into a bona fide Q sort analysis program. Brandy and Rich also collect the full data for subsequent analyses. The IRB procedures they follow start with taking a photo of each person's completed Q sort (with the participant's permission). Later, someone from Brandy's research team manually enters each Q sort into an Excel spreadsheet. The steps Brandy and Rich need to complete to get to the point where they can run a statistical analysis is time-consuming and - from my perspective at least - arduous and cumbersome. Of course, I could not think of a better way to do it.
As I hope is evident, getting all of the Q sort data collected and ready for analysis in a paper-based approach is no small chore. The choice is either to convince each participant to accurately record their Q sort results to yet another medium (paper or a spreadsheet), or having the researchers move around the room to record the data in some fashion. The Q researcher yearns for "quickly and easily."
An aside, but it's also been on my mind that an interesting research study would be to compare the outputs of my "quickee analyses" with the traditional Q-style factor analyses. I hope to either focus some research on that question myself or support an enterprising doctoral student who would like to take it up.
The other thing that I always find fascinating about producing digital tools is the ability to come up with small, but important variations in the tool or what it can do. These are often made in combination with creative changes or enhancements to the instructional approach. It's amazing how many times an idea comes up with the preface "If only your tool could do this..." It's usually very easy to make these sorts of small revisions or enhancements. But, again, I don't want to discount the hands-on tactile feel of moving paper or cardboard around on the table, or having a reason to get up and move about the room and having some short or long conversations with other people doing the same thing. I don't want to live life only in front of a screen. But, I think creative and innovative teachers always take full advantage of the affordances of all of the available resources available to them.