Beyond adaptation: just transferring online?

NCRM news
Poppy Gerrard-Abbott
Hand turns a dice and changes the word offline to onlineHand turns a dice and changes the word offline to online

The most pronounced challenge of doing research during COVID-19 was the watershed switch to the online world. With limited or no training and support, researchers and educators worldwide were expected to deliver the same quality, within the same time frames, in a profoundly different realm. 

In one workshop I delivered on adapting methods to COVID-19, I argued that we would not say that sailing a ship in calm waters, equipped, trained, and knowing the destination, is the same as sailing in stormy waters, with little equipment and training, and lost. The latter is a dramatically different scenario and the skill-set needed to navigate it should be taken seriously - patience, observance, fast reflexes, multitasking, risk assessment skills, calm under pressure, problem-solving skills - how many times has your tech done something completely unexpected or crashed during an important moment? The list goes on. The idea that we are ‘just transferring online’ is not only a dramatic underestimation of the adaptation processes to online spaces but is simply inaccurate, rooted in beliefs that online is inherently secondary ‘we use it only because we have to’, inadequate as a microscope to researching social life, and lower-skilled to operate than ‘real life’ spaces. 

Failing to recognise our digital research, teaching, and working lives over the course of the pandemic as fully-fledged methodologies and pedagogies in themselves excludes the distinct skills, philosophies, and expertise behind and within them. More concerningly, promoting the view that we have simply undertaken a shift of ‘transferring online’ causes a disconnect between our employers’ and colleagues’ understanding of our labour. It also has the potential to create a misalignment between workers and their own skills and efforts. The labour of upskilling, re-training, and the entire evolution workers have gone through during the pandemic is at risk of not being named and studied in its full glory. 

Taking a look at methods, if we study one example - such as conducting online focus groups - and apply the simple question ‘what is different about running these digitally?’, tens or even hundreds of new tasks land at the doorstep of the researcher: researching appropriate videoconferencing platforms, testing them in advance, recruiting enough participants for an online group session (in a saturated online world), learning which participants are more likely to show up to research carried out online, finding out how to engage participants less inclined, scoping out the technical knowledge of participants, answering technical questions, understanding and executing security features, securing the home environment, developing confidence in chairing online spaces, simultaneously managing the chat feed and audio conversation, upgrading your wifi. 

One resource I wrote on doing online events and research during the pandemic is a testament to the complexity and lengthiness of COVID-era methods: I compiled this document over months, visiting my notebook after I did anything meditative - a walk, a shower, chopping vegetables - as more and more bullet points of things I had learned surfaced. This process of journalling allowed me to credit and mark the skill, time, and labour that each piece of adaptation had required, the significance of which had been buried in the rush to COVID-remodelling. I realised that our conversion to online research was beyond just adaptation: it was craftmanship. 


Our relationship with mistake-making

The unique dynamics and challenges of online spaces touch every part of our work, even the fundamental elements such as speaking and being heard (“you’re on mute!”) and feeling connected to others in a room. Every role we take on in our research - contacting participants, supporting them, chairing focus groups - becomes intensely complicated in the digital space as we consider the plethora of needs I mentioned - security, functionality, the welfare of participants during the pandemic, creating engaging spaces, finding ways to communicate clearly to our participants (an important part of ethics) from behind screens. 

Not only did researchers and educators have to go on a self-directed intensive course of learning new technologies and facilitation methods (on top of our day jobs) but we needed to learn how to make entirely new ethical assessments in the digital realm with no reference point and little training or support. Something rarely mentioned in relation to retraining in the pandemic context is that technical mistakes or short-sightings about the digital space - the vast majority of which occur because someone just simply has not been taught or does not possess sufficient support to manage every consideration - can translate into major ethical problems that have the potential to cause harm to participants, researchers and others in their/our social webs: privacy violations, confidentiality issues, hacking, safeguarding problems. During pandemic research, technical mistakes, and making assumptions about the limitations and capabilities of digital spaces, can be extremely costly. This could include, for example, automatically applying the same questions that we would in pre-lockdown interviews, focus groups, and surveys in today’s environment. Can we ask questions like: ‘what is your relationship with your family like?’ or ‘have you experienced any financial issues recently?’ in the lockdown space. Is it safe? Do we need to completely rethink these questions to get any data? 

Researchers can also make presumptions that safeguarding issues automatically worsen/lessen, or that research can not/absolutely should go ahead in the online realm. Such assumptions can pose existential threats to the development of important research during the COVID era or cause us to bulldoze in without considering the distinct challenges and training needs of online research. Interestingly, divisions have emerged between researchers who chose to put off their research during the pandemic and those who have no choice (due to funding windows, the urgency of their topic, deadlines that can not be moved), and those that have had to go through process and those who have the luxury of learning from the process of others. 

Researchers are also dealing with a new ethics labyrinth isolated in four walls, lacking the holistic support and discursive element that often makes our ethical judgments and methodological choices watertight - pre-pandemic, informal work conversations and spaces often acted as essential sites of best practice-sharing. Whereas, during the pandemic, much of my learning about research ethics, methods, and best practice in a COVID era comes from, well - making mistakes or observing the mistakes of others. This has been a painful, introspective journey, and I have blamed myself - and been on the receiving end of blame - for not getting it always right. This has got me thinking about our relationship with mistake-making in academia, how the competitive and corporate responsibility climate can often leave very little room for human error. Mistakes themselves are not necessarily negative experiences but the social and institutional reactions we and others are taught to have to them are. Going back to the boat analogy - it’s like sailing the boat in a torrential storm, with only a rudimentary knowledge of the equipment you are trying to operate and cannons are being fired at the same time. 

Contrary to the certainty provided in governmental ‘roadmaps’, we do not know with precision how long online research and education will continue and what the long-term future looks like in terms of what elements of pandemic shifts will forever remain, and to what extent. Regardless, my biggest learning from pandemic research relates to my relationship with mistake-making, and I began permanently embedding a new outlook after completing a major leg of fieldwork in October 2020 involving hundreds of participants in online focus groups and interviews. Briefly pausing at the end of this and reflecting back on the errors I made, I discovered a new passion for rethinking mistake-making in more effective and ethical ways. If we use our boat analogy, a new approach could involve: giving ourselves and others the space to learn the equipment and practice storm sailing tactics before the storm, even if it delays the mission temporarily. We should also be allowed to ‘come as we are’ to the sailing mission, recognising the highly variant training levels and needs that will arrive to and occupy the online space at any one time. This involves acknowledging the often un-acknowledged factors that shape adaptability to not just pandemic era working ways but our wider relationship to rapid technological acceleration: generation, class, time richness/poorness, plus levels of pre-existing technical training, exposure, and confidence - not to mention trauma from our technical education (or lack of), discrimination in tech spaces, and digital or computing mistakes from the past. 


Ethics of the self

Our ethical assessments often disproportionately focus on the risks presented to participants, and risks posed from the context of the research - i.e. the boat and the storm - rather than the sailor. 

As part of my inner revolution about mistake-making, I have become a stronger advocate of a ‘fix your own oxygen mask first’ approach to ethics over the course of the pandemic, and have observed and experienced the paramount importance of securing your own wellbeing before occupying supportive roles for participants and colleagues. ‘Wellbeing’ doesn’t mean home spa treatments and wellness webinars - although, these can enhance wellbeing once an initial foundation is established! Wellbeing can mean things we never conceptualise as wellbeing - feeling equipped, filling training gaps, identifying goals, having half an hour of your colleague’s time to discuss methods over a coffee, having a second pair of eyes on your writing, allowing ourselves to learn from rather than be hindered by mistakes. 

Consciousness-raising among researchers and educators that they are deserving of such basic wellbeing sounds like a simple task but the pandemic has revealed the extent to which stress - and even mistreatment and harm - are normalised and unacknowledged for researchers. We are often taught to equate ethics to ‘participants’ and as researchers, we do not enter ourselves into these equations. One post I saw on Twitter recently said “self-care is hard if you don’t think you deserved care”. I have seen and experienced first-hand how researchers, especially those from more working-class backgrounds, can put the risks of their research down to the ‘hard grind’. It took me time to realise I am deserving of the collegial support, good advice, training, protection, security, and knowledge needed to navigate the new, pandemic terrain. As many feminists (namely feminists of colour) have advocated, ‘the personal is political’. Putting the ethics of self-safety, care, and development front and centre can be a revolutionary act that is ‘just as’ political as the research topics we undertake and the social groups we research. 

Sharing our pandemic learnings and mistakes in order to train others, share with others, and open up vessels for knowledge exchange is at the heart of this self-care, and is premised on the breakdown of gatekeeping. My contributions to resisting gatekeeping, reconceptualising our relationship with mistake-making, and re-seeing pandemic methods as distinct and valuable have come in the form of talks and documents for anyone to access. Please enjoy: 

Adapting Focus Groups & Interviews to COVID-19 lecture 
National Centre for Research Methods talk: Just transferring online? Valuing COVID-19 methodologies
Adapting online events and research - live document 
Where to turn? Support contacts - live document 
Designing online spaces for marginalised groups
What is ‘inclusivity’ in the online space?