Teaching qualitative research online

In this age of digital tools, we are using digital tools not only to do our research, but to teach the next generation of scholars. In this month’s blog post, Kathryn Roulston and Kathleen deMarrais from the University of Georgia describe their foray into the world of teaching qualitative research online.

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Teaching qualitative research online

Kathryn Roulston and Kathleen deMarrais

“I hate online teaching!” That is a sentiment that we have heard expressed by some teachers in higher education. In addition to the workload involved in teaching online, many faculty members are skeptical about the technical support they will receive for learning how to teach online, as well as the outcomes of online education for their students. Although we too have experienced our own doubts at times, we have voluntarily developed online coursework for the Qualitative Research program at the University of Georgia. We have learned much from this journey into online education, and are happy with the outcomes for our students.

To begin, we started with courses that we had taught for many years in face-to-face contexts. Over a period of years, we developed the online course content as we taught hybrid versions of our courses that involved both face-to-face and online instruction. In 2014, we began to offer the core courses of our on-campus certificate in Interdisciplinary Qualitative Studies in a fully online format. Judith Preissle and Kathleen deMarrais’s notion of “qualitative pedagogy” informs our approach to online teaching. That is, we approach teaching in the same way we approach doing qualitative research: by being responsive, recursive, reflexive, reflective, and contextual.

We have attended to how students respond and engage with online coursework by conducting a research study (with Trena Paulus and Elizabeth Pope) to look at graduate students’ perceptions and experiences of online delivery of coursework. Over the past two years 18 students from four courses have been interviewed. We have also looked at naturally-occurring interaction that occurs during the course. Below we share some of what we have found to date.

Why do students choose online coursework?

Convenience, flexibility and accessibility. Students take online coursework because they perceive it to be convenient and accessible for commuters and distance students. On-campus students who are not commuters also choose to take online coursework because not having to attend face-to-face classes allows more flexibility in individual schedules. We have found that even students who have had poor prior experiences in online courses, or prefer to take coursework face-to-face will choose online coursework if it is thought be more convenient or accessible.

Learning through reading and writing. Some students prefer taking coursework online rather than face-to-face, because they appreciate the intensive reading and writing involved. Further, since students in our courses are required to post weekly, more reticent students are more visible than they might otherwise be in face-to-face contexts. Students are also able to revisit online resources, something that is appreciated by English language learners especially.

What are the challenges of learning online?

Managing the weekly schedule. To be successful in the online learning context, students must learn to manage the weekly schedule in new ways. Students in our coursework are expected to log in to the Learning Management System (LMS) several times a week, and if they do not do this will easily fall behind and feel overwhelmed.

Course design and organization. Understanding what is expected each week and locating relevant materials may be an initial challenge for students. This is aided when courses use a repetitive design in which content materials are organized in a standardized format with expectations for what is required each week clearly identified. Students are expected to access content in modules that are organized similarly, and post and respond to one another’s work at the same time each week. Although several of our students reported that they perceive this kind of routinization as somewhat tedious, it appears to help the majority of students to accomplish tasks successfully.

Mastering content. Students view learning about approaches to qualitative inquiry and how to design and conduct qualitative research on a topic of individual interest as challenging. Since courses we have taught are delivered asynchronously, students need to let instructors know when they are unclear about what is expected of them. Several students have reported that they are reluctant to ask questions of the instructor online – although multiple forums are provided for them to ask questions related to content, assignments, or technical issues. Students also have opportunities to meet with instructors in an online meeting room to discuss questions, although not all students take advantage of these meetings.

Interacting with others online. Students report that they want to engage and connect with the instructor and other students in authentic ways online. Some students perceive that classmates do not always post in authentic ways. In online learning contexts, misunderstandings can easily occur– so both instructors and students must learn how to communicate effectively in asynchronous formats. Most of all, students appreciate constructive feedback from their instructors and classmates, and several have told us that they have formed friendships with others that extended beyond the life of a course.

How do students assess the learning outcomes of qualitative coursework delivered online?

Overall, students assess the coursework that we have taught online positively and the learning outcomes as equivalent to coursework taught face-to-face. Students are able to meet their learning goals with respect to learning about methods used by qualitative researchers (e.g., interviewing; observing; document analysis; data analysis); how to design a qualitative study; the relationship of theory in doing research; assessment of quality; and writing up findings from qualitative studies.

What helps students to be successful in online learning contexts?

Students report that effective learning is facilitated by:

  • Clear organization of course content;
  • Use of a variety of multi-media resources, including screencasts and videos, audio-enhanced presentations, quizzes, course readings and so forth;
  • Timely feedback from the instructor; and
  • Course projects that contribute to individual research interests.

What have we learned about teaching qualitative research online?

Learning about our students’ perspectives has helped us to understand the value of:

  • Modeling and encouraging students to be authentic in how they represent themselves online (e.g., posting personal photos and/or videos, organization of synchronous online meetings, and sharing of personal details about one’s off-line life).
  • Providing specific guidance to students in being reflexive with respect to their learning preferences and management of their course schedule in order to develop self-directed learning skills.
  • Structuring activities and assignments in ways that build upon one another across the course sequence.
  • Providing clear instructions and content organization to assist students as they navigate the Learning Management System to locate materials and complete assigned tasks.
  • Delivering reminders in multiple modes (e.g., email, videos, news items etc.) to assist students in managing the weekly schedule.
  • Encouraging students to be reflective about how they learn and interact with others in the online environment.
  • Attending to students as individuals, even as we also consider the wider context in which any particular course is being taught.

As teachers of qualitative inquiry, we have been challenged to adapt to changes in student populations with whom we work and innovate in how we teach. Learning to teach online has prompted us to think carefully about how we teach qualitative inquiry and what we expect students to know and be able to do as a result of engaging in our courses. We continue to be excited about learning to teach online and how we might engage students in digital spaces. We know that we still have much to learn about effective online teaching.

For more information on qualitative pedagogy, see:

Preissle, J., & deMarrais, K. (2011). Teaching qualitative resesearch responsively. In N. Denzin & M. D. Giardina (Eds.), Qualitative inquiry and global crisis (pp. 31-39). Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

Preissle, J., & DeMarrais, K. (2015). Teaching reflexivity in qualitative research: Fostering a life style. In N. Denzin & M. D. Giardina (Eds.), Qualitative inquiry and the the politics of research (pp. 189-196). Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press

For more information on the University of Georgia’s Online Graduate Certificate in Interdisciplinary Qualitative Studies, visit our website.

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2 thoughts on “Teaching qualitative research online

  1. Daniel G Turner

    Really valuable to hear about how to make online teaching work better for students. I think the focus on quality of student experience has been what made this program such a success – and the hard work done by the whole team!

    I hope this helps other educators understand that online learning can be a lot of work to set up and make right. I know many professors who see it as an easy ‘record and forget’ option, but as this article points out, getting student engagement needs longer term commitment.

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  2. Margaret R. Roller

    Thank you for this article. It is good to read not only your perspective but that of the students. I have found that, to the degree possible, synchronous rather than asynchronous classes help greatly in engaging the students with the teacher as well as with each other. As the instructor, I appreciate the opportunity to periodically break from my “lecture” and ask the students to share their experiences related to the topic, make comments, or ask questions. Thanks again.

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