Why think about using online interviews—as instructional exercise or data collection method? This is an important question with implications for many other areas of the research design. Think about an idea for a study you’d like to conduct when you read the following set of ideas, then post a comment describing your own motivations for conducting online interviews.
I suggest that there are three ways to think about this choice, with the information and communications technology (ICT) serving as medium, setting, or phenomenon.
The ICT serves as the medium when we choose to communicate online with participants because it is convenient, flexible, and allows us to connect with people across the globe. The interview topic may be unrelated to the Internet—we simply use the Internet to reach the people we want to interview. We may even use different ICTs with different participants, selecting the technology that the participants prefer, because the ICT itself is a means to conduct the study but not part of the research question or problem.
The ICT serves as the research setting when we choose a specific online place, virtual world, application or game as the milieu for the interviews. Here the ICT does spark the interest of the researcher who may want to see how the participant acts within, navigates or creates with the features of the setting. The topics of the interview may or may not relate specifically to the ICT or to the Internet.
The ICT serves as the phenomenon when we are focused on the types of behaviors or activities exhibited online. The ICT is inextricably linked to the study’s purpose, problem and questions.
For example, let’s say I am interested in studying entrepreneurs in the arts. If the ICT is the medium, I may choose online interviews because I can include entrepreneurs from different countries without travel costs, and arrange interviews at odd hours to fit the artistic entrepreneurs’ schedules. However, I might be interviewing artists’ with all sorts of face-to-face business models.
If the ICT is the setting, I might choose Blackboard Collaborate or Adobe Connect because I want to use the capabilities of a web conferencing space. I want to look at the slides the participant shares of the architectural sculptures the artist-entrepreneur creates. The sculptures exist in the physical world , in sites too numerous to visit, but I can view, listen to and record the artists’ commentaries by conducting the interview in an online setting.
Or if the ICT is the setting, I might choose participants who have entrepreneurial interests in selling graphic designs for badges used online learning classes. In this case the online learning classroom where these badges are offered is itself part of the inquiry. I might choose to use interactive features of the classroom to conduct the interview, so I can ask the participant to demonstrate how the badge system works in this online mileu.
If the ICT is the phenomenon, I would go a step further and say the Internet is part of the research problem and questions. Now I will say I am studying online networking by entrepreneurs in the arts. The ICT is tightly intertwined with the participants and their work. I am conducting interviews and related observations online because I want to use the same kinds of approached that participants use.
How would you describe and categorize the reasons you consider online interviews to learn about others or collect data for formal studies?
Much of the the online interview I suppose I will be interested in would be using the technology merely as a medium or setting to investigate phenomena that is taking place offline. So I see a lot of constraints in using online interviews in this case. So much depends on the interviewee. 1. Does the interviewee have access to technology, and if s/he does, what kinds of technology? In other words, available technology to the interviewee will necessarily constrain my choices of what I can use. 2. Does the interviewee have the skills needed to use the available technology? 3. Is interviewee willing to use the technology? Does interviewee feel comfortable doing so?
Thus there is so much riding on the side of the interviewee that it reduces interviewer’s choice in this regard to almost a gamble. Why not just do the interview f2f?
Online interviews are not appropriate in every circumstance. If you have ready access to participants f2f, that may be the best option. However, if you want to extend your study to reach participants in a larger geographic area, or need to reach participants in an area where for some reason visitors are restricted or where the presence of the interviewer might bias the study then online interviews are a good option. Additionally, you might use a hybrid approach. With online interview approaches get acquainted, establish rapport and ask background questions prior to a f2f interview. After the f2f interview, communicate online for follow-up questions and member checking.
When ICTs are the medium as you describe, you have a lot of flexibility. As part of recruitment or negotiation of consent, you can ask what technology the participant how they prefer to communicate online in their professional, social or personal lives, and use the technology participants prefer. In such a study the researcher may collect a variety of types of data, some text only, some audio only, some with video or other visual exchange. This variety of data types may give the researcher a rich understanding of the phenomenon.
Thanks Janet and Jerome,
I’m thinking of the how online interviews can be used for evaluation or research in the e/merge Africa context. There is no funder that would fly a team of e/merge Africa staff/ researchers across the continent for face to face interviews in eg 15 countries and such a process would in any case be both inefficient and exhausting compared with an analogous process of online or even telephone interviews. The technology choices for online interviews are quite interesting in our context. Some of our participants have fast enough and sufficiently reliable bandwidth to be able to plan to engage in live meetings in Adobe Connect or similar environments. However in many countries it is unwise to assume the availability of a working Internet connection or even electricity at any particular time.
Hi Janet, colleagues with unreliable or slow Net connections will struggle with environments like Adobe Connect but find it easier to access asynchronous discussions in our interaction site or on in the Facebook group. And increasingly across Africa the primary or sole Internet connection for growing numbers of professionals is mobile (smartphone or dongle). Happy to wait for the technology choice conversation later in the week.
I believe I will be using a hybrid approach because I would like to analyse a set of participant blog posts followed by online interviews to determine participant experiences of using the blog as a learning tool. This exploration is an analysis of part of a programme for training Teaching Assistants (TAs) within my faculty. I am trying to determine the extent to which the blog can be used to support TA training in a situation where there is very little time available for training as these TAs are employed part-time but are also post graduate students.
Thanks for your post. Sounds like a very interesting study! It sounds like the blog in this case serves as research site. Will you be analyzing posts on blogs they do for their own purposes, or will you give them prompts to write about? If you are giving them prompts or topics to discuss on your own blog, you could consider that as a kind of interview because you are eliciting responses. If you are using their own blogs, then you might think about that part of the study as observation, or as “document” analysis.
What kind of interview are you thinking about for the study?
Thank you Dr Janet Salmons for the very fine response to my post. I am relieved to know that online interviews, like any other tool, is just there to be used when it is appropriate and convenient to do so, and can be combined with other approaches to data collection. I see what you describe as practical.
My next point of concern is the interpersonal nature of such didactic communication. Especially if it is on the phone, skype, or video conferencing, the immediacy of the medium and its fragility (in terms of connection and the nascent fear that it may be lost) pose psychological challenges that may impede effective interaction. What kind of training does a researcher require before embarking on this kind of task, besides the very well defined design process you have outlined? And, what measures do you suggest may be adopted to counter such challenges?
I have two answers and one suggestion for you. One is, if the technology is shakey and/or you are not confident, then use another approach from the start.. Practice until you feel confident. Second, always have a plan b. Have a secondary means you can use if the videoconference or other “trickier” technology is not cooperating. In my last study I had to switch at the last minute with one participant, and the second technology didn’t have a recording option set up. So I just plunged ahead and took notes. Finally, remain calm. the interaction is what is important– if there is a glitch just take a deep breath and keep going!
my research is probably similar to Rita’s, with the ICT serving as phenomenon. I am studying online learning engagements/ iteractions of students in a blended part-time undergraduate architecture programme (students spread across South Africa). There are different kinds of interactions that support students towards formulating design proposals in response to set design challenges.
I am focusing on two students’ work – one project each, using protocol analysis to explore how these interactions work in terms of the persons (students/tutors/peers), products (artifacts produced e.g. text, 2Dgraphics, physical/digital 3D models) and processes (modes/media of these exchanges).
The interlinked interactions that I am studying include:
– Design Journal/ blog [asynchronous on the LAMS, using graphics, models and text]
– Webinars [synchronous on the LAMS, using graphics, models, text and audio]
– Social media [asynchronous on facebook using multiedia]
In addition, I would like the students to reflect on how these different interactions supported learning: focusing on one particular project.
In order to generate this data, I could get them to:
1. Each write an essay/ story/ keep a diary
2. Each produce a digital story
3. Conduct an interview online with one student at a time where together we would look at the different recorded interactions and I could ask the student specific questions about the interactions and to elaborate.
What do you think?
Jolanda’s study sounds interesting. Would like to hear more about it as I too will have students from various parts of the world doing different modules in pursuit of a PG degree. so the option may exist to follow some students over time or different modules.
Were there any ethical issues that needed special consideration? How were the two students chosen? Do they gain any benefit from their participation – like credits for the documents they produce or activities in which they partake for the research? Or are they potentially disadvantaged by having to do more than others not being researched?
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