17 Nov UW Journalism School Software Expands Web-Based Research
MADISON – A homegrown software innovation born of “creative laziness” in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is saving time and money and opening doors to a new world of online survey research.
“It allows us to conduct research at a much more rapid pace, and also allows us to bring technology into the classroom much more readily,” says Dhavan Shah, associate professor of journalism. “It’s become a valuable, powerful classroom tool.”
The computer program was devised by Brian Deith, the school’s senior information processing consultant, at the urging of faculty associate Kathleen Culver, who was looking for a way to introduce her beginning journalism students to online survey research.
“Anyone can now set up a survey without being a programmer,” says Deith, who is responsible for the care and feeding of the school’s 150 computers – and often their perplexed users. “That translates to about 500 potential problems a day – a tremendous amount of work – and the software honestly was the result of creative laziness.
“I wanted to make it easy for me and for them,” he adds. “It handles virtually any survey you throw at it. It’s a real time-saver.”
But the software’s reach could extend well beyond the campus with its potential to help Web-based survey researchers everywhere.
Essentially, the software provides a bridge between responses to online survey questions and a database program on the school’s server. The fairly simple program helps to organize the data as it is collected, and allows students to receive the results neatly arrayed in a spreadsheet once the survey is completed. Before Deith wrote the yet-unnamed software, customized programs needed to be written for each survey and substantial time was invested in cleaning up the data after it was collected.
Shah and Deith say the technology builds on open-source software, which can be shared free of charge and improved upon by others. In that spirit, Deith plans on releasing an open-source version of his software in the near future.
“Grad students are taking the model to other universities, something that could encourage collaboration,” Shah notes. “It becomes more community-based, from a teaching and outreach perspective.”
Currently, there are more than a dozen survey projects under way in the school, and Shah says some of the more sophisticated ones would cost $20,000 to $25,000 each if an outside consultant conducted a 1,000-response survey.
“This isn’t in his job description, but Brian has the heart of a researcher,” Shah says. “As we come up with new ideas and he has solutions, we’re all able to stretch.”
The school’s graduate students have worked on a variety of projects using the software, ranging from assessing people’s opinions about violent video games, to sampling the behaviors and attitudes of people visiting Iraq anti-war Web logs, to testing the effects of news stories on social tolerance.
Cory Armstrong, a doctoral candidate, is using the technology to conduct a survey of newspaper editors and reporters on news-gathering techniques.
“Because it’s Web-based, people can take the survey at 2 a.m. or 2 p.m., and the results shoot into one file. It saved the data entry, which is really time-consuming,” Armstrong says. “There was no way I’d have the money to do this in any other way, not when you’re a lowly grad student without much cash.”
The software has allowed grad students to extend the reach of their surveys – which in the past were often limited to Dane County – to a global audience. And while the software has expanded horizons for graduate students, it has also helped open a gateway into survey research for undergraduates, Culver says.
One of the school’s priorities has been to prod undergraduates to examine surveys critically and learn to interpret polling data. Students in Culver’s Journalism 202 class, which offers a sweeping look at various aspects of journalism, are now able to do their own, small-scale surveys. Prior to Deith’s development of the software, Culver says, it would have been too time-consuming for students to devise a survey, identify respondents, gather the data, enter the information and analyze it within the context of her broad-based course.
“Now, it gives my students hands-on practice with survey research, which then gives them a far better understanding of quantitative reasoning,” she says.
She noted that the Web-based surveys also enable students to respond anonymously on sensitive subjects such as date rape, drug use and binge drinking. And, she says, when students review the findings, they also get an introduction to spreadsheet management – a valuable tool for practicing journalists.