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  • Rogéair D. Purnell

Equitable Qualitative Research in an #alonetogether World



The purpose of this blog is to share and to gather promising practices and approaches to continuing to gather students’ voice and conduct qualitative research in our new virtual world. As colleges pivot to distance learning platforms, learning from students about what is working, what they need, what they hope for, and what they fear is more important than ever! And even more critical is using what is learned to inform and guide action and change.


Since Friday, March 13th, I have been sheltering-in-place. As someone who works from home, the new and very necessary state of being has not been a stretch, and as a small business owner, I am lucky to still have projects keeping me busy and paid. And yet, what a difference a day makes. I spent the 48 hours before my self-imposed quarantine talking with several groups of community college students to explore equity concerns, gathering their input on what made them feel like they belonged at their college, how they learned about available supports, and how to best supply them with information about these resources and opportunities.

These conversations offered useful insight into the student experience, as participants reported on their lives inside and outside the classroom, shared what motivated them, and described ways different people on campus demonstrated a caring interest in their success. They offered thoughtful suggestions for ensuring more students have positive interactions with administrators, faculty, and staff; know about various services and supports; and ultimately reach their goals.


For our purposes, equity is defined as an understanding of and commitment to exploring and being dedicated to advancing a social justice agenda that recognizes and uplifts the strengths and assets of each individual and provides access to specific and personalized resources, supports, and services to address the possible impacts of discrimination, racism, and oppression.

Fresh off this experience, I wondered how we might continue to engage students to share what they need to succeed in the COVID-19 context, particularly those who might be struggling to access online instruction, contending with a job reduction or loss of employment, or grappling to meet their basic needs. Given that this pandemic has forced colleges to move all instruction online, as well as many support services, how can we continue to gather students’ feedback on what is and is not working? How can we ask students about what is essential for keeping them in school and on path toward their goals? Now more than ever, timely and ongoing efforts to hear from students will be critical to designing and improving supports, processes, and approaches that continue closing—rather than exacerbating—equity gaps, particularly in this new online environment and through this crisis.


As an example, a recent thread on the RP Group listserv highlights how institutional researchers are surveying students, faculty, and classified professionals about their internet access, computers, and needed software. One researcher had learned that his students were parking near the campus in order to access Wi-Fi; that they desired counseling, financial aid, and library services; and needed software required for their courses. Others are worried about under- and unemployment and having enough food. Some students were concerned about covering the costs to ensure they have the needed data capacity on their mobile phone plans. These efforts parallel a fundraising campaign by the Foundation for California Community Colleges and the Chancellor’s Office to provide students with food, housing, and technological resources. As more institutional research, planning and effectiveness (IRPE) professionals across the state step up to connect with students and personnel, their efforts can inform emerging initiatives to get students the support they need.

To support colleges and anyone who would like to directly engage students to ensure their success, this post highlights ways to continue to do so—keeping equity in mind—using online platforms and tools. I’ve reached out to several key partners including Dr. Darla Cooper, Kelley Karandjeff, and Dr. Diane Rodriguez-Kiino to consolidate questions that might be popping up given the current context and share some ideas from our collective work.


This resource is organized as a set of questions and responses, all of which can be accessed at our #alonetogether page. The questions are also listed below for a bird's eye view of the topics.


I invite you to offer additional resources related to each of these questions by uploading protocols, reports, research, and examples in the Google folders provided after each response. If you upload a resource, please include your name and other pertinent information so folks can cite you appropriately if they use the information you have provided.





Questions (find answers at our #alonetogether page):


1. Should I submit an Institutional Review Board (IRB) application for my research?


2. How do I contact students who may only have a smart phone to invite them to participate in research?


3. What do I need to consider as I design my research questions and select the most appropriate methodology?


4. How do I ensure the questions are culturally relevant and responsive?


5. What data exists to help me determine students’ access to mobile devices?


6. What are the best tools to use to format and send out a survey, knowing that many students may only have a cell phone?


7. What are the best tools to use to conduct an online interview or group conversation with students?


8. How do I ensure that students know how to use the technology in advance of the interview or group?


9. How do I ensure online platforms such as Zoom stay secure?


10. How do I handle the consent process when I’m conducting telephone interviews or group conversations online?


11. What incentives can be offered to students to recognize them for volunteering their time and perspectives?


12. How might I go about analyzing and summarizing what I learn?


13. What are some of the ways you have shared your research findings to engage students and others?


Again you can access all responses at our #alonetogether page.



In Summary

I realize that the current situation is a quickly evolving one where creativity and innovation are happening every minute of every day. As you learn and grow, please consider sharing what you are learning in the Google documents highlighted on our #alonetogether page and on Twitter at #VirtualWorldWorking #EquitableQualitativeResearch.​

Also, we will provide links to additional resources, workshops, webinars, etc. in the following folder. Please feel free to add to this list.

Do you know of a resource, event, workshop, webinar, etc. that can help to ensure equity when working in an online environment? https://drive.google.com/open?id=1LMOstOgLNjVsbH0MYm85tH1d9kqMM60X

Reaching students in a virtual space will require thoughtfulness, patience, and persistence to reach those students whose voices are often not heard. Your outreach might need to be continuous, proactive, and take multiple forms, such as emails and text messages and postcards. You may only reach a fraction of students depending on the type and timing of the research activity. Realize that the responses received may be different than those that would result from a face-to-face interaction or as part of a group conversation. Let’s do what we can and be creative while physical distancing keeps us all safe!

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