Skip to main content

Remote learning: Online, remote and desk-based research instruments

Introduction

This page is designed as an introduction to some potential research instruments that you may consider using to facilitate no-contract research. While there is a large range of ethical considerations for conducting research through a pandemic, this page focuses on the instruments as ethics will be considered later today. 

The most important consideration is that many of the instruments detailed on this page operate very differently in an online environment. For example, even if you are an experienced interviewer you would need to revisit your approach if you decided to conduct it online via Skype. This is considered more fully on the next page.

Internet-mediated Research (IMR)

The following tabs provide further information on potential research instruments for online social or participant-based research.

Interviews are one research instrument that can potentially translate well to the online environment. A traditional interview is an interaction between a researcher and a participant which can easily be facilitated via video conference software and apps. For researchers, an online interview can be challenging to facilitate online and there are many more logistical concerns. Conversations are often not as fluid in an online interview due to lag and audio quality is heavily dependent on the equipment available for both researchers and participants. 

Consent can be gained via email ahead of the interview and can be confirmed verbally at the start, offering participants opportunity to ask questions.

Advantages: 

Closest replication of social dialogue, easy to record if chosen software allows, facilitates conversation and requires no travel.

Disadvantages: 

Audio quality, internet speed, digital skills/access, security and confidentiality of the chosen software, recruitment and consent. Can be difficult to verify who participants are. 

A traditional focus group is an interaction between a researcher and multiple participants. Conversational focus groups can easily be facilitated via video conference software and apps. For researchers, an online focus group can be challenging to facilitate online. It requires the management of multiple speakers, ensuring all get the opportunity to participate without talking over each other.

Conversations are often not as fluid in an online interview due to lag and audio quality is heavily dependent on the equipment available for both researchers and participants. However, focus groups may afford alternative approaches to conversation-based discussions. You can facilitate interactive or artefactual focus groups in an online space. Tools like Google Docs and Microsoft OneNote allow real-time collaboration online. This can allow people to collaborate on something, generating meaningful data. Such approaches may work for interviews also. 

Consent can be gained via email ahead of the focus groups and can be confirmed verbally at the start, offering participants the opportunity to ask questions. This may be timely if there are lots of participants. 

Advantages: 

Closest replication of social dialogue, easy to record if chosen software allows, facilitates conversation and requires no travel.

Disadvantages: 

Can be hard to manage multiple participants, audio quality, internet speed, digital skills/access, security and confidentiality of the chosen software, recruitment and consent. Can be difficult to verify who participants are. 

Online surveys or questionnaires are a popular way to collect data for research and are often chosen over paper-based surveys. Surveys pose a list of questions to participants to access thoughts, options and feelings. The biggest challenge with a survey relates to question choice as there is no ability to clarify questions with participants. Without conversation, questions must target the precise issue a researcher is investigating. Researchers must also strike a balance around the number of questions asked, avoiding the temptation to ask too many questions which can impact participant completion. Closed questions are generally considered quantitative data and open questions are qualitative data. Surveys can use adaptive patterns to serve different questions depending on earlier responses. 

At the University of Hull we provide access to JISC Online Surveys, a powerful tool to design, launch and analyse surveys. Staff can request their own account or an account for their students via the Support Portal. Student and staff should avoid the use of external tools like Google Forms, Survey Monkey and Qualtrics without good reason. 

Consent can be gained through the start of the survey, using a compulsory question for participants to agree. 

Advantages:

No need to digitise paper surveys, participants make take more time considering responses than with an online question and easy to administer to lots of participants with no researcher time.

Disadvantages:

Participants are more likely to partially complete or drop out. Your survey may receive fake responses (often from bots). Participants may complete your survey without full attention while watching television or talking to people. 

Social media affords a range of ways through which to connect with people. While perhaps unconventional, websites like Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn all offer a range of communications tools which would allow researchers to recruit and engage research participants. Communicating directly within social media allows a range of options. Most social media websites allow asynchronous text-based messaging although arranging a specific time with a participant would allow more synchronous communication. This approach is a form of conducting an asynchronous or epistolar interview. Some social media sites also offer audio and video conferencing facilities, facilitating some of the other instruments covered in the tabs above. While it can be challenging to verify identity with social media, it can be useful to engage with specific topics or groups of participants. 

Consent can be gained via direct-messaging to participants. This may require electronic completion of a form to register consent. Participants should be offered the opportunity to ask questions.

Social media can also be used as a source without direct engagement. This can include analysis of Tweets and Facebook or YouTube comments. See conceptual and source-based research below.

Advantages:

Can be used to afford anonymity, especially through text-based communication. Facilitates conversation and requires no travel.

Disadvantages:

Social media profiles are not always authentic and you could end up engaging with bots, shared profiles or fake accounts. Engages only those using social media, which would exclude anyone without internet or devices. 

As people spend an increasing amount of time utilising electronic devices like mobile phones, tablets and computers, there is the opportunity to use these interactions to collect data. While this instrument is specifically focused on understanding the internet and device use, it can be a useful way to understand how people navigate online, virtual or electronic spaces. Options include:

Website and app analytics: Scripts can be used to track online or app browsing behaviour. This can enable researchers to investigate how apps or websites are uses, investigating the impact of language, layout and colour. This can be used in addition to A and B testing where users are randomly served one of two pages allowing researchers to investigate how this may impact behaviour. 

Smartphone data: Similar to the analytics above, OS-level apps such as Apple Screen Time and Android Digital Wellbeing collect a range of analytics that monitor phone use. These can provide valuable insight into how people use their phones. 

Screen recording: Screen recording can be used to video record whole-device usage. This can be used to explore a whole range of different behaviours. This could gain insight into any device-based activities like writing behaviours in an education setting, how officer workers manage their time or how people draft messages on social media. As this requires full-screen access, it can be challenging to ethically assure. It requires some technical expertise to set up, but could be done via video conference screen sharing.

It is vital to ensure participants agree to whatever form of tracking they will be subjected to. It should be clear how they are tracked and what the data is used for. 

Advantages:

Provides valuable insight into app, website or device usage. 

Disadvantages:

This is a very specific research instrument that focuses on the understanding app or device use. It can also be challenging to gain consent in an informed way. 

If you are working with participants that have a poor internet connection or you are unable to find an appropriate time, email-based research can allow a researcher to engage participants. It may even be a preferred instrument for engaging certain participants. An interview outline can be sent for participants to type their responses to, with an interviewer emailing back follow-up questions or clarification. Emails can be used to facilitate a sustained conversation, although they don't allow consideration of body language or tone, pace, pitch or power of voice. Researchers need to communicate with participants words are understood. Email-based interviews may be classed as an approach to conducting asynchronous or epistolar interviews.

Consent can be gained via email ahead of the interaction and participants should be offered the opportunity to ask questions.

Advantages:

Facilitates interactions where participants may have poor internet connections. Can also engage participants which cannot meet at the times researcher are available. Also allows more thought and reflection on question responses. 

Disadvantages:

As a text-only asynchronous conversation, emails offer no ability to account for body language and other audio or visual cues. Can be more difficult to verify who participants are. 

While not technically a form of IMR, it's important to consider telephone interviews or surveys as an option. If you are working with participants that do not have access to the internet or have a poor connection, a telephone interview or survey can be a valuable way to gain their participation. For both surveys and interviews, a researcher is able to ask questions of their participants over the phone. Surveys may require answer options to be verbally explained also. For surveys, it allows clarification of questions if appropriate for your method. 

Consent can be gained via email ahead of the interview or through a postal consent form. At the start of the conversation, consent can be verbally confirmed at the start, offering participants the opportunity to ask questions.

Advantages:

Facilitates interviews and surveys at a distance, allows engagement even where participants do not have internet access. 

Disadvantages:

Can be challenging to record without additional hardware if using a landline phone. As a verbal-only conversation, telephone interviews offer no ability to account for body language and visual cues. Can be more difficult to verify who participants are. Would be challenging to facilitate focus groups or multi-participant interviews. 

The Doing fieldwork in a pandemic document includes a whole host of ideas for conducting social research during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to including some of the ideas we have added to this page, this document includes:

  • Photo/video elicitation
  • Diaries/journaling
  • Re-enactment videos
  • Wearable cameras
  • Online discussions
  • App-based methods
  • Autoethnography
  • Studying podcasts or YouTube (cultural)
  • Online role-play
  • Digital mapping
  • Tracking
  • Observation
  • Photojournalism

Resources for online research

Conceptual and source-based research

The following tabs provide further information on potential research instruments for conceptual and source-based research.

There is a significant range of possibilities for source-based research. This can include anything from analysis of company reports, literature, diaries, websites, letters, scripture or any other source. This can support methodologies such as critical discourse analysis, semiotics and hermeneutics. While such research doesn't require the recruitment of participants, it can still prove challenging for data acquisition, management and analysis. 

Source-based research can be completed online where sources have been digitised. While this can be used for paper-based sources, you may want to consider digitisation for easier analysis and management of data. 

Conceptual, philosophical and literature-based research is very easy to facilitate online. Such research is based on the synthesis of the literature to form new ideas and perspectives. Software such as EndNote combined with NVivo can be used to manage in-depth analysis of literature. 

A whole range of data generated through social media is publically available and can be used as a data source for secondary analysis. Thanks to machine or script-based data extraction, this data can be very easy to collect. However, it can be challenging to address from an ethical perspective. While the data is in the public-domain, quotes should never be used as it would allow people to be identified through reverse-searching. Care should be taken to ensure no data is used which would require a login as this may be data you are privileged to. 

It may be possible to conduct archival research without the need to travel if records are digitised or were born-digital. It is worthwhile investigating what digital or digitised archives may be available for your research.

Resources for conceptual and source-based research