20 SES 06, Online and Virtual Environments and Smart Phone Technology and Facebook-Era Education
In this session we intend to explore the benefits and challenges of utilising digital technologies to gather data using, for example, email interviewing, synchronous and asynchronous focus groups on closed social networking sites and participant observation in second life communities. This workshop offers a reflection on the process of using these methods in three research projects with participants who work in primary, secondary and special schools in England and one ongoing project collecting data through participant observations of practices and rituals of religious/spiritual groups in a number of second life communities. The experiences of the researchers in terms of the communication, ethical and analytical challenges will be investigated and recommendations for further exploration of the use of digital technologies for educational research suggested. During the workshop procedures and protocols for the use of digital technologies will be outlined and attendees will be encouraged to contemplate and devise a plan to employ digital technologies for their own research.
Researchers across Europe and Internationally are exploring the possibilities offered by the use of digital technologies for sociological research both within and between national and international boundaries. Digital technologies offer the researcher a myriad of opportunities in terms of data collection, with considerable advantages of speed, access connectivity and economy. For qualitative researchers there are opportunities to make contact with marginalised and excluded groups through digital technologies and to join on-line communities as participant observers. The temporal and geographical flexibility offered by this method of collection of data can be particularly useful to those researchers working within the educational field and those working across international boundaries as these considerations often present significant barriers to data collection. Furthermore, using asynchronous methods the on-going nature of the relationship with the researcher offers an extended iterative exploration of issues and enables respondents to reflect on issues and respond with a more considered reply which can aid understanding for both researcher and researched and add to the richness of the data collected. However, there are challenges for the researcher in using digital technologies in terms of ethical considerations,analytical difficulties and operational or technical practicalities.
For example in terms of ethical considerations, when using digital media such as virtual blogs and public postings as data collection methods the researchers must consider that the user may not have intended their original post to be part of research and so may not be valid or ethically sound (Mckee and Porter 2009; Lynch and Sheldon 2013). Furthermore, the use of social software applications produces several forms of traceable ethnographic data, so called ‘ambient data’ (McNely, 2013) and this has implications in terms of confidentiality and archiving of data. The use of digital technologies to connect with participants also presents a challenge in terms of a possible loss of spontaneity, lack of face-to-face dynamics and observational and non-verbal cues (Sade-Beck, 2004; Illingworth, 2001), which may in turn present an obstacle in terms of interpretation and analysis for the researcher (James, 2007). The presentation of the self, anonymously on-line also presents challenges in terms of the validity of data collected in this way as the researcher may not be entirely sure of the authenticity of the identity of respondents and the demographic profile of individuals and groups. The fast pace of change in digital technologies also presents a challenge to researchers who need to be technically and operationally knowledgeable in order to maximise the tools available.
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