Skip to main content

Remote learning: Read this: Challenges & opportunities of online/remote research

Introduction

Whether moving your existing research online or starting a fresh project based on remote research, there are a number of potential challenges and opportunities that you need to consider.

 

Potential challenges

  • Do you and your participants have access to appropriate equipment (computers, phones, microphones, webcams)?
  • Do you and your participants have sufficient digital skills to participate?
  • Can you support participants with technical questions if your research requires the use of specialist software (Skype, Teams, Zoom etc.)?
  • If you're using online approaches, does everyone have access to the internet? Will the connection strength support the instruments you intend to use?
  • Will online or remote research include or exclude any particular groups?
  • Do you and your participants have access to a private space to sit in while connecting online or via telephone? 
  • How can you record or capture any research you conduct through online or remote instruments?
  • How can you be sure you know who you are speaking to?

Potential opportunities 

  • Can online or remote research enable you to provide an enhanced level of anonymity and/or privacy in your research?
  • Will online or remote research make your research more inclusive?
  • Could this approach to research expand the geographical participation for your research?
  • Will online research be easier for you to record and capture?
  • Online research may enable you to specifically engage certain groups or target specific demographic. Can this benefit your research?

 

Overcoming challenges

Digital capability

With online research, technology is the facilitator of your interactions with your participants. If you are working with participants that have poor digital skills or low-technical confidence, the technology may become a barrier to their participation. In running online research, you may find yourself in the role of tech support. Some of the instruments you chose may require participants to engage with new apps, programs or devices. To ensure success, you will need to support them in their use of these tools.

Digital access

Digital poverty is still a significant problem across the UK and worldwide. Moving to online research may potentially exclude some people for taking part in your research. As a minimum, your participants will require access to the internet. Depending on the research instrument you choose, participants may need access to a laptop, tablet or mobile phone. There may be additional requirements like speakers, headsets or microphones. If you are using video conferencing, they'll also need to consider this connection strength. The next page explores some of these issues further and considers a range of instruments that can be used. 

Rapport/trust/connection

Some researchers and/or participants may find it more challenging to build rapport and trust when facilitated online. If you had planned to conduct face-to-face interviews and moved to conduct them via telephone you will need to consider how you built a relationship with your participants which can be more challenging when done remotely. This is largely dependent on the kind of research you are doing, but some participants may be less likely to open up about sensitive issues. This can work the other way of course! Anonymity or less-direct forms of communication may make participants more open with you. 

Data management and protection

When working online data you need to very carefully consider how data is collected and managed. For example, if you are using videoconferencing software for your interviews, you need to consider how the software provider manages data. Can you assure your participants' anonymity or confidentiality will be maintained? It is really important for you to carefully read the privacy policy, terms and conditions of any software you use. Where possible, you should use the official University of Hull provided services and software. Anything else must be assessed and approved for use. 

Costs

You may need to occur some costs in purchasing software licences. This is particularly important to ensure you are using software that is safe for research use. Often, tools that are free would not meet data protection regulations. One general rule is that if a tool is free, the data you are generating is the product. It may be this is analysed to provide advertisements or is sold to third parties. 

Power dynamics

A lot of social research considers the researcher and participant power dynamics. When facilitated online, it can place more power in the hands of the researcher, especially as they control the online environment. While this should not stop you using online methods, you need to carefully consider how it frames your relationship with your participants. 

Ethics

Ethics will be more fully considered in the next theme. Issues include confidentiality, participant misidentify, COVID-19 stress, exclusion and more.