Written by Lucy Natarajan
Contact: email@example.com or @lucynatarajan
This blog is about shifting to remote forms of engagement. It tells the story of moving research work online in early 2020. It is written in the spirit of sharing experiences about engagement in the lockdown, and I’d love to hear others’ views on remote encounters of any kind.
At the start of April, I began to move all of my engagement, research and teaching work for UCL online. Like others at that time in England, up to that point I was much more used to working face-to-face but needed to work remotely because of the new laws. The most challenging thing was that I needed to teach online about how to conduct research online. This is because I teach research methods for interviews and focus groups, and our students were in the middle of dissertations and about to begin their data collection at that time.
Qualitative research involving engagement (i.e. interviews and focus groups) is typically conducted face-to-face. In April this was outlawed or at very least strongly discouraged in the face of the COVID pandemic.
Normally, I would have treated online engagement as a ‘sub-set’ of research – only for occasional use. But now I needed to teach it as a primary mode, and remotely too. This ‘shift’ (figure 1) seemed like massive leap.
Figure 1: A big leap from f2f to online engagement?
For online teaching, I only needed a few tools– a microphone and video recording software. UCL had a set of IT for employees to use and we had to become familiar with that quickly. The online courses cleared up some of my biggest concerns, especially about how to make sure that there were ‘captions’ (text for accessibility). What also helped was that I had some remote interactions with students before (mostly via Skype). And I could discuss with colleagues as I was learning which built up confidence.
For online research, I already had a lot of experience of interviewing remotely and quickly got experience of Focus Groups online. In my view, some of the basic questions you need to ask about research design do not change when you shift online. In fact, my dissertation workshop was built around a series of questions and the only change I made was to add the word ‘remote’ to one question (figure 2).
Figure 2: ‘Remote-ness’ changed the approach to methods
So, my experience was OK and it was possible for my students to engage online BUT can we use ‘remote encounter’ for engagement more generally? I think there are some fundamental issues we should not forget.
Firstly, ‘remote engagement’ – whether online or by telephone – introduces barriers for access and participation. It is true that most research relies on remote methods of recruitment and data collection, for instance via emails or phone calls. But, it is good engagement practice to use diverse modes (i.e. online and face-to-face recruitment such as via snowballing) in order to make sure you reach everyone.
Limiting interactions to remote modes may cause problems for all involved. Obviously a home computer and a decent Internet connection were essential for me to shift my own work online. It will be harder for some groups, like those in rural areas where Internet access or phone connections may be less reliable. Importantly too, there is a cost associated with technology (phones, laptops, and the digital connections for them). These barriers can affect equality of participation; some people may struggling to interact with a dodgy line, and others might be disconnected.
Secondly, transport logistics are reduced but there may be other logistical issues around getting participants ‘on the same page’. We’re all fairly used to finding our way to a roundtable and making introductions live. We can’t assume that everyone is used to remote engagement or being relaxed in online chats. In fact, there will be times when remote modes just won’t work. If you don’t know anyone in a local area how can you start to engage people? Who kicks off snowballing? Or if a research question is very sensitive you might need in-depth face-to-face interactions to support people who engage.
Those who organise remote engagement need to work out how online tools function and which one might work best for the context they are working in. I have spent a lot of time gaining research and technological skills (i.e. over the course of my career as well as in the immediate response to the 2020 lockdown). Even so I still needed extra support and training to shift online. Playing with tools and discussing with others was really useful to me and I was lucky to have such collaborative colleagues.
Overall then, I think this is an important moment for learning and developing quality in engagement using remote modes. It is also a time for discussions and exchange. I am curious about others’ experiences. As online tools become more commonplace in engagement will there be changes to their usefulness and will any barriers be reduced? And (crossing fingers) when there is a return to normal and we meet again, will any of the lessons be useful for the anyway?