Reflections from a distance

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We are well into May and the IDEAS project has made some great progress. The first round of student adjustment questionnaires has been completed with a fantastic response rate achieved. Upon completion of the adjustment questionnaire we asked students if they would like to participate in an interview with us. The interviews are purposed around gaining a better understanding of the challenges and supports students who study at a distance are faced and equipped with. Three students who agreed and participated are now the group of students who have enabled us to pilot our interview protocol. Here we consider just a few reflections on the methodological process of piloting these interviews with distance students.

Students who agreed to participate in the study were contacted via email to secure an interview. We have found that even after an initial email and a follow up request the response rate was fairly low.  This was worrisome until one student responded declining the interview with a reason that we had suspected was the cause of the low response rate. To sum up and paraphrase the response: it’s exam time and I am stressed.  Upon reflection it seemed wise to hold off further attempts to contact students until the exam period has ended. Additionally, it was also noted that students who are stressed about exams may answer differently to the way they would during teaching time and this was a further consideration as to why we should rather wait for exams to finish before making any further attempts at contacting students.

Three interviews have been conducted, each using a different medium and each of these providing some methodological reflections for interviewing students at a distance. The first interview was scheduled to be conducted with a South African student via a Skype call, the respondent had chosen this as their preferred method and indicated the preferred time of the interview. When contacted at the agreed upon day and time the respondent did not have headphones and asked to be interviewed via the Skype chat function.

For myself, as a researcher, this was unheard of, but I chose to engage as the respondent seemed uncomfortable with conducting the interview any other way. I think being a young researcher familiar with chat applications and text language put me at a great advantage and the conversation continued smoothly with little effort. Given the time it takes to write out responses the interview did continue for a great deal longer than agreed, with the participant’s permission of course. However, it eventually was ended prematurely as the respondent indicated that they needed to go.  As a methodological approach, for me as a researcher, it seemed that this approach was fun, it also allowed time for reflection on responses, and to end a bug bare the interview does not need to be transcribed.

For the second interview an international student also chose the Skype medium for their interview. However, as Melis soon learnt, internet connectivity in some parts of Africa can be problematic. The interview was strained with both researcher and student barely able to hear each other and repeating responses and questions. In terms of methodology, Skype is a great tool to minimise distance and gather data from a large cohort of international distance students in a cost effective manner. It makes it possible to hear participant’s experiences in their own words, yet glitches, lags, and the inability to have a video talk due to bad connection means not having the opportunity to read body language and nonverbal cues which raises the issue of how we establish rapport. Without a stable internet connection we are no better off than before. For us as researchers we now ponder whether advances in communication technology have really made it possible to research some of the most vulnerable and hard to reach people, or have we merely made it easier to research the privileged?

Finally, the third interview was conducted over telephone with a South African student. The interview went well, with no technological failures the conversation flowed smoothly. This enabled the collection of rich data that was most helpful in the pilot stage. All three interviews have been most useful in helping us to adjust our interview protocol and re-tweak questions where the answers seemed to always start with ‘as I said’. We look forward to carrying on after the exam period and being able to reflect more substantially on methodologies used and data gathered. 

Melis Cin and Dianne Long

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