Experimenting with Blended Learning in ECW:
From Participant Recruitment to Research Methods – Experiences of the Postgraduate Researcher
Below is a description which details the process I undertook through the recruitment, registration and research methods stages of the project. I explicate the process, explaining how each decision relating to these areas were made, and explain the justification for my selected methods and approaches.
At the start of the project recruitment process, it needed to be advertised in order for possible participants to apply. The module tutors for the LIT1035 English Language and Creativity module mentioned the project and gave my email address as a way for interested students to get in contact. The module tutors explained to the student body of the module that they could not have direct contact with any participants for ethical reasons and the possibility of data being compromised – the latter especially a risk if students were being asked to give feedback on the online pod by those who designed it and teach the module.
Soon after the project was advertised in the LIT1035 module, interested persons started emailing me. After waiting until all the LIT1035 groups on that week had taken place to ensure all students had a fair chance at expressing their interest, I replied to any interested persons with an email which included an information sheet which had been constructed by the project leaders and approved by the project team. After a discussion with the rest of the project team it was decided that, as there were no particular requirements for participants beyond being a student on the LIT1035 module, that the only fair way to select the 12 participants would be the first 12 to complete the online consent form.
Once all interested persons were sent the information sheet, they were all happy that this provided them with everything they needed to know. It outlined what was expected of them and informed them that any data they provided me with would be made anonymous before it can be analysed by the project leaders, as well as the fact that they would need to register with UNITEMPS for the payment that they were entitled to receive for taking part in the project. Once I was assured everyone knew what was expected, I sent them, via email a link to the online consent form.
After a discussion among the project team, it was felt that in the spirit of the blended learning focus of the project, that the consent form should be an online one. Rob Farmer came up with the idea of using a Google form which he created, and I went ahead and sent out a link to this form to the interested participants. At this stage 10 persons had showed interest, resulting in there being no need to deploy the ‘first past the post’ approach to participant selection. 8 of the 10 interpreted persons filled out the consent form – agreeing with all its conditions, the other two wanted further clarification on the anonymity aspect which I provided over email. Following this all 10 completed the consent form and I was sent their completed forms as pdfs.
Once all the participants were completely satisfied with what the project would entail and the ethical processes put in place, I then needed to ensure that they were all fully registered with UNITEMPS – the temporary worker employment agency through which the participants would be employed and thus where they can claim their payment. I managed to liaise with UNITEMPS via email to receive the information about registration and then feed this back to the participants. Within a two week period all candidates had fully registered with UNITEMPS.
Alongside the UNITEMPS registration process, and with the support of the rest of team, I suggested a non-compulsory focus group with myself and the participants. I expressed my feelings to the team that it would be beneficial to have one face-to-face meeting to officially start the project and also handle any issues or concerns that the participants hadn’t mentioned. Finally , the opportunity to converse, which the focus group provided, enabled the participants to realise shared views and thoughts as I gently introduced questions about blended learning on a very general basis – asking them if they have heard of the term and what they think it means etc. Due to varying timetables I ended up hosting two focus groups with 8 of the participants taking part overall.
Once all the participants were fully registered with UNITEMPS I could start the data collection section. The project team had agreed that an online discussion would be the best means but in relation to the particular form this would take/site or programme employed to host this discussion – the decision was left to me. I first considered the social networking site Facebook, but felt that despite the ability to set-up a private group chat, the site lent itself too much towards the informal end of the spectrum and thus not suitable to be associated with the project and the themes I would be discussing with the participants. I approached fellow team member Rob Farmer with the idea of a NILE (the University of Northampton’s integrated teaching and learning environment) discussion board which would be hosted on a NILE site which the participants could be enrolled on solely for the purpose of the discussion board. This ensured the privacy required for the discussion and also a suitably academic associated platform which I felt was vital for encouraging the mind-set required for the themes that would be discussed.
I updated the discussion board with regular prompts and questions. After formatting the discussion board in large categories each containing multiple threads, I had feedback from the participants that this wasn’t a clear way of displaying the research topics, so I adapted my use of the discussion board to make each new question a new thread. I worked from a document of topics to research, which had been team authored and approved. As the discussions unfolded I did make additions to research topics where appropriate, usually when the conversations between the participants highlighted anything that we hadn’t already covered directly. I updated the discussion board usually once to twice a week with a series of new threads and used the announcements feature on the project NILE site to communicate this to the participants.
Explained in the information sheet was the possibility of individual email questions being sent to participants additional to the discussion board. Four weeks into the discussion board process on the discussion board one of the topics to research dealt with the group work activities that the participants had to complete on the online pod section of the LIT1035 module. The nature of the NILE discussion board meant that while it assured complete privacy, and thus sustains the anonymity of the participants from the rest of the project team; it did result in the participants identities being known to each other. I realised that if fellow members of a participants group were also involved in the project, the data they give in this section could be compromised due to the awareness that other group members could view any comments. To avoid this, and with the backing of the project team, I employed the email question format for three discussions points around the group work elements. I informed all participants through the NILE site of the introduction of the email questions and explained the reasoning behind the change in the process of data collection for these three research topics.