Paulus uses qualitative research to study online conversations

Trena Paulus

While communication through email, texts and social media has grown, social science research around this type of communication has not. Trena Paulus is looking to change that. Paulus graduated in 2003 with a Ph.D. in Instructional Systems Technology, and her work around online conversations is just another example of the range of career paths a degree from the School of Education can provide.

What made you decide to come to IU to get a Ph.D. in Instructional Systems Technology? 

I was wavering between doing a Ph.D. in linguistics and shifting to a focus on something Internet-related, as back in 1999 the Internet was still relatively new. Having grown up in Indiana, I checked out IU’s offerings, stumbled on the IST program and was awarded a Chancellor’s Fellowship – so that made the decision easy. While I had already been teaching ESL to university students for several years by then, I had not had any formal training in an education or instructional design program, so I appreciated that the IST program was housed in a school of education.

How do you use your Ph.D.? What is your current career?

I’ve been a professor now at three institutions – the Education Psychology department at the University of Tennessee where I taught ed psych, instructional design and qualitative research; the University of Georgia where I exclusively taught qualitative research methods, and now in the College of Medicine at East Tennessee State University. Here I will be focusing on doctor-patient communication research, applying conversation analysis methods in the medical communication context.

Tell me about your current work and research. 

My primary focus for the past 16 years has been on the intersection of technology and qualitative research. Historically, qualitative researchers have not been huge fans of digital tools, so this was an area that I was particularly well-suited to study, given my background. I’ve also looked extensively at online learning – both as a designer and a researcher. I have developed new methods for analyzing online conversations that occur both in formal learning environments and other online spaces. Two books have resulted from these initiatives, Digital Tools for Qualitative Research and Looking for Insight, Transformation and Learning in Online Talk.

Just this year, I have shifted to a research role so that I could come back home to Tennessee with my family after several years of commuting. I am now providing research support for faculty and medical residents in the College of Medicine, as well as across the university. My particular focus here will be improving doctor-patient communication using conversation analysis methods, and I will also continue exploring how best to use new technologies to conduct research, particularly in online spaces.

Think about how often we talk to family, friends and colleagues using our phones and computers. Our social science methods for understanding these spaces in deep, meaningful ways remain limited.

Trena Paulus

Why is the work you’re doing important? Why does it matter?

Think about how often we talk to family, friends and colleagues using our phones and computers - through text messaging, e-mail, and social media. Pretty much all the time, right? But our social science methods for understanding these spaces in deep, meaningful ways remain limited. My work helps develop methods for researchers to better study these spaces in ethical, coherent ways to answer important questions we have about human life in this day and age.

And in my new role in the College of Medicine creating educational programs to improve communication skills will hopefully have a great impact on clinical practice.

I know you just co-authored a book – what is it about?  

Alumna Alyssa Wise and I decided to write a book, Looking for Insight, Transformation, and Learning in Online Talk, in order provide researchers with a systematic process to design studies of online spaces. She is an expert in this area using mostly quantitative approaches, and I use qualitative approaches, so it made sense for us to collaborate on this book.

How is the work you are currently doing advancing your particular field of study?

One aspect of what I do is take traditional research methods like conversation analysis, discourse analysis and narrative analysis and show how these methods can be used to understand online spaces. This can help ensure that well-established methods are used in innovative ways to answer important questions. A School of Education faculty member, Jessica Lester, and I are also working on the second edition of our Digital Tools book because so much has changed since 2014! That book should be out in 2020 with Sage US.