Conducting Leadership Research in the Midst of the Pandemic by Chad R. Lochmiller
As I’ve watched news coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve been stunned – as we all have – at how quickly this invisible threat has upended daily life and impacted communities in unimaginable ways. It’s been painful to see families shaken as loved ones have learned of a positive diagnosis. I’ve been stunned as schools, districts and universities have been shuttered and our beloved students sent away. I’ve felt angry, like many of you, that it’s taken this crisis to again reveal long-neglected inequities in education, social services, and healthcare. Given our field’s deep commitment to addressing issues of (in)equity and (in)justice, the pandemic clearly presents new opportunities for research. Yet, is it appropriate to engage in research at this time? Should we be considering research given the extraordinary conditions that our colleagues are navigating? In my mind, the question is not if we should conduct research about the effects of the pandemic on educational practice but when and how we should do so. The latter of these questions invite reflection about our research designs, our approach to data collection, and our handling of participants.
Before the pandemic, our consideration of research design and ethics focused on minimizing harm in our research conduct. As the American Education Research Association Ethical Guidelines (2011) for research conduct note, “Education researchers take reasonable steps to avoid harm to others in the conduct of their professional work” (p. 147). This typically involved a rigorous informed consent process and careful explanation of any risks associated with our studies. In light of the pandemic, the demarcation about what constitutes harmful research activity has undoubtedly changed given the circumstances that now surround student learning and educators’ practice. To request that educators participate in a research study in the middle of a pandemic might itself introduce an unnecessary burden on them. And it certainly could if not approached with a sense of care and outward concern for our participants. Indeed, many of the questions that we might ask of these participants could and should be presented retrospectively. Thus, timing our research is an especially consideration as we think about moving forward.
In the past, we primarily attributed harm to the stress and/or anxiety of research participation itself and sought to manage these concerns by giving participants opportunities to pause, ask questions, or opt out of our studies without penalty. In light of the pandemic, these practices are as important but current circumstances also invite careful consideration about safety that we have not had to grapple with before. What constitutes harm when your schools and districts are closed in the face of a widespread pandemic? How can we safely study learning when children learn at home without disrupting or even contaminating their living environment? How do we maintain social distancing while conducting research in the field? Answering these questions will require that we are thoughtful about how we plan and conduct research in light of the evolving conditions surrounding schools. Nonetheless, we should not give up on our scholarship. Instead, we should think outside-the-box to design research that is not dependent on immediate access to schools and does not expose our participants (or ourselves) to higher levels of risk. This likely means considering virtual research, such as netnographies (Kozinets, 2010), wherein our research takes place in fully online contexts that do not require direct engagement with participants.
Existing methodological literature already provides some guidance about how we might approach our work given our current circumstances. For example, there have been discussions about how to conduct qualitative interviews using Skype and other virtual meeting technologies (Deakin & Wakefield, 2013; Hooley, Wellins, & Marriott, 2012). As Deakin and Wakefield (2013) have observed, these technologies enable research participants who face limitations related to time and location to participate in research that they might otherwise not be able to. In the current circumstances, it also would allow researchers to continue their work remotely while observing appropriate social distancing protocols. There has also been some guidance about using online text-based applications, such as text-based chat rooms, discussion forums, and instant messenger protocols (Paulus & Wise, 2019; Stewart & Williams, 2005; Stieger & Goritz, 2006). Thus, there are innovative ways to continue data collection provided our participants have access to this technology.
While the methodological guidance solves some of the immediate worries, it likely does not address questions about our participant’s willingness to participate. I’ve recently spoken with early career scholars and doctoral students who worry that the pandemic will require them to furlough their research because participants will reject their invitations. Let’s face it, rejection is an occupational hazard in academia. While some educators will be overwhelmed during this period and may decline to participate in our research, this is not likely to be higher than the normal rate of rejection for most research studies. In fact, many educators might find talking about our research a welcome distraction from the daily grind. Asking them about their practice might give them comfort in recalling how things were. It could also evoke a sense of grief or mourning as they recognize how different things have become. Thus, above all else, we must assure them that these feelings are normal and that you will do everything in your power to honor – not minimize – these emotions. Indeed, we do not know how traumatic current circumstances might be for our participants nor the real challenges that these circumstances pose in their lives.
In closing, the pandemic will undoubtedly punctuate our thinking and experiences for a considerable period. How we account for this thinking in our research will matter a great deal. But, above all else, we need to keep our sights set on the horizon. We need to recognize that the quality of our research and integrity of our analysis still matter. Questions related to education, leadership, and social justice matter are just as relevant as they were before. Indeed, we should have confidence that our current period of social distancing will end and that the greatest gift of this period might be new opportunities to engage with our research in innovative ways. In the interim, let’s be thoughtful and stay safe.
American Education Research Association (2011). Code of ethics. Washington, D. C.: Author. Retrieved from http://www.aera.net/Portals/38/docs/About_AERA/CodeOfEthics(1).pdf
Bargh, J. A., McKenna, K. Y., & Fitzsimons, G. M. (2002). Can you see the real me? Activation and expression of the “true self” on the Internet. Journal of social issues, 58(1), 33-48.
Deakin, H., & Wakefield, K. (2014). Skype interviewing: Reflections of two PhD researchers. Qualitative research, 14(5), 603-616.
Hooley, T., Wellens, J., & Marriott, J. (2012). What is Online research?: Using the Internet for social science research. A&C Black.
Kozinets, R. V. (2010). Netnography: Doing ethnographic research online. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Paulus, T. M. & Wise, A. F. (2019). Looking for insight, transformation, and learning in online talk. New York: Routledge.
Stewart, K., & Williams, M. (2005). Researching online populations: the use of online focus groups for social research. Qualitative Research, 5(4), 395-416.
Stieger, S., & Göritz, A. S. (2006). Using instant messaging for Internet-based interviews. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 9(5), 552-559.
By Chad R. Lochmiller, Indiana University Bloomington