Blended research methods ‘will become more prevalent’ post-Covid

Academics say online methodologies can produce more collaborative, diverse and ethical research

December 1, 2020
Online lecture
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Academics should continue to combine online and in-person research methods after the pandemic, according to experts who said that changes brought about by Covid had improved the diversity and ethics of research practices.

A recent report prepared for Springer Nature by Research Consulting on the impact of Covid-19 on university research recommended developing blended online and offline research methods as one of the strategies to enable research to play a central role in the recovery from the pandemic.

Rob Johnson, founder and director of Research Consulting and one of the authors of the study, said that during the Covid-19 pandemic many researchers have had to find ways to undertake research digitally that would previously have involved travel and human interaction, and in some cases this has “yielded unexpected benefits that wouldn’t otherwise have been realised”.

“We anticipate that some of these online research methods will continue to be deployed even when it’s possible for researchers to resume travel and human interactions, leading to a ‘blended’ research approach that combines the best of both worlds,” he said.

Alison Buckler, a senior research fellow in international education at the Open University, said many academics had previously been sceptical about the appropriateness and quality of online research methods, such as Skype interviews, but the pandemic had forced them to embrace these approaches.

Dr Buckler had planned to run a film-making workshop in Sierra Leone with a group of women training to be teachers, but travel restrictions led her to find a local community film cooperative to run it instead.

“In lots of probably quite unanticipated ways, the pandemic is having a positive effect in forcing UK-based researchers to question the ease with which they can just hop on a plane and get access to schools and communities and will hopefully encourage us to question the appropriateness of this and how we can work more ethically and collaboratively with researchers and people in different contexts,” she said.

Dr Buckler also cited the experience of one of her doctoral students who, before the pandemic, found that using Skype to interview mothers produced a rich and authentic dataset because they were able to chat after their children had gone to bed and from the comfort of their own homes.

“One of the things I write about is how issues of power and perceptions of expertise interrelate in research and what this interrelation means for how we generate knowledge and how people interpret the knowledge that’s been generated. Something I’m really passionate about is how researchers should use methodologies to disrupt this power and experiment with not being fully in control of the research process,” she said.

“The pandemic is doing a lot of the legwork for us in that respect, in challenging how we work as researchers and who we work with and how we could do that differently.”

Kate McGrath, deputy vice-chancellor (research) at the University of Technology Sydney, which is referenced as a case study for blended research in the Research Consulting report, said the institution had changed its ethics requirements and approval mechanisms to “make it easier for human-based researchers to quickly adapt their research methodology and adopt blended research methods, while maintaining what we felt was appropriate rigour and assuredness in our process”.

“Blended research methods will certainly become more prevalent in the academy over the coming years, both out of financial necessity and, critically, for the benefits it can offer − and we should definitely be talking about this more, as it presents an opportunity to diversify current research practices,” she said.

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