Problems encountered so far...

It is widely acknowledged that a mixed methods approach to research requires more time and effort (Teddlie and Tashakkori, 2003) as the analysis of the first phase of the research assists in the initiation and development of subsequent phases (Greene et al, 1989, cited in Teddlie and Tashakkori, 2003, p. 16). However, there were two particular problems which significantly slowed down the process, questioned the reliability of the data and to an extent limited the research which could be carried out.

An institution’s administrative records are generally of high quality (Robson, 2002) as they provide the basis for reporting to the funding council. However, for research purposes, the quality of secondary data is questionable because the purpose of those who collect and record the data is different to that of the research focus. It was brought to our attention by AR that the sample may possibly be skewed due to University administrative procedures. For example, if a student has not paid their fees they may appear as withdrawn; once they have paid, they become fully enrolled again. This doesn’t usually happen in the first couple of months of the academic year however it can be picked up during the interview phase for cross-referencing purposes. The MISIS database is a live system which is used for a number of administrative purposes and thus ever changing and unreliable as to identifying whether students have interrupted or withdrawn from their studies; it can only provide a snapshot of reality based on data considered accurate at the time of enquiry.

Acquiring the data from the VLE was particularly problematic and more complex than envisaged due to the integration of the university’s two main systems, MISIS and OASISplus. The integrations allow much of the administration to be automated. For example, as soon as a student registers for a module in MISIS, the change is within hours reflected in OASISplus and the relevant module is added to their online learning list. However, this also means that as soon as a student drops a module they are removed from the online module and all their tracking data is removed from the users’ interface. Having liaised with the technical department a programmer was able to write scripts which would interrogate the server logs and produce a list of all interactions recorded for each of the participants (example in appendix 7). However, contributions to online discussion topics could not be retrieved, thus not allowing for qualitative data (ie nature of posting and language used) to be collected and analysed. Gate keepers of data in this in this instance were not the owners of the information but those in possession of the technical expertise necessary to extract the data.