Rapport through a laptop? Benefits and drawbacks of online interviews

In this post, two researchers share their reflections on conducting interviews and focus groups online during a global pandemic for a large strategic educational project (CLaS). Both had previously conducted face-to-face interviews, which involved finding a suitable meeting room, printing information statements and consent forms, and making sure their trusty audio recorders were fully charged. Often interviewees would run late and most of the time it was because they were rushing from one building to another and trying to find the meeting room…

How has all this changed in the online environment? Find out about the key benefits and drawbacks for educational research and evaluation.

If you’re interest is more about how to engage students in online surveys, you can find some tips in a previous post.

Can you outline your experience running interviews and focus groups since the COVID-19 pandemic began?

Natasha: Working remotely during the pandemic, I found myself conducting interviews and focus groups online through Zoom. At first I was hesitant and wondered how I would be able to develop rapport through a laptop. Since the start of the pandemic I have lost count of the number of interviews and focus groups I have conducted online. Through my work with BCD I have spent countless hours on Zoom speaking with students, tutors, and unit coordinators about their experiences teaching and learning online.

Matt: Similarly, I was a little apprehensive at first when conducting focus groups online. However, my experience was a little different as I had never conducted a face-to-face focus group before (only interviews). After a few sessions (and now two years of practice), I have become a ‘digital native’ in terms of running focus groups using Zoom. Using Zoom to conduct one-on-one interviews in Zoom also gave me experience running these sessions in a different environment. I learnt that Zoom does offer some advantages over traditional methods, such as being able to easily record the interview, and enabling participants to share their experiences from their home. Not all of the logistical components of scheduling face-to-face interviews (or focus groups) need to be considered when running Zoom sessions.

So what’s better, face-to-face or online sessions? Can you compare them in more detail for researchers?

Natasha & Matt: While there are drawbacks to conducting interviews and focus groups online, we have found that the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

Benefits

Participants can be interviewed from anywhere and across any time zone

Less time-consuming as no travel time is required

Participants names are displayed, meaning you don’t have to remember lots of names when conducting focus groups

Audio recording is built in to Zoom meaning you don’t need a separate device

It is very clear to participants when the system is recording

Easy to create a shared focus of attention for discussion by sharing images/documents on screen

Participants appear to be more comfortable participating from a location of their choice and appear to be more open in their responses

Participants can attend a session at a time that works best for them in-between other life commitments such as family, work, and/or study

Less expensive as there is no need to hire rooms, provide food, etc. to participants (however, an incentive for participation ought to be considered as it would for a face-to-face session)

Drawbacks

A strong internet connection is required from all participants

There is often a lag between asking a question in an online focus group and someone answering

Consent forms need to be obtained prior to the interview

Background distractions may occur for the facilitator or participants

Natasha: When conducting interviews and focus groups face-to-face it was quite simple to obtain signed consent forms. Participants would be sent an information sheet and consent form in advance and then they would be asked to sign a printed copy of the consent form in person before the recording started. Getting signed consent forms is slightly more challenging in an online environment. However, clear communication with participants and a follow up message in the days leading up to the interview/focus group are generally sufficient to obtain the signed form in advance.

Matt: I agree that clear communication is essential. This is especially the case when working with speakers for whom English is their second language. Usually, I would take the time at the start of my focus groups to double-, or even triple- check that students had understood the consent procedures.

Natasha: The biggest challenge I faced in adapting to online focus groups was the lag between asking a question and someone responding. The silence that ensued was uncomfortable and I found myself talking a lot more than normal. I have found it is best to allow some silence, but that it can be helpful to call on a participant (by name) and ask them to respond.

Matt: I have also found it challenging at times to ensure that students answer questions. It varies a lot across sessions. Sometimes, students naturally engage with each other and group conversation flows. In other instances, I go around the virtual Zoom room and ask students their perspectives, addressing them by name. A general question such as “Does anyone wish to agree or disagree with what (insert participant’s name here) said?”.

Natasha: As for developing rapport through a laptop, it’s been quite an interesting experience. Because many staff and students participate in interviews and focus groups from home, to some extent I feel like I’ve been invited into their personal space.

Matt: Indeed, the concept of personal and professional workspaces has been mixed together in the Zoom world. More generally on Zoom (in meetings as opposed to research settings), I have met colleagues’ families, their pets, or even their cars! Zoom has truly introduced a unique way of working into educational research.

About the author

Natasha is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Queensland University of Technology and was formerly a Research Associate in the Business school working on the Connected Learning at Scale project. Her research focuses on the co-construction of environments that support complex problem solving (epistemic environments), online learning, learning analytics, and transitions in education.

An early-career researcher involved in evaluation of educational interventions at scale. Trained as a biomedical engineer and medical scientist, and enjoys writing of all sorts, teaching and continual learning!

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