In the first half of last year, I agreed to be a participant in a research project where I was interviewed online. I found the experience interesting, eye opening, and learned so much from it. Here, I wanted to present my thoughts and experience, rather than what I learned, because I think that everyone will take away something different depending on their own research. So, here is my experience of being a research participant – during Covid and online. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

Why did I decide to participate?

The primary reason was because it was a topic I was personally interested in (not academically). I was in a transition period in my life, and this topic was relevant to that.  I was looking for validation. To be accepted as a participant meant something to me, almost like a stamp of approval. Especially because I did not think I would qualify. In fact, the acceptance of my being interviewed for the research, changed the way I thought about myself. I can honestly say, that well over a year after my participation, I have actively changed certain parts of my life (for the better) because of my participation.

Anyone who has spent time with me will know that I really care about students and go out of my way to help and support them as best as I can. So, knowing that I could help by being a research participant, in a topic that interested me, and also get a better understanding of myself, well there was no hesitation on my part.

Do you stop and think about why participants choose to participate? What impact does it have on them? What stage of life are they in? Does it influence the type of data you get?

Initial contact:

In our first conversation, it was determined that I did fit the and we scheduled a time for the initial interview. *Esther realised she had read my blog posts on qualitative research. The initial conversation turned into a bit of a chat about qualitative research, which I enjoy. It felt a little strange though, as it was hard to pull back from sharing my thoughts on research. This confused me a little about my role as a participant in the research. What were the power dynamics?

I also remembering asking about Covid. I said that my responses may change if the interview was done before and after restrictions changed, but their response was that it didn’t matter to them. I guess, in this way, before the interview, it was tricky for me to separate myself as a researcher and a participant in research.

I wondered what the interview would be like, and if I would be able to turn off the qualitative researcher part of my brain. Could I simply be an interviewee in a research project?

Lead up to the interview:

From a researcher perspective, most of us understand, or believe, that the researcher has more power than the participant, that there is a power imbalance, and that this expresses in a number of different ways. Leading up to the interview, however, I was reflecting on meaning making. I was thinking about the power that a participant holds in terms of meaning making. I considered how I could steer the conversation in different directions. I felt a great deal of power and responsibility in terms of the research, and where I might want to conversation to go. I also started to think, maybe people were right, could qualitative researchers be lied to? Maybe people only told us what we wanted to hear?

In the minutes leading up to interview, I thought about the way the researcher would be feeling, the nerves, going over the questions, wondering what I as a participant would be like, how it would all go.

Overall, in the lead up to the interview, I found it difficult to get out of the mindset of a researcher, thinking about all the ways meaning is created, made, developed, grows. I felt a sense of deep responsibility but didn’t know what to do with it.

The interview:

Ultimately, I didn’t end up steering the conversation in any premediated or conscious way at all. I was led by the interviewer. This honestly surprised me. Having someone genuinely interested in hearing what I had to say, and hearing my story, made me feel comfortable enough to be myself, and I found I was open and honest in all my answers, answering based on whatever came to my mind. I was able to genuinely share my experiences and thoughts on the topic. The researcher played a big role in this. They did a wonderful job of not being judgemental or making assumptions about me, and let me lead the direction of the conversation, while they gently steered it back to the topic if they wanted answers to something I hadn’t covered.

Rapport took time to build, and I think this was for a couple of reasons. Firstly, and I think that was body language. They didn’t physically lean into the screen, and sat upright, in what looked like a comfortable position during the conversation. I think this is something that was specific to being online. Their body language didn’t demonstrate interest in what I had to say. After about 20-30 min, I had answered all the questions, but I felt a sense of dissatisfaction. I felt like I hadn’t told my story. We both lingered online, and chatted, I think hoping that the conversation might start flowing, which is exactly what happened.

This is where her level of reflexivity came into light and made a huge difference to the interview process. At the start, yes, I felt boxed in by the questions, but she paused, we chatted, and she found a way to let go of what she thought, and tap into what I was feeling and thinking about the topic. She found a way to really “hear” me.

She followed up with other questions, and it felt much more like a chat. I started to feel like she was understanding my story. Later, I found out that I was a negative case for her, which didn’t surprise me, and I think it also explained the stagnant start. It didn’t flow like other interviews, which meant that something was different in my case.

We did another follow up interview about six months later, and that was a completely different experience, completely open, very chatty, and a real sense of connection. I really hope that she shares the research findings with me, for my own development and growth on the topic.

There was a lot I learned through this experience, and lots for me to reflect on, especially now that I have been a researcher for some time now. I highly encourage others to participate in research if you ever get the opportunity. Not only does it help others, but also may help you reflect on your own research practice.

Please note that I received consent from the researcher to post this at this time. As I was conscious of how my perspective may influence their research.

*Not her real name

Photo by Nick Morrison on Unsplash

One thought on “Insights from being an online research participant

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