Data collection strategies in the time of COVID-19

By Shawn Boone, Ed.D. is Associate Dean of Instruction for Research and Residency in the College of Doctoral Studies at University of Phoenix

5.39 min read

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COVID-19 has presented many challenges to typical routines and practices for Universities, including how traditional brick-and-mortar institutions engage in the teaching and learning practices and the modality in which these pedagogical and andragogical practices are delivered.

The move to online/virtual formats to engage students has come with hesitation because of the unfamiliar and uncharted waters of online learning presented to some faculty and students. Online doctoral students in research data collection of their dissertation journey may experience some consternation with potential delays that COVID-19 has upset to data collection in areas where one-on-one or group meetings or observations were concerned.

COVID-19 and current social distancing and shelter in place policies may have toppled doctoral students’ data collection efforts because of ongoing layoffs of institutional contacts and potential research participants. Current researchers may find that any requests to participate in research from health care providers, particularly current front-line workers, may require significant shifts in population. In this situation, students should consider collecting archived data from the participant’s public-facing website.

Below are some possible research solutions to help students continue to progress toward degree completion. Doctoral students should work with their dissertation chairs/advisors and committees for final approval in any research methodological data collection changes. Within many institutions, students who do not currently have IRB approval shifts in current research redesign may not need IRB addendums, as your IRB will guide you once you submit your initial application. For students, who already have IRB approval and may need to alter their plans as a result of COVID-19, you should contact your IRB regarding data collection changes.

Change a questionnaire to a virtual interview

Participants who initially agreed to participate in your research may have planned to do so during a company break. However, now that time may be committed to overseeing the many chores and individuals within the home. As a result of social distancing mandates, your potential participants may no longer have the time to complete your questionnaire because they are working from home and inundated with children and other immediate family members in the house as well.

In this case, many participants may be more likely to participate if you offer to change the questionnaire to a voice interview and take notes for them. This provides the participant with an opportunity to talk with someone outside of the home and feel more connected to the world. This change may require an IRB addendum in the process.  

Change paper-based survey or questionnaire to email format

Most researchers who are sending out surveys or questionnaires to institutions are doing so via email contact. In the rare case where researchers are sending their institutional contacts the paper surveys or questionnaires, researchers may find the contact, and participants may be now out of office working remotely. Mailing surveys to a contact in the institution may now be out of the question, with most employees following work from home policies.

As a workaround, email your contact to see if you can have access to employees’ company email addresses or if they are willing to email the survey out to all potential participants with a return note to email directly to back to you. This may require an IRB addendum in the process.

Change one-on-one Interviews and focus groups to an online synchronous meeting

With restrictions placed on social gatherings, and researchers’ necessity to keep participants safe, researchers should use the vast array of virtual conferencing platforms in which to gather textual data. It is preferable that most research is conducted face-to-face, which is no longer a possibility. The solution is to move these in-person meetings to online synchronous meetings.

While this may make for the most natural solution, some research designs stipulate the need for the researcher to see and observe the participants’ mannerisms. In these situations, researchers should opt for virtual video-enabled platforms.

Change observation to document review

With social distancing and shelter-in-place policies in place, researchers may also find it difficult to conduct observations within organizations.

Researchers can determine whether they can exchange observations for archived document reviews using content analysis.  

Change data sources to stratified sample

Some research designs require the use of multiple sources of data to assist in triangulation, quality, and rigor of the research. With current realities, researchers may find that even with attempts to shift data collection strategies, data sources, such as observations or focus groups, are no longer available.

To construct additional multiple data sources, researchers can consider shifting their sample strategy to a stratified sample technique. In this strategy, researchers would divide an existing sample into subpopulations using specific criteria such as years in the profession, experience levels, and roles within the organization. This may require an IRB addendum in the process.

Change recruitment approach to a snowball sample strategy

The current state of the world has meant many layoffs and threats of layoffs. As a result, conducting research may become difficult as potential participants and contacts within the institution could no longer work for those organizations.

This is a precarious situation and deserves as much sensitivity as possible.  Researchers may need to consider a snowball sample strategy to recruit participants.  When researchers follow up with any contacts who may now be separated from the institution, potential participants may decide to still take part in the research and may do so if they choose.

Change in-person participant consent to virtual

With the inability to meet one-on-one with participants, researchers must still ensure compliance with federal mandates to human subject protections.

Researchers still need to convey, clearly and effectively, critical aspects of the research purpose and participant agreement, including the following: (1) convey informed consent to participants, (2) have participants agree and sign the informed consents, and (3) save signed informed consents for the requisite number of years as outlined by their institution (3-years or 5-years). Researchers can ascertain scanned, emailed, and electronic signature agreement from participants before the start of the research.

In what may appear as chaos, researchers should view research as the organized, messy chaos of discovery to uncover social realities. As doctoral students work to collect data, researchers have an opportunity to use their critical and creative thinking skills to ensure some normalcy during these uncharted times.          

Shawn Boone, EdD is Associate Dean of Instruction for Research and Residency in the College of Doctoral Studies at University of Phoenix, and he is a member of the University’s Institutional Review Board (IRB). He is a mixed methodologist and researches doctoral student persistence, progression, and completion, education reform, and faculty professional development.  His doctorate is in Administrative Leadership, Teaching and Learning. Shawn has been an online faculty member since 2009 and a doctoral dissertation and research faculty member since 2011.