Covid-19 has greatly impacted ongoing projects by causing disruption to the research process and delays in data collection, and in some cases research funding has been reduced or withdrawn to focus on priority areas. However, there are also emerging examples of innovation in research methods. This blog post narrates how we modified our research project from face-to-face survey and children’s assessment to virtual modes using video calls on mobile phone technology.
The project examines the school readiness of children between the ages of 3.5 and 8 years old in India and Pakistan, and whether there is any difference in the cognitive and overall development of children going to school vis-à-vis those not going to school. The project was initially designed and piloted for administering face-to-face assessment of children, alongside a survey of households for collecting information on poverty indicators (Siddiqui et al. 2020).
The lockdown brought the field operations to a halt. We gradually realised that the lockdown would not pass within a matter of days and, even when eased, Covid-19 protocols would prevent us from travelling and engaging in face-to-face interactions. We thought of using mobile phone video call features to conduct the assessment and household survey. Using videos for collecting data is a popular research method (Buchwald, Schantz-Laursen, & Delmar, 2009, Jewitt, 2012; Chouliaraki, 2006). However, not much is known about using video conference calls for assessing children remotely. This has implications for existing ethical guidelines for research (BERA, 2018), and feasibility assessments of innovative research methods should be an integral part of research projects.
‘Not much is known about using mobile video conference calls for assessing children remotely, but this project demonstrates its feasibility.’
This project demonstrates the feasibility of mobile video calls for assessing children. This required major adaptations to our research instruments, causing concerns about outreach and recruitment of 700 children, especially from the most disadvantaged groups who would not have access and skills to use android mobile devices for a mobile video call. These challenges were carefully addressed. We curtailed the assessment by eliminating the exercises that required the child to perform physical activities such as completing jigsaw puzzles, sorting shapes, writing their names, drawing and hopping. The loss of construct validity of the instrument was inevitable in the changed circumstances, but we minimised the impact. The abridged version reduced the assessment time by 10 minutes.
We recruited enumerators from the targeted disadvantaged communities and provided online training in Gujarat, India (N=12) and Punjab, Pakistan (N=16). The selected enumerators were community-based members, minimising the travel needed for data collection. Households with no access to an android mobile device were a challenge: enumerators were given mobile devices and personal protection equipment so that they could safely give a mobile device to such households, keeping a social distance or even staying at home. The pilot study results were encouraging in terms of recruitment of participants and responses of the children on video calls. Children showed increased attention and engagement throughout the assessment; only in rare cases was the child distracted by noisy surroundings or hyperactive.
Some parents even asked enumerators to do mobile phone assessment of their child, and some referred other parents who would be eager to have their child assessed. Parents were very co-operative, and the support from mothers available throughout the process aided the successful implementation of the assessment. Some parents reported that their child was not going to school due to the lockdown, and that they had therefore forgotten how to read numbers and alphabets. In one village, while other children had forgotten to read numbers and alphabets, one child identified all those he was shown. When asked, he replied, ‘I don’t go to school because of the lockdown but my grandfather teaches me new things every day’.
So far, more than 350 children have been assessed. Some interesting findings are that children’s enrolment in schools showed a positive impact on their literacy and numeracy skills. However, within these two domains some aspects of learning were not related to children’s school enrolment/attendance. Children who were never enrolled in school were equally good in story comprehension (read aloud) as their counterparts who were attending schools.
This research has shown that child assessment by remote survey is possible using mobile phone and internet technologies. These research methods are perhaps more cost effective, ethical, safe and accessible means of working with children and their families. For the foreseeable future we will see advancements in technology for research data collection tools and methods. Research on education has not stopped. We have just adapted new means to answer our research questions.
British Educational Research Association [BERA] (2018). Ethical guidelines for educational research (4th ed.). Retrieved from https://www.bera.ac.uk/publication/ethical-guidelines-for-educational-research-2018
Buchwald, D., Schantz-Laursen, B., & Delmar, C. (2009). Video diary data collection in research with children: An alternative method. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 8(1), 12–20.
Chouliaraki, L. (2006). The spectatorship of suffering. London: SAGE.
Jewitt, C. (2012). An introduction to using video research [Working Paper]. Southampton: National Centre for Research Methods.
Siddiqui, N, Bulsari, S., Gorard, S., See, B. H., Dixon, P., Pandya, K., Saeed, S., & Saeed, S. (2020). Pilot study report 2020 Assessing Early Years Schooling, Access and Student Outcomes (AESAS): Establishing routes for sustainable education in Pakistan and India [Working paper]. Durham: Durham University. Retrieved from http://dro.dur.ac.uk/30590/