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Guidance on changed contexts due to the Coronavirus: moving research online

This guidance concerns IOE student research.

We are aware that the current unprecedented situation raises concerns in relation to the participants of research conducted by IOE students and in relation to how we can take good care of those involved in research and of you as researchers. We will keep you informed of developments related to the conduct of, and support for, research. 

We realise that IOE PGR research is undertaken in many different contexts and situations, so this broad material may need adaptation in relation to your specific work. 

Please take good care of yourself and those around you at this time. We hope this material supports you in relation to one component of the complex situations that we find ourselves in.

It is important to consider the ethical implications of any changes that you make to your data collection methods, and if necessary, to fill out an amendment form as directed.

The relevant university guidance on moving to online methods can be found here:

Some of the contents of this page are adapted from the university guidance. Please note, however, that the IOE faculty has a slightly different procedure for amending ethical approval.

For research that has already been approved by the NHS, you must follow the university guidance.

Funder requests 

If your funder requires communication from us in relation to your research, please contact the IOE ethics team at ioe.researchethics@ucl.ac.uk and we will be happy to support you.

Deferring your research

In the present situation, when most researchers are under new pressures and their potential participants are mostly people working/living in a new way, we ask that you actively consider whether your research might:  

  • add to people’s stress
  • have an emotional impact which could be hard to deal with online.

If this is the case we ask you to consider whether your data collection could reasonably be paused until matters are more settled. Please take this into account in considering your response and completion of the proforma. 

Please be mindful that the impact of this health crisis is not uniform, so simply changing a method to online may have significant ethical implications, particularly with vulnerable groups:

  • NHS: It goes without saying NHS staff need to focus on the pandemic, not being distracted by consent forms and research paperwork.
  • Parents and guardians: Parents and guardians, especially single parents are often under extra stress providing at home education. Single parents in particular are likely to be isolated and excluded from their day-to-day support systems.
  • Children and young people: all have had their main daily activities and daily purpose turned upside-down.
  • Carers for the elderly or disabled:  Given many vulnerable people are now self-isolating, carers now have a further burden of providing constant care, whether through physical work such as delivering food, medicine, supplies or offering online support.
  • Disability: Persons with disabilities are particularly impacted by the crisis due to shortages of food, medicine, losing access to carers, the need to be isolated and are concerned that, if infected, they will not be prioritised for treatment due to staff shortages.
  • Refugees, prisoners, people who are homeless and the undocumented: These individuals are particularly vulnerable to the pandemic due to lack of social support.

Consequently, we advise you to take seriously your ethical obligation not to place extra burden on your participants such that risks outweigh benefits for the participant: this may mean research will need to be paused or postponed. 

Moving to online methods: options for secure online data collection

There are a number of different options available to effectively support research being conducted online and the following provides advice, from a UCL perspective, on various options.  

When choosing the most suitable option, you should think about what option may suit your methods best, including matters regarding functionality and stability. Most importantly, online data collection must also be secure.

The following sections cover getting access to several UCL services which can help you manage your data collection in a secure way.  Undoubtedly, there will also be cases which do not fit well with any of these options. To obtain advice on any security related concerns, visit the UCL Information Security Group webpages.

Changing to online methods does not mean that you cannot conduct interviews or questionnaires as there are a variety of ways this can be accomplished online. You will need to update your recruitment documentation so that it refers to the online methods instead. If your data collection is ongoing, contact your participants to advise them of the change and check they are happy to continue with the study. 

Online interviews or focus groups

This can be done via telephone, or Microsoft Teams (which does allow for non-UCL users to be added), or by using platforms such as Skype, WhatsApp or Google Hangouts which all have end to end encryption.  However, UCL’s preference is that you use Microsoft Teams. If you are intending to record the interviews, e.g. via Teams, you must consider how this will be done securely and that the data should remain either within the UK or the EAA. 

You will need to consult the Privacy Statements and/or Terms and Conditions of the online service you wish to use to ascertain if they are based in these locations or elsewhere.  You must also inform participants that you wish to record the interview – and how – and, as always, gain their consent to do so. 

When conducting telephone interviews in shared spaces within the home, please be aware of the potential risks to confidentiality this presents and ensure you take steps to reduce these.

If you are new to using Microsoft Teams, there is comprehensive 16 minute introductory video available:

Online surveys and questionnaires

You may wish to use UCL Opinio, or Microsoft Forms, which is included in UCL’s subscription, entirely self-service and simple to use. Microsoft instructions on how to create a form and do common tasks like attaching a picture or video can be found on the Microsoft Office website

There is also UCL REDcap which is a simple online tool that can also be used to collect data that needs to be stored in the UCL Data Safe Haven. Please be aware that there are two versions of REDCap: if you are working with special category data, you should only use the Data Safe Haven version. The ‘standard’ version is suitable for personal data that is not special category.

If you wish to use other options then you must review the terms and conditions and check where the servers are based, and ensure the data is kept within the UK/EEA (see above).

The above options are preferable to using email, as email is not encrypted from end-to-end if sent to, or received from, someone outside UCL. This makes it possible for someone to intercept, read and even alter email messages and therefore it should be the last choice for sharing anything sensitive. 

If you do need to use email (e.g. there is no other way of contacting the participant), you should look into whether you can use Microsoft OneDrive to transfer information, rather than by including attachments to the email. For example, you send an email which contains a OneDrive link to information forms, surveys etc.  

Please note, this relates to contacting participants, see the guidance under Moving online: Data management and security about using OneDrive when sharing data.

Moving to online methods: data management and security

Using secure methods and data protection

When moving to online methods it is essential that you use secure methods and that the data is managed in accordance with data protection law, including GDPR, and that the security arrangements are appropriate to the type of data you are collecting. If this also applies to data obtained under licence (NHS Digital, DfE etc.) you will also need to comply with any restrictions detailed in the data sharing agreement or contract.

Even in these unusual circumstances, information should be stored in a secure UCL location as soon as possible.  If it meets your requirements, Microsoft Teams is the recommended option given its self-service nature. Your S: or N: drive, SharePoint or OneDrive are also possible locations. 

The Data Safe Haven is an approved location for human participant data.  As with all storage options, you should ensure that only those that need to have access have this granted; e.g. setting up a specific S: drive for the project, or a new Teams channel where only the research team have access, etc.

When sharing data with collaborators, it is recommended that OneDrive is used as the last option, as it may also store a local copy on the machine you use to access OneDrive, which therefore can increase the risk of a breach of confidentiality.

Requesting a new S: drive or Sharepoint

If you need a new shared S: drive to store research data, this can be created by raising a ticket via the service desk with Hybrid Infrastructure Services. SharePoint requires raising a ticket on the Office365 team and as such the self-service alternative of a Teams site might be simpler, as it also allows for inviting non-UCL participants which may be essential for some groups (please see below).

When setting up shared drives, please ensure you review access regularly to ensure this is revoked when team members leave.

To raise a service request for a new shared drive (S: drive):

  • go to the ISD Help and Support webpage and click on the link to the self-service portal
  • in the box self-service requests click on Shared Drive Administration
  • fill out the request making sure to list everyone who will need access and submit the request.

To request a new SharePoint site go to the UCL SharePoint website, read the descriptions of the types of SharePoint sites UCL offers and click to request.  

Please bear in mind, that neither the creation of a new S: drive or a new SharePoint is fully automated. The information you provide is passed to the relevant team for action and this may take some time, especially if many new requests are coming in.

How to amend your ethical approval 

This information is only for IOE EdD and MPhil/PhD students who:

  • already obtained ethical approval for your research and 
  • now need to change to online data-gathering methods due to the impact of COVID-19. 

If your ethical approval already covers the online data-gathering methods that you will use, then you do not need to do anything. If, however, your ethical approval does not cover the methods that you intend to use, then you must ensure that the steps below are followed:

  1. Using the form provided, submit an amendment request to your principal supervisor by email. (If your principal supervisor is unavailable, you should write to your subsidiary supervisor.) This request needs to outline any changes, and explain how any risks posed to participants, and/or to yourself, will continue to be mitigated in an online study.
  2. If there are any changes to your consent documents (e.g. information sheets and/or consent forms) and/or any new documents, then you should attach these to the same email. You should also attach the original ethical approval form to the email.
  3. You should make any changes to participants clear through the provision of appropriate information material/processes, and you should ensure that you negotiate and record consent appropriately. 
  4. You should, for example, record how you have reminded participants of their right to withdraw from the research. Please remember that participants accepting a change online methods is not a simple given, and that you need to show how they will be supported in terms of information and opportunities to ask questions, and to be assured that their consent is being negotiated in terms of this change.
  5. Your supervisor will review the amendments and, if satisfied with the amendments, they will sign the form and return it. (they may ask the IOE Research Ethics Committee for advice if necessary.)
  6. Send the signed form and any amended consent documents by email to the CDE office at IOE.CDE@ucl.ac.uk and the Data Protection Office at data-protection@ucl.ac.uk 

Please note that there will be no further communication if all the documents have been submitted correctly. Once you have done this, then you may proceed with the amended data-gathering methods.

Guidance on suitable methods and technologies for online information gathering has also been circulated via the CDE Moodle.