Thursday is TechDay: I’m a Novice CAQDAS User! What Are You?

First of all, you may be wondering, “What’s CAQDAS?”

It’s a (not so simple) acronym for Computer Assisted Qualitative Data Analysis. Have you heard of Atlas.ti? Or HyperRESEARCH? Or NVivo? How about Dedoose? These are CAQDAS programs. The purpose of all CAQDAS programs is to support data analysis.

The platforms differ in subtle ways from one another. Maybe you’ve tried one or two. Maybe you use one (or two). Today’s post is not a review of the differences amid brands. If you’re looking for something like that, here’s a good one.

This post is for the readers who may be in need of a basic CAQDAS pep talk. Using these platforms (no matter which one) is a process in and of itself. Consider word processing platforms like Microsoft Word. I have to admit that I have no idea what a macro is. Other than that, however, I am a fairly competent Microsoft Word user. The point is, Microsoft Word can do a lot of things and I don’t need to know how to use all the functions in order to get my work done.

Most reviews will tell you that different CAQDAS platforms cater to different research priorities and techniques. True, but what happens after you’ve decided to purchase one and you realize it may take years before you understand the various functions that are theoretically at your fingertips?

My advice: start with one function and don’t worry about what you’re missing. These programs don’t come with training wheels, so limiting your own use to certain techniques at the beginning will help you build a foundation. I’m working on coding in Atlas.ti. That’s all. That’s plenty. I’ve been using the program for almost two years and I’m still just learning how to code (in all its Atlas.ti coding glory) with it. I’ve had to let go of the idea that the program is some sort of data analysis panacea and that I’m somehow missing out or not doing it right if I can’t figure out how the memo function interfaces with coding.

I have intentionally foregone memoing until I master coding. You may feel you can handle two or three functions. Perfect! The takeaway here is to give yourself permission to use the program in a limited way. How will you ever learn it in one fell swoop? I have a hunch that growing my competency over time will pay off more substantially than the quick fix approach to CAQDAS.

Bottom line: Using a CAQDAS program is not a yes/no proposition. It’s an investment in your future research, if you don’t start somewhere, you’ll never get anywhere. To the extent that misery loves company, I’m a novice CAQDAS user and I’m proud! Join me!

William G. Tierney is director of the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis, University Professor and Wilbur-Kieffer Professor of Higher Education at the Rossier School of Education.

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