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Incorporating Photos Into Field Notes

Ok — for some (or many) or you, this topic might not be too revolutionary. Incorporating photographs into field notes is not exactly new. People have been doing it for just about forever. But for me, it’s new, and it has become an opportunity to examine how I approach research.

Up until now, I simply had no need to include photos in my research. I suppose I could have taken photographs of work samples or other artifacts, but normally I could just get a photocopy and it worked just fine. But for my current project, photos have become a necessity. I realized I would likely be taking photos about 24 hours before I entered the field for the first time.

I wasn’t entirely sure what I would be taking pictures of. I just knew that it would be happening. And so, immediately, I tried to quantify it.

When I say I tried to quantify it, I meant that I started trying to figure out how many pictures I should take per visit or even within a certain time slot. For example, should I make sure to take at least one picture per visit? Or maybe I should take at least one picture every 30 minutes? Is that enough? Maybe I should take one picture every 10 minutes?

And what if there isn’t a picture worth taking every X minutes? What if there isn’t a single relevant picture to take during a visit? Should I force myself to find one? But if I’m forcing myself to find one then why am I even taking it to begin with?

You get the idea here?I was losing my mind.

There was something about the idea of photos that made me feel unbalanced. Maybe it’s because I simply could not quantify it. Maybe it’s because I had to be ok with the idea that one visit could produce 20 photos, a second could produce 5, and a third could produce 1 — and there wasn’t anything wrong with that.

But I also am used to my research being bounded. It’s bounded in space and time. It’s bounded in how often I collect field notes. It’s bounded in what I look at and how often I am looking at something. I’m used to everything having a framework and a box around it. Yes, I set where the lines go, but the point is I have long been big on setting lines.

So this project has become an effort in letting go. Or a learning experience. Whatever you would like to call it.

It’s not like I’m just free wheeling it. I have a specific purpose for my project (how are teachers using technology in their instruction) which guides what I take pictures of. But I have let go in terms of thinking about how many pictures I take. I simply show up and see what happens.

There had been a voice in the back of my head that had been yelling at me that without a more rigid set of lines, my research would end up being of poor quality. That it would somehow be weaker. Maybe. But in this case I think that if I had drawn a set of rigid lines it would end up being less interesting.

I have just one rule: Take a picture of anything that could be useful in understanding how technology is being used in the classroom. Sometimes this includes taking pictures of things that are not technology because they show what the preferred approach is when technology is an option. Sometimes it means showing a tablet sitting next to a student going unused even though the student has been told to use it to engage with online reading material.

This rule means that I can end up with a lot of pictures, some, or none. The potential is there for it all. And I have to be ok with that. I have to embrace the uncertainty of it all and trust that this is what will make the project amazing.

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