By Dr Jo Neary
As with many organisations and their employees, the NSEE team has been working from home since March this year.
While much of our work has carried on as normal, some things have changed. A lot of the work we do involves visiting schools and conducting face to face training or providing support for the collaborative action research work; this has all gone online. Another area that has experienced substantial change is our fieldwork.
The team is currently involved in several evaluation projects where the focus is on school improvement. These include evaluating; the impact of dance and movement in the primary school curriculum, piloting a new health and wellbeing curriculum in schools, and looking at the process and impact evaluation of a large regional improvement collaborative (RIC).
I asked some of the researchers involved in these projects for their experiences of working online in this way, and the differences and similarities of conducting qualitative interviews using video conferencing software (such as Microsoft Teams or Zoom) compared to sitting in the same room as an interviewee.
Adam Jowett’s LSE blogpost ‘carrying out qualitative research during lockdown’ commented that video-calling was a ‘close substitute to in-person interviewing and allowed for data to be collected over a large geographical area even when social distancing measures are not in place’.
This was a sentiment shared by our team. In previous years, whole days were blocked out to enable us to travel to places such as Dundee, West Dunbartonshire, East Renfrewshire, navigating public transport and arranging taxis. As we moved online, it was easier to attend a morning meeting in Dundee and then meet colleagues in Orkney in the afternoon.
It also meant that if we had interviews booked in, and the participant had to cancel, this became less of an inconvenience since we only had to close our computer window and get on with other tasks.
The new normal did, however, run the risk of trying to fit too many interviews into one day. As many qualitative researchers will tell you, the risk of burnout is high if we don’t give ourselves time to reflect on what participants have said to us, and our reactions to what they have said. The temptation with online interviews, is to believe that we can easily fit five interviews in, as we are sitting at the computer and can reach multiple people quickly. But we need time between these interviews to make sense of what was said, and to give ourselves adequate breaks.
One of the greatest skills a qualitative researcher possesses is the ability to listen not only to what the participant is saying, but also to the way in which they are saying it, and how their behaviours either reflect or contrast with their narrative. Are they bored, distracted, agitated, worried, irritated, embarrassed or reluctant? This may not be reflected in their words, but can often be seen in non-verbal behaviours. Someone who looks at their watch repeatedly, shifts in their seat, looks at the ground, or shakes or nods their head as they talk may communicate a different message from the words they speak.
In our online interviews, this is one of our biggest challenges. We have conducted interviews with participants who have chosen to turn off their camera, so that while we can hear them we cannot see them. Or they may choose to have their camera on, but their connection is poor and the video may freeze or drop-out at times during the interview.
In terms of conducting focus groups, the lack of “in person” non-verbal communication can be seen most acutely. On video calls participants often indicate they have something to say non-verbally. Using the ‘hand up’ emoji can easily be overlooked if the discussion is in full flow, or the participant may risk talking over someone (or remaining silent as they wait for their chance to speak). For the researchers, moderating these discussions works most effectively when one can see these non-verbal cues or notice who has not spoken up and ensure they have an equal chance to speak.
Researchers also commented that it can be hard for them to continue to show their non-verbal behaviours on camera (e.g. smiling, nodding as people are talking, maintaining eye contact with a camera and not being too distracted with notes), when the other person or persons has chosen to conduct the conversation off camera. Researchers describe it as a strange interaction, as they feel they are on show, but the other person can remain hidden (and perhaps more relaxed).
An issue for many of us during lockdown, whether we are a researcher or a staff member attending an online meeting, concerns the technical difficulties often encountered with online meetings. I am sure we have all had meetings where some people struggle to get online or are unable to switch on their microphone, or there was a lot of feedback and echo when they spoke.
This has also been the case for some of our team during qualitative research. One team member described feeling frustrated when a long reflective answer given by a participant was disrupted by a bad microphone connection, and they had to ask the participant to repeat what was said. Another team member described difficulty in accessing Microsoft Teams on their laptop and when focus groups have been organised on this platform, they need to borrow a laptop from someone else in the household.
On the other hand, one researcher described using these technical difficulties to their advantage. It became part of the initial rapport building with the participants, as they could all sympathise with the trials and tribulations of online communications. However, the researcher caveated this remark by stating the participants were already known to them, so the initial stages of rapport and connection were already in place.
Conducting interviews during Covid-19 requires a lot of ethical considerations. Participant information sheets and consent forms can be sent, electronically or by post, prior to a video call, and these calls can be recorded (with permission), and then transcribed later. However, during conversations with the research team, one raised the question of whether we should ask if the participants wish to have their camera on or off. No reason would be required, but it may put participants at ease, and allow the researcher to follow suit if it was a one-to-one interview.
Finally, given our research is predominately school based, wherever possible we must minimise the demands we make on school staff and not add to the emotional and practical workload of teachers and school leaders. Would asking them to reflect on their experiences pre-Covid 19 be stressful for them in the current climate? Would asking questions about classroom management in return to school this year allow them to air their concerns, or would it trigger stress responses? These are issues we do not have the answer to, but are aware of and have to manage sensitively during our fieldwork.
Dr Jo Neary is a research associate with the NSEE team based at the University of Glasgow. Her research interests include how social policy influences people’s experience of neighbourhood, education, and health; and the role of education in developing supportive systems for young people.
Follow her on Twitter @joanne_neary
Image by Alexandra Koch on Pixabay.