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Monday, 14 March 2016

Mid-Candidature Review Madness

Last Friday was my mid-candidature review. The 2-3 weeks leading up to it had been constantly hot and humid, meaning I'd had a headache for most of that time. I wasn't particularly surprised to wake up on Friday morning with the pain much worse but only on one side of my head (this always happens to me when a headache is going to turn into a migraine). I gave some serious thought to asking if I could reschedule, but having had a root canal and some of the panel being on leave during February, my review was technically already overdue, so I wanted to get it out of the way. And most of the time when I have a migraine, it reaches its peak either between 3 and 4 in the morning or 3 and 4 in the afternoon; my presentation was at 10am so surely I'd have plenty of time to get it done and get home again before it hit. I took three Mersyndol and had a large can of energy drink and hoped for the best as I got on the train to go to uni.

My presentation started off okay, but about half way through, I started to feel a sharp throbbing pain behind my left eye and knew that the migraine was imminent. I managed to get through the presentation (albeit rushing a bit), and answered some of the panels questions, but started to feel dizzy and had to sit down. At that point my supervisor realised I was getting a migraine and suggested I go, but unfortunately as soon as I tried to stand up, I blacked out and went face-first into the floor. Once all the lights were turned off, I was left lying under the table in the dark for a couple of hours (which is the only thing anyone can really do for me when I have a migraine) until I was well enough to get up and leave (and then I got to deal with a 4.5 hour journey home thanks to train issues).

Thankfully, the panel were pretty happy with my progress since my confirmation. The main feedback I got was that I needed to describe more clearly how my artifact (the interactive digital narrative sign language learning system) fit within the design science research structure I'd chosen. It's one of those things that I understand fairly well in my head but really need to work on communicating it to other people. Then again, I often find that when I try to explain something to someone else, it helps me clarify it in my own mind. Though I still need to define my actual participant testing procedure more clearly, I feel reasonably confident about most other aspects of my project.

In brighter news, my supervisor gave me a new Nintendo DS Lite last week after I lamented the death of my faithful old DS I'd had for close to 8 years (I left the poor thing in my car on a hot day last month and it decided to go to the great big hard drive in the sky). I had been searching far and wide for a pre-owned one in decent condition but all the ones I found were either pink or had faults (touch screens not working or dead pixels in the screens).
"Yes, it can play Pokemon games. I need it for research. What do you mean, you don't believe me?"
My supervisor had a bunch of the DSs sitting in her cupboard from an old research project and most had hardly been used, so I was quite happy with my new acquisition (and I immediately promised it that I wouldn't leave it in a hot car). Especially since the battery life appears to be pretty good on this one (my old one had been played so much that it would only last just over an hour on a full charge). For many years now, my DS has been a way to keep myself entertained on the train to and from uni or during the nights when my insomnia keeps me awake.

Now that my mid-candidature review is over, I am a lot less stressed (I hate doing any sort of presentation), but I still have plenty to do in the near future. I still have one or two character designs to do (I had done all of them but I'm not really happy with a couple of them so I want to redo them), and I need to finalise my interview questions and questionnaires and submit my ethics application. I also want to do my paper prototype testing and start working on putting my content into the system's modules (this last one will depend on when the programmer finishes coding them), which hopefully is doable within the next month. Also, my literature review is pretty close to being finished, and having got some feedback from my supervisors a few weeks ago, I'd like to get it finished off within the next few months or so and not have to worry about it anymore (aside from going back to add the odd new reference here and there).


Monday, 29 February 2016

I'd Like to Thank the Academy...

Another hashtag post! This time it was the #AcademicOscars hashtag, which took off as the #Oscars were trending on Twitter. I could relate to so many of the posts I just had to join in. These are some of my favourites, but there were other good ones, too.

#AcademicOscars - More interesting than the actual Oscars.

Friday, 22 January 2016

Storyboards and Sketches: Visualising an Interactive Narrative

Almost as soon as I started writing my story, I was also starting to think about the graphical style that would accompany the text and dialogue; not just in terms of illustration, but also the interface design and layout. I wanted to strike a balance between something that looked decent, was easy/quick to create and wasn't confusing in any way. The three main components of the 'look' of my interactive narrative were storyboards, characters and interface, but this post will just address the first two.

Storyboards
I started storyboarding even before I'd finished writing the story, but at this stage it was mostly ugly scrawls in my sketchbook, sometimes with some watersoluble crayon thrown in if I was feeling fancy. As the narrative took shape and I got a better picture of the town and the locations in my mind, I found it easier to put these locations onto the page, but as I drew, I began to realise that drawing out all of these scenes properly would take a lot of time; time I wasn't sure I had, as I needed to have the pictures ready to be uploaded into the system as soon as it was functional (and it turned out I was rushing for nothing, as I will most likely bitch about in a future post). Wondering how I could get a framework for my scenes in a way that was quick and easy but would not lower the quality, I remembered a program called Google SketchUp that I'd used in some undergrad subjects. Using a bunch of free, pre-made models that people had uploaded, I was able to put together some decent looking scenes and easily move components to vary the composition or shift the camera to change the viewing angle. When I was happy with the scenes, I exported them into a photo editing program and filled most of the areas with white (leaving only dark outlines) and then bumped up the brightness so that the outlines were only faint. This was so that when I decided to colour, I could print them out and use the outlines as a guide for where to paint but could paint over them if I wanted to hide or add details.

Once the storyboards were mostly done, the next step was deciding on the art style to be used and how the scenes would be coloured. A lot of this meant deciding what medium/s would be used to colour the storyboards. My contenders were watercolour, gouache, coloured pencils, oil pastels, markers, watersoluble crayons or acrylic paints, so I printed out eight copies of one scene and coloured in each copy with a different medium.

  • Oil pastels: I dismissed oil pastels almost immediately after starting to colour with them, knowing that their messiness and tendency to leave crumbs of pigment everywhere would make them a nightmare to scan. Which was a shame, as I found it pretty easy to get a dense layer of colour and they were easy to blend and fun to use (also, I like the smell of oil pastels. DON'T JUDGE ME)
  • Coloured pencils: I tried coloured pencils but found that it took too long to get a good layer of colour, especially if I wanted to make it smooth enough to avoid leaving pencil marks. I also felt that adding detail of any sort would take too long.
  • Markers: The only decent markers I had were Faber-Castell PITT pens. I found these too time-consuming to colour with, especially as no matter how carefully I coloured, they always left ugly marks if I accidentally coloured over a previous line. The colours were strong, though.
  • Watersoluble crayons: Watersoluble crayons had the same issue, and even when I washed over them, the lines were still visible. Using them without a water wash just made them look scumbly and ugly, as if it had been coloured in my a child.
  • Gouache: Though the gouache gave me good coverage, I wasn't happy with the colours; granted, I had a limited set (it was a cheap set I'd ordered from America for about $12AUD when our dollar didn't suck), but the colours just looked... flat. The fact that they smelled like someone had pooped in the tub and added coloured pigment to it didn't help.
  • Watercolours: This is one of my favourite mediums to use, even if I'm not great at it. I love how it allows for pale, delicate washes or bolder, brighter colours to be used. Unfortunately watercolour really need to be used on proper watercolour paper so it doesn't buckle; using it on basic sketchbook or printer paper is a recipe for disaster. None of the printers I have access to are capable of printing on thick watercolour paper (which is often almost like cardboard) and even if they were, the ink would run and smudge and make everything look horrid as soon as I painted over it, so I regretfully removed this one from my list of possibilities.
  • Acrylic: Last year my local art supply shop had a "buy $50 of canvas and get $50 paint free" sale, so naturally I went nuts and waddled out with my arms full of canvas and acrylics I didn't really need (except I do need them. Because they're art supplies. Shut up.). I quite like acrylics and it's one of the mediums I'm better at, so it wasn't much of a surprise to me when I decided they were my favourite, not just because of the bright colours and ease of layering, mixing colours and colouring large areas, but because they somehow didn't cause the paper to buckle anywhere near as badly as the watercolours did.
  • Mixed media: For the hell of it, I did one version where I used several mediums (acrylic, crayon and watercolour). It looked okay but it didn't stand out enough to make me feel that going to the effort of using three different mediums in each painting would pay off.


In the end, I did all the storyboards in acrylic. Though I enjoyed painting some of them, I found that by the time I got about half way through, I was getting tired of having to paint, and when I look at the finished paintings now, it's easy to remember which ones I did first and which ones I did last, as the last ones show that I'd almost stopped caring by then (whoops). But they got done in the end, and that's all that matters.

Characters
Given that I'm most skilled at drawing human characters in the Anime/Manga style (I can paint realistic still lifes of fruits and vases but my realistic people are terrible), I decided to go with this style for my character illustrations. I had tried to keep the number of characters in the story to a minimum, reducing the amount of drawing I would need to do, but I still wanted them to be of reasonably high quality. However, I soon ran into another challenge. Most of my previous manga illustrations have been of young women, who were characters in either my own novels or my friends' novels. I had rarely drawn older women, nor had I drawn many male characters, aside from a couple in an interactive steampunk narrative project I did for one of my Honours electives. I had also never really drawn any animals or creatures aside from dragons.

Thankfully I got around this fairly easily. Once I drew the basic skeletal pose of the characters, I was able to adapt them for male characters instead of female characters. One of the characters was actually a creature - a monkey - and I was most worried about how this one would turn out, but after looking at a few pictures of small monkeys on Google, I was easily able to draw a decent-looking manga monkey. After drawing a rough version of each character and then colouring it in with coloured pencils to help me decide on a colour scheme, I transferred the illustrations to proper watercolour paper and used watercolour paints to colour in the final versions, which looked a lot smoother and cleaner than the pencil copies.


Now that I had my scene paintings and my characters, all that remained was to put them together. This is one example:

Interface
Another consideration was how the scenes and characters would be presented, once the text and the graphics were finalised. Since the interface design carried a wealth of its own considerations and problems, I'll talk about that separately in a future post.


Saturday, 9 January 2016

Time for Research, Time for Rest

As I talked about in earlier posts (like this one, and this one), relaxing and not stressing is something I have a hard time doing. I am always worried about getting the next thing done, and any time I'm not working, I feel guilty for not working (even if I've already been working for 12 hours straight). Part of this is because I usually prefer to finish a task in one sitting where possible, or at the very least, work on it constantly until it's done over the course of a few days. In such situations, I'm reluctant to take a break in case I lose my train of thought. As a result, I spend hours on end in front of my computer, eating junk food which I've stock piled the day before so I don't have to keep wasting time looking for food.
Rations.
Unfortunately, though, sometimes I need to take a break. No matter how urgently something needs to be done, there's no point working on it when I can't concentrate properly anymore. When I get to this point, I know it's time to walk away, because if I don't, I know I'll just get more and more frustrated, and when I'm frustrated, I make mistakes, which makes me more frustrated and... you get the idea. This has been a difficult lesson for me to learn, but it's something I need to keep in mind. I need to try to set aside at least a small amount of time each day for 'fun' activities or relaxation.

"Be vewwy, vewwy quiet. I'm hunting monsters."
For me, fun and relaxing activities usually involve video games, painting or playing with dogs (luckily I have furbabies to play with at both of my residences). Sometimes I'll watch a movie, but oddly enough, I often prefer to watch something I've seen before rather than something new (I guess because I don't want to have to concentrate on following the plot if I'm mentally exhausted already). I also find that doing a shift at my retail job can be helpful, as having to be physically occupied with menial tasks frees up my mind to - at least subconsciously - work on whatever problem is bothering me. Often I'm then able to go home and have at least some sort of solution or idea of how to approach it, even though it had me feeling like this parrot before I went to work.

Naturally, if I'm at home, Rex always has to 'supervise' me on my breaks, while when I'm at my Nan's, the two little Jack Russells are usually never far away (and they all love cuddles).

"Oh, hai, I heard you open the compartment where my carrots are kept
so I thought I'd come and make sure you were okay."

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Milestone Misery

Mental/emotional breakdowns right before academic milestones seem to be becoming a yearly tradition for me (though in all fairness, my mid-2014 one was caused by external factors). After struggling a bit over the Christmas break (both because of depression and because of stress about my mid-candidature review) and having my breakdown a few days into the new year (blubbering at my Nan while I yowled incoherently and waved my printed drafts of my thesis chapters in her face), I went to my supervisor's office and wailed at her for half an hour about how little I had done and how far behind I was and how everything had gone wrong and how I was a failure and was going to fail.

Far from telling me I was terrible and was going to get kicked out (as my dumb brain had convinced me was the only possible scenario), my supervisor said I had actually done plenty and that I was more than ready for the review, and that the majority of the stuff I wanted to have done but hadn't done was stuff I can't do until the programmer finishes coding the system (which could be months off). So, while I am still stressed and gloomy in general, I'm at least not feeling as awful as I was. Also, I got a cute cuddly Pikachu, and adding more Pokemon crap to my collection always lifts my mood.
If only I could be as happy as this little bastard is with that apple.
A lot of the pre-testing work I need to do (designing instruments for participant interviews and questionnaires) can't be done until I know what the final system looks like. We also had issues with the main programmer who was working on the system leaving, and it took a while to find a replacement, so that also set us back (not just for my narrative project but for the system in general; my project forms a smaller offshoot of a larger project being run by one of my other supervisors). In terms of written work, one of the chapters I had hoped to have submitted for my review (my methodology chapter) is too incomplete because - again - I can't add much more to it until I've done my participant testing (I need data before I can write up my data analysis, even though I already know which methods I'm going to use). My theoretical framework chapter is more or less finished, with only a few small additions and revisions required (I can probably finish it in the next day or so), and my literature review is at just under 20,000 words; two sections, learning methods and learning technology, are more or less finished, it's just my language learning bit that needs fixing (and it needs a lot of fixing as it is basically a broken mess at the moment).

The only thing that will take a lot of time is the storyboards and character illustrations. The storyboard designs have all been done and the outlines printed, so all that is left to do is paint them (not a difficult task, but it will be time consuming). I also need to redo my character sketches as the paper I used originally was cheap garbage, and as soon as I tried to paint them, the paper turned to mush. Then, once the coding is done for the system (which almost certainly won't happen before the review), I just have to upload all my image files and text into the modules. I also got new oil pastels, and new art supplies are always fun.
Rex likes my new oil pastels, too.
All through my undergraduate (and in some of my honours, much to the annoyance of my supervisor), I would often leave things til the last minute because I tended to perform better that way than if I started working on assignments as soon as we were given the brief. Obviously I knew this approach wouldn't work for a three-year doctorate (even I can't crank out an 80,000+ word thesis the morning it's due), and I knew that even doing smaller parts of the thesis in one sitting was unfeasible given that most chapters take longer to think about and write up than an undergrad assignment, so right from the start I tried to make sure I chipped away at it a bit every day. Some days I feel really productive, like I'm getting a lot done and making some genuine progress. Other days, when making any amount of progress is a struggle, I feel like this dog. Then there are the days when everything just goes tits up. Even though this is apparently normal, as someone who likes to plan things and do things perfectly the first time, I tend to get a little (read: a lot) antsy when this doesn't happen. And one thing I've learned while doing my PhD: things almost NEVER go as planned, and they sure as hell don't come out perfectly the first time (or the second, or the third).

So, my main tasks for the immediate future:
-MCR report
-MCR presentation
-Finish theoretical framework chapter
-Write design science section of methodology chapter
-Paint characters
-Paint storyboards

Should all be doable, I think (I'm still going to stress, though).


Friday, 25 December 2015

Research and Rollercoasters

Christmas has never been a good time for me. Listening to other people crap on about how much fun they're going to have with their family only makes me dread the day even more, knowing that spending time with some members of my family is about as enjoyable as having a fork jammed into each eyeball.

It's also when my mood is at its lowest. Though it wasn't officially acknowledged (ie. by an actual doctor) until half way through last year, looking back I realise that depression is something that has hounded me my entire life, along with (to a lesser extent) some form of anxiety. I don't know if it's solely the result of a chemical imbalance in the brain or evil brain goblins messing with things they shouldn't (if 'brain goblins' isn't a medical term, it should be), or if it was the result of relentless emotional and physical bullying (from 'friends' almost as much as enemies) I endured all through primary school and through most of high school, but I've never had any self-esteem and have never felt truly happy. I thought it was normal for people who were supposed to care about you to treat you badly, I thought it was normal to be sad all the time, and I thought it was normal to feel worthless and that no one would care if I didn't wake up one day. Sometimes that feeling suffocates me like a blanket and sometimes it's more like a shadow I keep glimpsing out the corner of my eye, but it never really goes away. While there's no real pattern to my mood during the rest of the year - it's kind of like an unplanned rollercoaster with highs and lows - my fish are always dead in December.

Unfortunately the medications I've tried in the past not only gave me constant, skull-breaking migraines (even worse than the ones I usually get), they did not play well with my heart condition, triggering 3-4 episodes of tachycardia a day that were so bad I actually felt like I was dying; at this point it seems my only options are to be miserable or be seriously ill. As a result, I haven't really dealt with it, because I don't know how to deal with it. I don't know if I can. I've tried exercise, and though it sometimes helps during my milder phases, it does nothing when I'm in a really bad way. It's also something I can't really talk about with other people, because a) most people generally don't care and only want to make every conversation about themselves anyway, b) those few people who would care suffer from similar issues and I feel bad about making things worse for them, and c) because there's no specific trauma or event that is making me feel like this (and therefore nothing concrete that can be done to 'fix' it), it's hard to justify trying to talk about it ("Hey, I'm sad because I'm rubbish and my brain hates me for no reason. Now what?"). The fact that I dislike talking to people at the best of times and most human company in general doesn't help (related: I feel a certain kinship with this shark), mainly because conversations often go like this:
People around me: You can talk to me any time, I'm always here for you. You just need to learn to ask for help. 
Me: *tells them I'm struggling and tries to ask for help* 
People around me: Just cheer up, you'll get over it. Now let's talk about  MY problems...

Depression also does not give a crap about deadlines, which makes doing a PhD far more difficult than it already is. It's nearly impossible to force yourself to read through stacks of articles and type up your findings and put it all into some sort of order when simply dragging yourself to your desk seems like it will take more energy than you possess. It's also a lot harder to concentrate on anything, so everything takes 2-3 times longer than it should. So you put things off, and put things off, and then you realise you have something due soon and you become paralysed by a combination of stress at not knowing where to start and guilt for not starting earlier, compounded by the voice in the back of your mind that constantly tells you that you're garbage and are not good enough and deserve to fail. As a result, the whole thing becomes a vicious circle of self loathing and chaos and sniffling pathetically over your keyboard at 4 in the morning as you shovel an entire box of Ferrero Rochers down your throat.

So far, the only way I've found to try to get around this (with varying levels of success) is to plan every little task that needs to be completed each day, breaking them down into sub-tasks where possible. It doesn't help when something takes longer than I anticipate, and people often make fun of me for being 'anally retentive' and being so obsessed with making lists, but sometimes ticking off one item on my list (even if it's something dumb like 'draw two character designs') makes me feel like I'm making some progress. Of course, planning things out so precisely means that when something happens to disrupt my plans (which is often), I get even more stressed. I don't really like change. Another thing that tends to happen is if I'm working on one thing, I feel guilty about not working on something else, so I go work on that something else instead, and THEN I feel guilty about not working on a third something (this also makes it really hard to do any fun activities like video games or social events because the whole time my brain is screaming at me "YOU SHOULD BE WORKING!").

I'm definitely stuck in a low part of the rollercoaster at the moment, but, I feel like I should try to end on a positive note, so I am thankful that my metabolism allows me to consume half my body weight in chocolate at once on a regular basis and still remain a size 10.

Guest appearance from my Nan's little dogs, Spot and Dash:


Friday, 27 November 2015

One Hashtag to Rule Them All

Because I'm a dork who loves all things fantasy, I couldn't resist joining in the #LOTRYourResearch hashtag on Twitter, where academics posted LOTR quotes to reflect the trials and tribulations of research. I put together a collection including some of my own contributions and others that I particularly liked, but there were a lot of brilliant ones.

#LOTRYourResearch - One hashtag to rule them all

Saturday, 17 October 2015

On Writing an Interactive Narrative (with constraints)

I've always loved stories, whether it was reading them or (as I got older) writing them. It was always something that came fairly naturally to me (I have a half-finished but fully outlined first draft of a fantasy novel waiting for me to have a break from research, and a few years ago I wrote and illustrated a children's book as part of my non-IT Honours elective), so when it came time for me to design the interactive narrative that would be used in my research project, I figured it would be fairly easy.

Sure, there was a limit on how long the story could be, since its main purpose is to act as a learning tool and most people tend to lose interest in such things after an hour at most. And yes, there were only about 100 (or just under) signs in the library for me to choose from that I could actually incorporate into the narrative, and which had to be used as the 'catalyst' for the learner to move through each part of the story. "But I'm a WRITER," I told myself, cuddling my ridiculous number of notepads and journals to my chest. "None of those things will be a problem for ME! I'll finish this off in a day or two and then go and play Nintendo games or something."

Armed with a sizable stash of energy drinks, I sat down to plan the story. The idea for the story itself came fairly quickly; the main character (the player) would wake up to find their younger sister missing, and upon investigating, would discover that her disappearance was likely the result of her playing with supernatural forces that should have been left alone (obviously more detailed than that, but I'll save the extended outline for my thesis). Once I knew WHAT had to happen, I needed to work out HOW it would happen.

Though the beginning and end underwent a few revisions, they mostly came together almost fully formed and the words flowed pretty easily, like squeezing honey onto a pancake. Writing the middle, however, was like trying to shove a watermelon into a toaster; no matter how I turned and twisted it, it just refused to happen. The more I struggled to wrestle my plot into something that was concise but which still made sense, the more my writerly ego deflated like a balloon (I could almost hear the sad little PFFFT sound as it did).

One of the challenges was making the scenes short and concise. I have a tendency to waffle sometimes (exhibit A: this blog), especially in fiction, which I usually blame on having to do so much academic writing over the years. While this is helpful for reaching word counts, it's not so helpful when I'm trying to keep the story broken up into bite-sized chunks. Each 'scene' is basically one paragraph (or less), though sometimes there would be two or three paragraphs between the user making signs to move forward (with the user doing the equivalent of turning the page or clicking 'next' to get through the two or three paragraphs to the point where they make a sign). For the beginning and end, this was manageable, but for more complicated sections in the middle of the story (eg. where explanations of some of the supernatural occurrences were required), the first, second and subsequent drafts always ended up being several paragraphs for one scene. Technically this could still be fixed with having lots of 'Nexts' but it would seem clunky and out of pace and would ruin the pacing, possibly boring the user.

Another thing I found challenging (more so than I thought I would) is the limited selection of signs I can choose from. The signs in the library are mostly pretty basic ones, like colours and foods, places and family members, animals and vehicles, most of which don't lend themselves especially well to fantasy narratives. Even though it's not a full blown sword-and-sorcery fantasy (more like an urban fantasy that starts out as a mystery), it would be good to have a few more interesting signs to work with. Then again, the idea is to help beginners learn signs that will be the most useful to them in basic conversation, so I suppose there's no real educational value in teaching them the signs for 'dragon', 'magic' or 'wizard'...

My process for actually writing the story basically involved having each scene as a paragraph in a Word document, with a choice of signs at the end of each one which would take the user to the next paragraph. Some of the scenes only allowed one 'choice' and had a linear progression, while others had two or three signs to choose from. Some choices would result in the user going to a different scene depending on what they chose, while others would take them to the same scene regardless of which choice they made but would store their decision until later in the story, at which point it would affect their path. One thing I found helpful was to have a sketchbook with post-it notes laid out in a more visual representation of the paths, with lines showing the connection between the scenes (pro-tip: if you're going to do something like this, don't buy the crappy blue-label post-it notes from Big W. They don't stick to anything for more than a minute or so and if you so much as look at them the wrong way, they all fall off). Though I could "cut and paste" scenes to move them around in the document, having a more pictorial view of what was happening in the story helped me organise things more easily and decide when scenes needed to be moved, shortened or deleted.

Though all the scenes have been written, I am a little concerned that the story as it stands may be a little long in terms of playthrough, so I will have to see how the users go when I test it for the first time as a paper prototype. If it is too long, cutting it down without butchering the story entirely will be difficult, but I'll fall off that bridge when I come to it.

The next thing I have to do is start on the illustrations and interface design for the interactive narrative, which I can do in conjunction with finalising the story.


Sunday, 31 August 2014

Confirmation - Passing the First Hurdle

After having my Confirmation pushed back a month or so due to family issues, I finally got it out of the way near the end of July. I was reasonably happy with my presentation (even if I did go 10 minutes over time because I was trying to avoid falling into my usual trap of talking too fast and finishing my presentation in half the allotted time). I did kind of feel bad about my timeline, though, since any time I set a timeline for what I'm doing, it utterly fails to match up with reality. Still, the panel didn't ask too many questions, and those they did ask, I was able to answer pretty easily (for some reason I had a deep-seated terror that I'd be asked a question and wouldn't be able to give a coherent answer or it would be something I hadn't even thought about). I am one of those people who tends to assume the worst in every scenario (I am often right, though), so getting through without any real mishaps was a huge relief.

In terms of my Confirmation report, I had to make a few changes, but nothing significant. All I really had to do was delete some of my theoretical framework stuff which was redundant (about the generative theory of multimedia learning) and rewrite a few things to be more clear about what I was doing so I could submit the final version of my report by mid-August.

At least now I'm a propepr PhD candidate, not a probationary candidate. Now I'm off on intermission for a few months (it's either that or have a complete mental breakdown... WOOT!)

This calls for a celebration:


Saturday, 19 October 2013

FIT6021 Workshop 10: Mixed Methods

Part 1
The tenth and final workshop for FIT6021 looked at Mixed Methods, an approach in which researchers use a combination of qualitative and quantitative data.

Tashakkori and Newman (2010) describe the seven main reasons for using mixed methods research: complementarity, completeness, development, expansion, corroboration/confirmation, compensation and diversity. There are several advantages to using a mixed methods approach; it can overcome or compensate for any defects or weaknesses in either method, ie. having the best of both, covering any gaps, as well as just providing richer or more detailed analysis (to paraphrase the lecture notes, the quantitative data can tell you what is happening whereas the qualitative data can tell you why it is happening). A researcher could use the second type of data to confirm what has been discovered with their first set of data.

Though using mixed methods research can be beneficial, it does have some drawbacks. Firstly, it can be difficult to decide if using mixed methods is really necessary. If the researcher does choose to use it, they must take into account the added time and resources that will be needed (especially if they are conducting the different sets of research sequentially). This will not only slow down the research itself, but it could prove problematic when it comes to publishing their findings (eg. do they just publish one set at a time, keeping their work 'up to date', or do they wait til it is complete and risk having its timeliness reduced?). Also, to conduct mixed methods research, the researcher must be skilled in the use/analysis of both qualitative and quantitative data or, if they are not, must work with other researchers (which can cause further problems if they come from conflicting paradigms; although sometimes it is good to have both a positivitist and an interpretivist etc looking at the data, as one may see something the other has missed) (Hesse-Biber, 2010). Integrating the two sets of data (into matching formats) for analysis could also be a challenge depending on the way the experiments/observational exercises were set up (Cresswell, Clark and Garrett, 2008). There is also the chance that both of the methods used could produce conflicting results (this may not necessarily be a bad thing, but it would be a problem if one set of data was meant to 'confirm' or support the other).

A lot of published articles we looked at (both in class and while we were researching our group presentation) that use mixed methods seem to use it in an almost 'cursory' manner, ie. the majority of their experiments and analysis will be conducted using one method, followed by a briefer set of research conducted in the other method (often also described in less detail). While I don't necessarily see this as a problem (some topics naturally lend themselves more to one method than another), it is still important that both types of research be conducted rigorously and justified and reported accordingly, otherwise there is little value in conducting the 'supporting' research at all.

Part 2
Though it is too early to know for sure, it is possible I will use a mixed methods approach in my research. However it will probably focus more on the qualitative side rather than quantitative; most of my research will be based on user testing and and observations and probably talking to potential users before the research/design stages begin, though interviews and questionnaires will need to be used as well. At first I thought that using mixed methods would be a useful way to confirm my data and make it more plausible, however the more I learned about it, the more I realised it had the potential to become very messy if not handled correctly, as discussed below.

I would have to consider is whether I would conduct the research sequentially or concurrently. Concurrently would be difficult simply because I will be conducting the research on my own, and managing my time between the two and also shifting my 'mindset' back and forth would be challenging (not to mention my general dislike of statistical analysis, which I would have to learn how to do). Sequentially could prove to be troublesome as I would have to collect and analyse the data from one lot first (which could take months) and then collect and analyse the data from the second lot (again, potentially taking months). Depending on when I get to the point where I am ready to begin conducting the tests etc, there is a good chance I would run out of time to do both, or at least run out of time to properly write up the results at the end. Therefore, though it could be a useful method, it may not be practical for me in terms of time constraints and resources. I will have to wait and see.

Mixed Methods Online Resources
<resources are listed on Wiki set up by Danny, requires login to Monash Google account>