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Tips for researchers navigating Zoom et al

Introduction by Croakey: Zoom Video Communications, a California-based communications technology company, was founded in 2011 and launched its first video teleconferencing software in 2013.

But it was not until the COVID pandemic that Zoom became omnipresent in our lives, as a noun, a verb and a place to work, play and socialise. Last year, according to Wikipedia,  Zoom was the 5th most downloaded mobile app worldwide, with 477 million downloads. On one day in March 2020, the Zoom app was downloaded more than two million times

Zoom, which last year added accessibility features to make the app easier to use for those who are deaf, hard of hearing, or visually impaired, is being used for telemedicine, funeral services, and has featured in plays, movies and, of course, gifs. Inevitably there have been controversies regarding data security and privacy concerns, and how much tax the company doesn’t pay.

But what about its use in research?

Researchers involved with two action research projects in Tasmania recently did a rapid review of the evidence on using video teleconferencing such as Zoom and Skype for qualitative group research, as reported below by Hugo Wilcken, Media and Editorial Manager at the Sax Institute.


Hugo Wilcken writes:

With much of the Australian population now in lockdown, some kinds of public health research become a lot harder than others. Qualitative research often involves in-person interviews and can rely on researchers establishing a good rapport with their interviewees – something that tends to be more difficult when you switch to videoconferencing tools such as Zoom or Skype.

Seven researchers from the University of Tasmania faced with this difficulty have published a rapid review of the recent literature on the strengths and limits of videoconferencing in qualitative research. Thankfully, plenty has been published in this area across a range of disciplines, and the review looks at evidence from over 60 papers from the past five years assessing the suitability of using videoconferencing as a tool for engaging participants in research.

Despite a growing acceptance of videoconferencing technologies in the COVID era, significant apprehension remains about their use as a data-collection tool, especially when seeking information on private matters, such as medical histories.

While the review suggests that zooming can work well and even provides benefits – such as cost-effectiveness and easier access to populations who are geographically dispersed – the researchers also identify five key challenges, along with some suggested ways of addressing them:

1. Building rapport

Establishing a good rapport with a participant is critical to developing good qualitative data. Researchers often rely on their ability to read a person’s emotions through their gestures and facial expressions – but this becomes a lot more difficult when confronted with a poorly lit, pixelated version of your interviewee in the unnatural circumstances of a Zoom call.

Tips: Vary eye to eye interactions, as a constant focus on the person feels unnatural; try to mirror a real-life encounter – for example by inviting participants have a snack or drink during the Zoom to create a sense of normalcy; or use a familiar environment to conduct your Zoom – such as a messy desk, rather than a boardroom.

2. Technical challenges

By now, we’re probably all familiar with the potential for tech fails in Zoom calls. These can be particularly debilitating in qualitative public health research, where researchers may be dealing with already vulnerable populations.

Tips: Minimise technical risk by supporting familiarity with videoconferencing system; provide emotional and technical support (including on site); training for participants; telephone backup; and use of laptops/PCs rather than mobile devices or tablets. Providing written or video instructions or a checklist outlining common technical difficulties and solutions are also useful, as are practice and rehearsals.

3. Planning

Proper planning and coordinated scheduling is critical, as is establishing clear ‘house rules’ for videoconferencing encounters, which encompass ethical guidelines for research. Planning ahead includes ensuring participants with varying levels of technical literacy are able to use the technology. The role of the facilitator is also important in ensuring good quality data by minimising cross-talk and allowing everyone to have their turn. The facilitator’s own proficiency in using the technology is also vital.

4. Privacy

There are particular privacy issues using videoconferencing: ‘Zoom bombing’, for example, is when an unknown person gains access to a Zoom meeting. This can be guarded against by password-protecting your Zoom and Skype calls.

Tips: Use appropriate consent methods (a form or script) before or at the start of session and make sure you confirm verbal consent to recording the session. Let participants know when the recording starts and that they can opt out at any time.

5. Equity

And finally, there’s the issue of equity: the way you resolve all the above issues must ensure equity of knowledge, skills and confidence as well as access to the technology.

Tips: Provide your participants with the equipment they need and the knowledge they need to operate it. Maintaining relationships with participants beyond the Zoom meetings, through phone calls or in face-to-face meetings, can reduce the power inequity between the researcher and participant.

The central message to emerge from this rapid review is that good preparation is the key to meeting all of the above challenges. The review is published by Public Health Research & Practice, a peer-reviewed journal of the Sax Institute. You can access it in full here.


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