From safeguarding and confidentiality to GDPR and online methods: considerations for researchers during the pandemic and beyond

The world changed for everyone back in March 2020. The transition to working from home happened overnight, with little time to consider how effectively that would work in terms of the jobs we do. As a mixed methods educational researcher with a role as an Information Governance Guardian[1], I was faced with immediate concerns around research data – practically, ethically, and also legislatively. Fieldwork was put on hold whilst we tried to work out the best way forward.

I was invited to sit on a national panel to discuss this back in May 2020, and realised that many researchers were simply muddling through without spending much time thinking about the effect of home working on their data collection, handling, and storage. This was not necessarily surprising considering we were in lockdown and trying our best to deal with everything that came with that.

In July 2020 an internal project to create an online careers tool, in which I was leading the research element, was approaching the developmental stage. Feedback was required from focus groups of stakeholders and a sample of young people who would be using the resource. I’m an experienced researcher, but what should have been a straightforward undertaking had to be reimagined.

Where I had once been physically present when conducting a focus group, this was no longer possible. Telephone interviews were becoming more common but this had more to do with budgets than a change in methodological mindset. They were generally perceived as the inferior option, used for one-on-one interviews, and were not much used with children and young people. So I didn’t see them as an effective way of collecting data in group situations or with the young people involved in this work.

Video platforms were an option, but we needed to comply with data protection legislation and there were issues around privacy, confidentiality, where platforms were located and how data would be stored.

The preferred platform was Zoom – but like most others it is US-based and sits outside EU and UK laws – so we had to decide how to minimise risk.

Storage of data felt safe when we all worked in the university, but less so at home: how safe was my WiFi? GDPR carries a threat of potentially huge institutional fines, so these questions felt worrisome.

My solutions were to ensure Zoom had a password and a waiting room to prevent Zoom-bombing. Private chat and group screen-sharing were deactivated to eliminate the risk of offensive content by participants, or viruses. I decided to use my own digital recorder instead of the recording function.  After each session I uploaded to my secure university drive (and not on my laptop).

Safeguarding issues were also of paramount importance. Our young interviewees were in their homes: we had to consider non-verbal cues such as what might be going on in the background.

Ethical sensitivity around participants’ ability and capacity to take part were also made more difficult: we had to consider the fact that the disruption of their routines might have left them feeling concerned and worried. Asking school pupils about their plans for the future felt insensitive during lockdown, and we had to be careful not to pester potential interviewees to take part. But on the plus side, we knew some of them might welcome being part of a research project to ease the daily monotony.

The topics I was planning for my focus groups were not contentious, but in the end these concerns led to a decision not to carry out video interviews with young people in July 2020.

‘Stakeholder’ focus groups felt less challenging. Senior professionals whose diary spaces tended to be few and far between were now more available, and there was no need for a room booking or refreshments, so the exercise became cheaper and easier to arrange.

Video platforms brought the additional functions of group chat, white boards, polls and the annotate function. They enabled participants who were less confident or chatty to contribute in a way they had not been able to off-line and gave me more assurance that everyone had had their say.

I didn’t need to remember the participants’ names or to maintain the same degree of eye contact as in a face-to-face interview, so note- taking felt much easier.

Fast forward to July 2021, where initial concerns around online qualitative data collection have largely been resolved and fieldwork is more or less back up to speed. I found myself in a supporting role collecting online focus group data from Y6 pupils around a more contentious topic this time. Each focus group contained pupils from the same school, which meant that they were located in the same room, using the same laptop. Due to the shared laptop access, this approach did not have the benefit of participant identification or their use of the chat function. It was also impossible to see all of the participants on the screen at any one time. Safeguarding concerns had meant that we had asked for an adult to be in the room with the pupils, but even so, behaviour control was problematic at times, more so than when similar interviews have been carried out face-to-face and without a member of staff present.

The pandemic and social distancing restrictions have led to rapid advancement within research methodology, just as it has within higher education and teaching and learning. It has required researchers to engage more effectively with data protection protocol and think about our methods more innovatively, particularly as the ‘gold standard’ of qualitative research, physical face-to-face interviews, has not been possible. I have learnt the benefits of carrying out online interviews with professionals and other stakeholders, particularly those based within different locations, but focus groups with children and young people may be best carried out in the more traditional way.

 

By Lucy Clague