Updated: Aug 15
Faculty of Educational Sciences, University of Helsinki
Researchers have faced unique challenges with data collection during the Covid-19 pandemic due to strictsocial distancing measures which in many cases interrupted data gathering. During the winter 2022 we were conducting COORDINATE pilot interviews in Finland, and due to the recent Covid-19 restrictions and altered numbers of Covid-19 cases, we decided to conduct all theinterviews online.The participants were 8-years old children and their parents, as well as parents of 6 to 11 months old babies. As this was a pilot study, and the number of the participants was relatively small (N = 10-20 persons for each group of participants), the participants were recruited via snowballing through the researchers’ contacts.
Previous studies have showed that the quality of online interviews resemble mostly face-to-face interviews. However, using online interviews involve some particular challenges and opportunities to researchers and participants (Boland et al., 2021). Online interviews are relatively a new but growing method in many studies, especially in research focusing on child interviews.
Advantages and disadvantages of online interviews compared to face-to-face-interviews
The decisions that led us to conduct the pilot interviews online rose from the current Covid-19 situation and people’s hesitance of meeting in person, and the easiness of reaching out to the participants. Previous studies have concluded that the strengths of online interviews compared to face-to-face interviews are flexibility and time- and cost-effectiveness, especially in cases when there are some time limitations and the distances are long (Boland et al., 2021), which was also the case of our COORDINATE pilot study in Finland.Conducting research interviews online may also reduce the possible mental costs (examples? Anxiety, stress, timidness?) related to the interview process among the participants (reference?). Moreover, flexibility and time-effectiveness can also increase individuals’ willingness to participate to the interview (Archibald et al., 2019).
Further, previous studies have also found that participants experience more control in online interviews, and thus, the relationship between researcher and interviewee is more equal (Lobe et al., 2022). Higher level of equality can make the study participants feel more comfortable to discuss sensitive research topics, such as personal well-being and the quality of family relationships (Thunberg & Arnell, 2021). However, the fact that researchers cannot control or to be aware of the possible outsiders that are in the interviewee’s room can make the responsibility of the interview privacy problematic (Lobe et al., 2022). Therefore, a good practice is to go through some questions related to privacy (e.g., rules related to whether other people are allowed to stay in the room during the interview, checking whether the space for the interview is safe and peaceful) with the interviewee at the beginning of the session.In addition, because the interpretations of the state of mind of the interviewee are mostly based on facial expressions and tone of voice during an online session, researchers must be sensitive to recognize participants emotions in order to be able to offer support, to avoid altered anxiety during the interview, or in some cases to determine whether the interview should be discontinued(Lobe et al., 2022).
In orderto enhance positive interview experience and to be able to obtain high qualitydata, the participants of an online interview study must have necessary skills to use online platforms (Namey et al, 2020). Most people in Finland are highly capable in using digital devices. During the Covid-19-pandemic adults and students became more familiar with different platforms. However, in the COORDINATE pilot study we interviewed also 8-year-old children online. Thus, we had an opportunity to test how online interviews can be conducted among children who are less familiar with videoconferencing platforms.
In Finland we usedthe Zoom application to conduct the interviews, because zoom is relatively safe and easy to use, includes the video option, and does not require loading the app itself on a computer but can be used through web browsers as well (Archibal et al., 2019). Thus, previous studies have concluded that Zoom is a preferred method for online interviews compared to other videoconferencing platforms (Archibal et al., 2019; Lobe et al., 2020).
Our experiments in coordinate pilot interviews in Finland
Prior to the interview, parents and children had filled in an online consent form to take part in the study. Three people (e.g., interviewer, research assistant, and interviewee) participated in the online interview from separate computers at different locations (e.g., home, office). During the interview the researcher asked the questions and showed the showcards via zoom screen sharing option to the interviewee, and the research assistant filled the answers in the questionnaire form and if necessary, added some notes to the answers. The duration of the interviews was about the same as what was reserved for the face-to-face interviews, approx. 30-60 minutes. After each interview researchers discussed shortly and, if necessary, addedsome comments about the interview flow in a shared document in Teams application.
Only a couple of times some technical difficulties emerged during the interviews. These difficulties were typically related to low internet bandwidth which then limited microphone/webcam functionality that disturbed interviews. However, we did not have to interrupt interviews because of these technical difficulties, as the connection was lost only temporarily. The fact that the interviewers participated from different computers helped to overcome these situations, because at leastone of the interviewers was always present online (in cases when the problems emerged in one of the researcher’s computer), and the participant was never alone. This was particularly important in the children’s’ interviews.
While conducting the interviews, Zoom was a new communication platform for most 8-year-old children, and children needed their parents’ help to establish the connection.After this, the children were able to participate in the interview independently. Sometimes parents stayed in the room during the children’s interviews. The presence of the parent could have some effects on children’s answers. In one interview we noticed that the child’s mother commented and corrected his/hers answers which might have skewed the answers. In another interview the father helped the child who had problems in focusing in the interview and understanding the questions, which, in this case was helpful. During the children’s interviews we also experienced interruptions that were not related to the technology, for example a brother, a friend and a cat entering the room, but in most cases, these events did not interfere the interview flow. We also noticed differences between children in ability to concentrate in the interview,however, it would be challenging to assess whether these problems were due to the interview format (online vs. face-to face) or something else.
Even though the interviews were conducted online, we as researchers felt that the interaction was of high quality. The adult and child participants were willing to answer all the questions, even we also covered some sensitive topics such as weight, bullying, contentment to family life, pregnancy, etc.The pilot surveys results and conclusions were similar to face-to-face interviews in other countries. Because one important target of the pilot survey was to estimate appropriateness of the questions, we paid a lot of attention to participants’ emotions evoked by the questions and asked about their feelings several times during the interview. In our estimation the fact that we conducted interviews online did not negatively affect depth of the answers or participants interview experiences.
Conclusions and our recommendations
While examining sensitive topics and when the study participants are childrenit is important to consider how we canobtain high quality data and minimize any possible mental costs and stress that interviews can cause to the participants. Our experience from online interviews supports previous studiesshowing that the interaction between researchers and interviewees in online situations can be of high quality and become a positive experience to participants (Boland et al., 2022; Glassmeyer, 2012; Namey et al., 2022). The Zoom interviews were time- and cost effective in Finland where distances are long, and we estimated that it was easier to access people in online interviews than in face-to-face interviews when the participants could attend the interviews from their homes. People might not be equally willing to travel to the research institutions (university) or to invite researchers to come to their homes to perform the interview. However, cultural differences may exist in how such interviews are perceived and which would be the most comfortable places for performing the interview.However, online interviews can be a good option forcollecting datafrom large areas and within limited time periods, and they do not seem to cause any extra stress for the participants.
Concerning ethical and technical issues in online interviews, we suggest including two interviewers who participate from separate computers. This helps overcoming situations with technical issues during the online interviews.The interviewers also need proper training (as was in our case) and need to be sensitive to understand the respondents’ motivational and emotional stage. It is possible that in some cases the interviews would need to be discontinued if they became too challenging emotionally or cognitively to the respondents. It should also be noted that the participants should receive clear instructions concerning the flow of the interview and possible technical issues prior to the interviews.
Finally, we wish to emphasize the need to more information on how to conduct successful online interviews among children. Previous ethical and practical guidelines or recommendations for online interviews are mostly based on adult interviews.Our experience from online interviews was quite unique because we also interviewed 8-year-old children, and we found that online interviews could be onevaluable method for interviews with children who grow up in digital world.However, to better understand when and how online interviews can be used among children we need more research on how children’s individual differences or varying device experiences affect their capacity to participate online interview.
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