Connecting the dots: Digital tools for doing educational research on COVID-19 during a pandemic

Chris Campbell (Learning Futures, Griffith University) and Kathryn Coleman (Melbourne Graduate School of Education, The University of Melbourne)

These unique times in education have seen many research collaborations exploring the impacts of the pandemic on teaching, learning and assessment. This is a story of a group of researchers who have come together to investigate this time of rapid innovation, novel partnerships, and enhanced questions of access during COVID-19 times, shared here through the lens of two of the investigators.

We are writing this post from different states in different times of COVID using otter.ai (tool 1) to record this story so we can share this unique digital collaboration we find ourselves participating in. Kate is heading back to Stage 3 today (in Melbourne), while Chris is beginning to see the freedoms of places re-opening. We are collaborating both synchronously and asynchronously in a shared Word document. Not unusual for people who teach and research in digital spaces, but the conversation is about our times in the world that seem so different, when this SharePoint Word doc (tool 2) seems so normal. This concept of ‘same, but different’ seems to be the underlying theme that connects us in this project.

Across the world teachers and students are in different places of the pandemic. As educational researchers, this team of 9 collaborators from 4 countries in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and the USA are also facing similar shifts. We are co-investigating the impact of COVID-19 on learning and teaching. We began this collaboration when Associate Professor Louise Phillips put out a call on Facebook (tool 3) asking if any connected colleagues were interested in capturing and archiving the many stories of educators across the world during this unique time. This began a chain of digital events as we replied with a yes, or a maybe. We were all in the same space as these colleagues we were wondering about, rapidly designing, developing and shifting our practices and pedagogies to get our classes online.

As a collaborative digital project our research design was also focused firmly on the changing practices of a pandemic on teaching and learning. We felt that these needed to be documented and analysed urgently to produce resources to support teaching and learning when home bound, and within other social distancing measures. The team of 9 connected in Zoom (tool 4) to co-design the survey. No mean feat with time zone differences from New Zealand through to the United States.

The collaborative nature of the project design has pivoted around the digital, using our nodes and networks to facilitate how a shared inquiry might be designed. From the beginning through each process it’s been a collaborative digital project, with each team member finding the right tools to actually enable those connections.

As a collaborative project everyone is working in a flat structure. There’s no hierarchy of methods, tools or roles. The team has just worked out how to make a digital research ecology function. To enable this, the project team is underpinned by SharePoint with each member having access, which serves an ePortfolio role, a place to collect and sort, and do some synthesis of items before curating with the project OMEKA site. The OMEKA (tool 5) site serves as an outward facing publication of the data archive collection of teaching and learning artefacts from COVID-19. We are interested in what that item of data tells us about COVID-19, what the resource or articles as evidence might tell us about what was happening in the world, in relation to our study, now and later. Using OMEKA means we now have a growing digital data warehouse, filled with all of the things that people in the team found useful to the project; have found useful to their own practices; and, now as a team have thought it might be useful for other people. This tool was selected as a living data space, instead of designing a website that would need its own archiving, and upkeep.  We’ve used OMEKA as a gallery site, supported by the University of Melbourne for sharing our digital collections and creating media-rich online exhibits for teachers. We hope this digital COVID-19 archive will become a valuable tool for researchers and teachers in the future.

To listen to teacher voices and gather stories about their work and their lives during the COVID-19 pandemic we used Qualtrics, (tool 6)) to compile our online survey. Qualtrics includes an important function, a metadata timestamp so that we see how the pandemic developed from the teacher and learner perspective over time, seeing the different stages is an insight we did not anticipate at the start of this project. This timestamp will provide an important record and data collection of the affect of the pandemic on learning and teaching. The Qualtrics study opened in April 2020 and remains open, being shared and pushed out via social media and email at different stages of the global health crisis. This will allow us to see changes across time and place by teachers in various countries as COVID restrictions both constrain and collapse learning opportunities. This is a very powerful tool in seeing and hearing teachers’ voices.

Another important tool to support seeing though this mass of data is Open Voyant (tool 7). Voyant Tools is a web-based text reading and analysis tool designed to facilitate seeing through data and generating new visualisations from what emerges in the survey corpus. With Voyant we have been able to collaborate live in the iterative data sets and bring teachers words and thoughts into the collation of strategies to inform our educative and pedagogic responses. The members of the team have been using this tool both individually and together to both explore possibilities and enjoy experiencing a tool that is new to many of us. The unique visualisations have been living in our closed Facebook group so that we can see the data as image and allow these data artworks to resonate.

After gaining ethics approval at each of the universities involved in the study our initial plans were to close the survey in July.  We now see that in different states and countries the situation is continuing to change, so to allow for more diverse teacher voices to continue to be heard and allow the sharing of their changing stories the survey will continue to be open into the future. With over 500 responses from various countries this is becoming an important piece of research for education.

Click the link to participate in the survey: https://tinyurl.com/TeachinginCOVID

Our project OMEKA is available here: https://omeka.cloud.unimelb.edu.au/teaching-and-learning-in-a-pandemic/