covid-19, Notebook

Considerations for designing pandemic-friendly research

By Dely Lazarte Elliot, Dangeni, Rui He, Emily-Marie Pacheco, Dayana Balgabekova, Natthaphon Tripornchaisak and Kara Makara

Our research group from the School of Education, University of Glasgow, UK comprises two supervisors and several international doctoral researchers who occasionally engage in undertaking small collaborative research projects that are aimed at reinforcing research learning via informal platforms. Everyone actively participates in collaborative planning and decision-making, as well as working in pairs or in groups. Over the years, our group has continued to harness opportunities for mutual learning, particularly in advancing everyone’s appreciation of the research process and academic writing while building a sense of community and camaraderie among its members.

Following the successful publication of a conceptual paper on international doctoral researchers’ learning via community participation towards the end of 2019, our group again decided to embark on another small research project. Unpredictably, the pandemic started and subsequently disrupted major academic and research activities globally. Specifically, the coronavirus pandemic has radically changed the way scholars teach, learn, and conduct research.

Consequently, the foreseen grave implications of the pandemic and/or lockdown for the physical and mental health and psychological well-being of both researchers and participants took its toll and also caused serious implications for the types of research studies that were deemed ‘safe’ to undertake. As a case in point, this situation led to the majority of Master’s empirical-based dissertation projects for 2019-20 in our School to be halted due to heightened concerns about various ethics-related risks if students were to conduct empirical studies in the midst of a pandemic.

Bearing all this in mind, our group had to reflect carefully what might be an achievable project given the multiple and intertwined concerns that unexpectedly arose. In other words, the crucial question we were faced with was: ‘How can undertaking even a small-scale research project be manageable in the light of these very challenging circumstances?’ – a single question that prompted numerous carefully-thought out responses.

And so, in designing our new project, we were initially guided by the different strengths and expertise within our group – both in subject knowledge (i.e. the research focus being relatable to researchers) and research methods (e.g. a few members employed creative research methods; two members wrote a book chapter on audio-diaries; some members used an advanced approach to data analysis). On another positive note, the novelty of the pandemic and the lockdown got everyone’s creative juices flowing – not only tapping into the most important and interesting dimensions in these unprecedented circumstances, but equally, considering how to acquire these important data.

Through further discussion, we came to agree on a topic but also on a pandemic-friendly research design that we were all comfortable with. Overall, our small-scale empirical project necessitated the following considerations that:

  • maintain social (i.e. physical) distancing;
  • seek careful use of the least intrusive manner of collecting data, yet capable of stimulating reflection and deep thoughts;
  • are sensitive to researchers’/participants’ circumstances and supportive of their psychological well-being;
  • capture the depth and intricacies of the phenomenon explored
  • consider the therapeutic component of selected research methods;
  • stress strongly the ‘no coercion policy’ to participate;
  • avoid dwelling on the negative dimensions of the circumstances; and
  • ensure both feasibility and trustworthiness of the proposed project.

We then envisaged an exploratory project with a longitudinal dimension where group members serve as both participants and researchers – where data came from personal reflection during lockdown experience. With the intention of acquiring an in-depth perspective from the group members of their experience while in social confinement, we elected to employ two-interlinked methods:

  • Audio-diaries – All researchers/participants recorded a maximum of a ten-minute audio-recording at the end of every week for six consecutive weeks. Overall, each participant was encouraged to describe their experience and prevailing feelings while highlighting any crucial incidents they encountered or dealt with during the week in question. They were also asked to reflect on how their experience contributed to their evolving understanding of the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Visual/drawing metaphors – At the end of the six-week period, each participant provided a visual metaphor to describe their lockdown experience – as a way of eliciting a holistic perspective of their experience to complement the audio-diary series. This was complemented by short narratives offering an explanation for what the metaphor meant, what the accompanying interpretation was, and why this mattered to the participants/ researchers themselves.

At this stage, although the analysis is now over, the writing element has just begun. With the multiple challenges that other fellow researchers may face in undertaking small projects like ours, we argue that the three considerations, i.e. use of creative, sensitive and therapeutic research methods, which enabled our group to realise our intention to undertake another collaborative research project in the midst of the pandemic are crucial in the light of these challenging circumstances. Therefore, taking them into consideration not only opens possibilities for empirical research projects, but equally importantly, they contribute to enriching the quality of the data (by eliciting in-depth and reflective insights) and making the research process as pandemic-friendly as it could possibly be.

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