By Laurel White
When Adaurennaya “Ada” Onyewuenyi was a doctoral student at the University of Washington, her research advisor stumbled upon a book that would drastically change their work — and, arguably, Onyewuenyi’s career as an educational psychology researcher.
At the time, Onyewuenyi was at a crucial point in her dissertation and was beginning the academic job search process, bogged down in the anxious throes of milestones and deadlines. She somewhat wryly recalls her advisor’s excitement over the book, which outlined an innovative new research methodology.
“She came in and said, ‘Okay, we’re doing this!’” Onyewuenyi recalls.
Her advisor’s excitement fell in sharp contrast to Onyewuenyi’s exhaustion, but her mentor was convinced the new methodology, called quantitative ethnography, would be a great fit for the work. Their project, a mixed methods analysis of how culture and peer relationships affect teenagers’ conflict management skills, involved a lot of data.
A learning curve and multiple publications later, it turns out the advisor was right — and Onyewuenyi’s research, which she now conducts as an assistant professor at The College of New Jersey, would never be the same.
Quantitative ethnography, developed by UW–Madison by School of Education faculty member David Williamson Shaffer, is a way of doing research that unifies statistical and qualitative methods to help researchers use the power of “big data” to build more accurate and insightful models of complex and collaborative human activity.
Since the publication of “Quantitative Ethnography” in 2017, Onyewuenyi and hundreds of researchers around the world have used the method, called “QE” by its practitioners, to look beneath the surface of research data in a new way.
Shaffer has said QE lets researchers move past the mindset of “just looking at large chunks of data, finding patterns, and hoping they’re meaningful.” Onyewuenyi agrees.
“A lot of my other colleagues do qualitative work,” Onyewuenyi explains. “QE allows us to quantify and visualize what we’re talking about. We have colleagues where quantitative methods and statistics reign supreme — QE allows us to talk to them, instead of us talking past each other.”
This summer, Onyewuenyi and more than 20 other researchers from around the world gathered at UW–Madison for a first-of-its-kind institute on QE. The gathering, funded by the National Science Foundation, allowed researchers to deepen their understanding of the methodology.
Brendan Eagan, associate director for partnerships and community engagement in Shaffer’s Epistemic Analytics Lab, led the institute. He says the four-day event also aimed to give researchers the ability to teach QE to their students and peers.
“This methodology came from UW–Madison, but we know ideas only go as far as the communities that are using them and keeping them alive,” Eagan says. “It’s one thing to build capacity by training researchers one by one, but if they develop the skills to train other researchers as well, that’s another thing altogether.”
Vanessa Dennen, the Tyner Distinguished Professor of Education at Florida State University, was one of the institute’s attendees. Dennen’s current research focuses on how teens use social media, including how they make complex decisions about which platforms to use and how they use and manage them. Dennen says she sought out the institute in order to deepen her understanding of QE at every step of the research process, from conceptualizing questions to writing up results.
“I think it is a true gift to have an institute like this, where you can focus on a method across multiple days, with experts to guide the process, and without other distractions,” Dennen says. “I’ve been delighted by the collaboration and the community, which will continue beyond the institute and help me continue to grow as a researcher using QE.”
At the end of the week, Dennen said the institute also bolstered her ability to support others as they learn the method.
“This week has strengthened my conceptual understanding of QE and that, combined with the many resources that have been generously shared and the supportive community, makes me feel more confident about guiding students and colleagues at my institution in their own QE journeys,” she said.
Two other institute attendees, Vitaliy Popov and Amalia Daché, said they also leave the gathering with plans to teach the method at their home institutions.
Popov is an assistant professor and director of Learning Sciences and Technology for the Clinical Simulation Center at the University of Michigan. His research focuses on the field of medical education, and the ways in which healthcare professionals collaborate, coordinate, and influence one another to learn or perform together, usually in technology-rich environments.
“I am hoping to offer a QE-related course at my university which will center around health professions education and healthcare teamwork analytics,” he says.
Daché, an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, studies urban higher education access and success for marginalized communities in the U.S. and Afro-Latin America. She recently used QE in a paper about violations of academic freedom at Cuban Universities, and differences across racial lines.
“I used an Epistemic Network Analysis to conduct the analysis, which did result in statistically significant differences in how Black and Non-Black Cubans experience state surveillance,” she explains.
Eagan acknowledges the wide array of research interests represented at the institute. He says the diversity of thought and inquiry was intentional.
“The more perspectives we bring in, the better the science, the better we are able to understand a wider range of phenomena,” he says.
Onyewuenyi says she deeply appreciates the event organizers’ thoughtfulness about diversity and inclusivity as they work to grow the field of QE.
“They’re so purposeful with who they partner with,” she says. “As a Black researcher in a predominantly white institution space, I appreciate these are white men who are really about this work. They help make sure the most marginalized, who have the most to say and are often at the fringe of their various fields, have the tools to speak truth to power.”
The QE summer institute will continue over the next two summers with sustained support from the National Science Foundation. Attendees will also participate in follow-up training and support sessions online over the next several months. As the learning experience grows and evolves, organizers have an eye on creating a successful QE training model that could be deployed at other institutions.
Eagan, who earned his doctoral and master’s degrees in learning sciences from the School of Education, says he’s looking forward to building more bridges to QE for researchers around the world.
“It’s pretty exciting, and sometimes I have to pinch myself,” he says. “It’s incredible when you feel you’re in the right place at the right time, when ideas take off and resonate with people.”