Online meeting: (How) can we move our community-engaged research online?

− 5 min read

28 May 2020

How do you create a comfortable and safe online environment for interviewees in a research context? What are the implications for the results of moving your research online? What are the positive sides of conducting community-engaged research online? These and more questions were discussed during an online gathering hosted by the Maastricht Platform for Community-Engaged Research. The meeting aimed to allow participants to address questions that they have encountered when doing community-engaged research online and to learn from each other. The event was attended by a diverse group of researchers, support staff, and a few students, all interested or involved in doing community-engaged research.

Community-engaged research: what is it again? MPCER defines community-engaged research as research that:

  1. intends to have an impact by deploying research to resolve societal challenges
  2. involves the relevant community in the research process
  3. shares the research results with the relevant community

In various breakout rooms, the participants first discussed their experiences in doing community-engaged research in an online setting. Each breakout room chose one question to bring back to the larger group. This exercise resulted in the following questions:

  1. I want to do my community-engaged research online but where do I start and what is important to consider?
  2. How can you create rapport with respondents in an online setting?
  3. How do you create an environment where people/interviewees feel safe and comfortable enough to answer questions online?
  4. What are the implications for our research results of moving our research online?
  5. How to keep the research community engaged over time online? How do you make sure to safeguard privacy and security as you expand methods?
  6. What are strategies to improve the connection with participants? How to prevent them from losing focus or get distracted? What are tips to enhance group dynamics?
  7. What are the positive sides of conducting community-engaged research online? (e.g. gathering a broader pool of potential participants, improved communication and  interaction)

How to break the ice?

Sharing her experience, MPCER coordinator and UM researcher Marieke Hopman said that she likes to engage in informal moments of chatting before starting the interviews. Researchers sometimes forget to allocate time for this type of friendly interaction when doing online research. She also recommended to provide some breaks during interview sessions, especially if the interview sessions take a long time or could use some new energy.

- Take some time to chat about things that are not necessarily related to the research subject -

Privacy and safety

With regards to aspects of privacy and data protection, researchers must take the time to explain which actions were taken to ensure the participants’ safety. The degree of security that is needed depends on the type of research.

One participant indicated that Maastricht University is now offering a new research tool to conduct safe research interviews: surf call ( Research interviewees only need to click on a link and do not need to install any application. The participant said that she was not sure, however, whether this tool worked on a mobile phone. Marieke Hopman recommended Wire as a useful tool on a mobile phone.

Inclusive research

In an online research setting, how can researchers avoid excluding people with no (or little) technical experience from the study? One advice was to make sure to give clear instructions to research participants ahead of the interview sessions by clearly explaining the simple three or four steps that they would need to take to participate in the session. Easy instructions can help to make participants feel more comfortable. Researchers also need to prepare themselves by ensuring that they know precisely how the online tool works.

- Prepare your participants by sending them simple guidelines to use the online tool in advance

Phone interviews: pros and cons

Some participants indicated that one advantage of conducting telephone interviews over face-to-face or video interviews is that people are much more likely to share fears, concerns, or things they feel uncomfortable about. When speaking on the phone, they also have the freedom to walk around and leave the house, which can make them more relaxed. Phone interviews, however, also present some disadvantages: how to deal with the question of privacy when interviewees live in shared spaces and cannot be alone? Moreover, phones seem to be very easy to tap. These are risks that will remain, but researchers can do the necessary preparation work to minimise the risk.

- Build trust and create safety, not only during but also after the interview

Another advice is to take time to do an informal debrief with the interviewees after the interview session. A debrief conversation can be a moment to ask questions about how the interviewees experienced the interview and to ensure that they feel safe.

Impact on results

Online research might result in sampling bias. It is thus important to consider who to include in the research community. Researchers can involve local stakeholders (e.g. health professionals) to ensure to get a representative sample.

Social media

Researchers can take advantage of the existing social media channels of their institutions, such a Facebook groups. The type of social media to be chosen depends among others on the research areas and demographics. People aged 25 years or older often use Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn; while Snapchat or TikTok are preferred platforms by the 18-25 age group. There are some useful research papers on this topic.

- Use social media groups that already exist in your organisation and use the appropriate platforms for your target audience -

If you are looking for more information on methodologies for doing research online, have a look at this report.

We will organise a follow-up event on this topic, which will be announced on our social media channels and in our newsletter. You can sign up for the newsletter here.