Tuesday, April 21, 2015

ATLAS.ti and the Inevitability of Compromise

I've become spoiled as a Mac user.

I first made the switch from PCs to Macs when I took my current job in City Schools of Decatur. I was handed a Macbook on my first day of work and was forced to make the switch. I remember it being a culture shock in the beginning--everything I'd ever done on a computer during the previous decade had been done on a PC using Windows, and I felt disoriented not having the predictable actions that come with a Mac. But I soon adjusted, and I quickly grew to love working on a Mac. Programs seemed to operate more smoothly with fewer crashes and lags, and I wasn't living in constant paranoia of bugs or blue screens of death. I've since replaced all of our home computers with Macs, and add in the iPhones and iPads, and you'll find that my house is one Apple-loving family. It's been a blissful few years of being surrounded by Apple products, and I forgot that PCs are still pretty popular.

Until I tried learning ATLAS.ti.

Let me say from the start, that I like the program, and I'm pretty optimistic about where the new Mac version of ATLAS.ti is headed. But the initial learning process has been a little challenging at times. Many of the resources available to teach how to use ATLAS.ti are specific to the Windows version. The book Qualitative Data Analysis using ATLAS.ti by Susanne Friese, for example, is fantastic, but it is entirely specific to the Windows version. While the concepts can be transferred (at least in most cases -- not all of the features are functional in the Mac version yet), it takes a little trial and error to figure out the Mac equivalent instructions. In some cases, the Mac version is more intuitive and requires fewer steps, but in other areas, the Mac version isn't quite there yet. The transcription features aren't fully functional yet, for example, and it's impossible to collaborate between Mac and Windows users. These are some big limitations with how the program currently operates. Still, I know from the feature matrix that these features are coming, so I'll just need to be patient until they're ready. Fortunately, I'm still in the early stages of my research, so my need for those features isn't so great. Yet.

There are two things I really like about ATLAS.ti so far:
1) I like the ability to complete literature reviews and code the articles that I read. I've been looking for a system for tagging arguments and themes and organizing them across articles, and ATLAS.ti is by far the best system I've found for that. Even if I ultimately decide to use other programs for data collection and analysis, I'm certain that I will stick with ATLAS.ti for my literature reviews. All the functions that I need for that are fully operational.
2) I like the memo features. It has been helpful to write notes to myself and track my thinking across research projects. My use of the memos hasn't been terribly sophisticated yet, but I like this feature and expect to use it more.

Things I wish were different about ATLAS.ti:
1) The aesthetics - (and this is where my snotty Mac lover comes out) - the interface of the software is gray and boring, and there's a part of me that wonders if I'll get seasonal affective disorder from staring at the gray too long. I have to admit that I'm attracted to programs like Dedoose in part because of the visuals. Even if I could change up the color scheme in the preferences a bit, that might help. But if I'm going to be spending a long time in a piece of software, the aesthetics of the design elements matter to me, and ATLAS.ti is definitely taking function over form route.
2) It's a pain to shift between devices. I wish that there were some cloud storage options or a cloud-based version of the software that would allow me to access a project from different devices or do real-time collaboration. I'm not a one-computer gal. When I'm home, I'm on my big screen Mac, but I am obviously not lugging that with me to class or to conferences. I want my research easily accessible, and while projects can be moved from one device to another, it's not an easy process by today's cloud-based standards.

Things I have mixed feelings about:
1) The constant updates. It seems like every time I open the software, it asks to install a new update. I like that ATLAS.ti is working to improve the software and add new features to the Mac version, and I think this is ultimately a good thing. But the updates aren't small, and it's a little bit cumbersome to be updating all the time. Still, better than a software that never releases updates.

Obviously, these are all first-world problems, and none of them are deal-breakers. The reality of working with CAQDAS-related programs is that no piece of software can do it all. Compromises are inevitable, and there are always tradeoffs. I can be a satisfied ATLAS.ti user and still dream of ways to improve the experience. The push to make things better should always be encouraged in everything we do.

So far now, I remain optimistic about the future of the Mac version of ATLAS.ti, and I plan to keep going with it. Whether it will be a long-term love affair remains to be seen, but it has potential. And I'm glad we were introduced this semester.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Scrivener and Writing

One of the things that has surprised me most about my journey through digital tools this semester is how many tools I'm already using can be repurposed for qualitative research. Scrivener is one such tool. I started using Scrivener as a fan-fiction(!) writer because I liked how I could map out several chapters at a time and block out all of the distractions on my screen. Once I lost time and interest in writing fanfic, I started using it to plan blog posts for my teaching blog. I also used it to transcribe an interview once. I liked that I could split the screen between the audio file and the transcript, and I could use short cuts to pause/play the audio. There's also a feature that automatically rewinds an amount you set when you pause the audio, so you can re-listen to the last few words to check your transcript before you type the next section. It was a good solution for transcription at the time, but I suspect I will use other transcription tools like InqScribe in the future. InqScribe just seems to have better features like inserting timestamps and linking them to the audio.

Still, I haven't played around with Scrivener for a few months, so I'm intrigued to get back to it. I can definitely see how it would be useful for academic writing. I could import many research articles that I've already annotated and map out dissertation chapters or article sections using the tool. And I could certainly use a return the distraction-free mode (I say as I have 14 tabs open on my web browser...). I think the biggest barrier to my more frequent use was portability. I frequently shift between devices (desktop, laptop, and iPad), and I have a hard time remembering to shift my work with me. I think all of the cloud technologies like Google Drive have spoiled me that way. So I would have to get into a better habit with saving and transporting (or commit to a device for writing) before I could really use Scrivener seriously.

My questions about Scrivener are:

  • Are there any plans for a mobile version of the app?
  • What are the best ways to handle moving projects between devices -- especially when the user frequently switches from one computer to another?
As a long-time blogger and someone who plans to write a dissertation centered on teacher blogger practices, I was a big fan of the Powell, Jacob, & Chapman (2012) reading this week. Some parts that stood out for me:

The lines between platforms are blurring. At least among teacher-bloggers, it's not enough to have a presence through a blog alone; bloggers often have to branch out to all of the other major social media platforms, and significant strategizing goes into maintaining presence on those platforms. Whenever I write a blog post for my teaching blog, for example, I immediately schedule posts promoting the blog on Twitter and Facebook and share pictures from the blog on Pinterest and Instagram. It's necessary to increase and maintain readership, and it means that bloggers need to learn about PR skills in order to be successful. I imagine in academia, this is a real shift. Writing and making your research accessible for a global audience requires different skills than just writing for scholarly peers, but it seems that such skills could have a lot of value for universities. Social media like blogs can draw attention to research and invite broader conversations and potentially more funding as people become interested in the research content. 

There's a delicate balance to be had between scholarship and popularity. In my experience, blogs need to be either very useful substantively or highly entertaining (or ideally both) in order for me to read them regularly. If a blog is too "scholarly," it would probably lose readers because it would seem more like journal articles. But at the same time, it's important not to sacrifice credibility and evidence for the sake of becoming more popular. I was reminded of this this morning when I was reading a Gawker article about "Food Babe," a blogger who investigates food ingredients and reports on health issues and hidden toxins. Food Babe is not a scholar by any means, but she has definitely leveraged her blog to become popular, and as the scathing criticism in the Gawker article reveals, she doesn't back up many of her claims with credible scientific evidence. Researchers have to be particularly careful not to be blinded by the prospect of becoming popular at the expense of maintaining credibility for their research. It's a delicate balance for sure, especially once a blog starts to gain readers outside of the academic community, but I think heading toward more effective use of blogging and social media could be very beneficial for academics and the public as a whole.