Friday 26 September 2014

#PhD: importance of personalisation in #qualitative research

Although I know and understand the concept of trust in online communities, up until yesterday I underestimated the effect of being among participants to allow them to connect.

In my current main study, I am investigating online learning as it is done by experienced online learners. I look at how they learn inside of the course. I ask them to fill in and share learning logs to get an idea of their informal learning as well. The learning logs also try to capture who learners talk to, or reach out to, either to find additional answers, or simply to share learning experiences. And as the first learning logs are coming in, I read them with the utmost interest and enthusiasm. The learning logs capture the learning in self-reported descriptions coming from participants taking part in three different FutureLearn courses. Although my research is qualitative, I was not fully part of the courses, not as much as I wanted to at first. But then the importance of personalisation kicked in and now I adjusted my way of research a bit.

Increasing personalisation
The first steps I took to increase a personalized approach for each of the research participants was:

  • building different documents, research instruments and communications for each course. Practically this means 14 different communications, 7 different research instruments, 6 different reference documents. Not taken into account the small adaptations I made to the documents (e.g. for those participants joining the research later on in the course, requiring a different research timing).
  • ensure each document, communication, or research instrument was written in a personalized way (this is not always easy, but it turned out to be definitely worthwhile)
  • providing a course recognizable unique identifier for each participant, creating a visible link between a number  and the course (the unique identifier is a number used to anonymise participant data)
  • address each participant with the first name they provided in the informed consent. This I do for each communication going out from me to them.
  • add the unique identifier to each outgoing communication, making sure it is connected to that participant

As you can imagine, all the above measures increase the mistakes that can be made. I have been mailing about 900 communications at this point in time, all personalized - or trying to. And indeed I have been making mistakes (e.g. forgetting attachments, referring to wrong online links that are actually from other courses under investigation). Rectifying these mistakes is necessary of course, but it means sometimes participants get multiple mails, which is tough on their time schedules.

How far can you go with personalisation?
Though the learning logs are coming in, I kept feeling I was not reaching out to my research participants in a way that I could reach out to them. I felt I was missing a step. As such I strolled through the three courses of which I had participants. After having taken a look at the courses, I took another look at my research instruments (the provided learning logs in particular). Then I realized that my instruments were not personal enough. Not personal as referencing to the participants, but personal in connection with the FutureLearn courses to which the learning logs were referring too. I suddenly realized I could make them fit each course more carefully, hence making them more meaningful, more trustworthy (or that was what I was thinking).

So I went back to the drawing board, and before the last of the three FutureLearn courses started, I made sure that I personalized some of the research instruments (mainly the learning log) to make it more recognisable to the participants of that specific course. This was really necessary, as the third FutureLearn course (Basic Science: Understanding Experiments), was a hands-on course, while the other two courses I am investigating were more classic study courses (no hands-on experimenting, just understanding): one on Decision making in a complex and uncertain world, and one on the Science of Medicines.

More time, better realisations, becoming more involved
While having adjusted the documents and instruments, and beginning to get more familiar with the communications that need to go out, I was beginning to breath again. Gaining time once again. So, I had a look at the courses once again. 
This is where I realized I had not engaged with the courses the way I intended. Granted, for the course on Science of Medicines, I had planned to follow the course week on Diabetes only, as I have diabetes type 1 and I feel that all knowledge can help by keeping in tune with my illness. 

So I started to engage with the courses, and suddenly I realized that this extra layer of engagement provided me with a triple return! 
  • First of all I participated in the same courses as my participants, I could understand some of their remarks in more detail. 
  • Second I connected with some participants, hence becoming more of a 'real' person to them. Not the distant researcher, but the human sharing experiences.
  • Thirdly I learned the content of the courses, and got motivated to learn more. 
Wondering what the limit is of this type of personalization?

Did this result in an extra return for my research? 
It seems so, as people seem to respond more on my requests to share their experiences. So now I have a potential paper taking shape in my mind on the importance of being their as a researcher, also for online phenomenological research (which is what I am doing), and pointing towards possible effects of being part of the learning environment in a non-formal role, simply as a participant but for no other reason then simply taking part in the course. A bit of ethnographic research presence, but with less impact on the proceedings in the learning environment. 

Well, just sharing so I can remember once I write my thesis. Research is such a learning journey!

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