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Virtual pivot leads to unexpected success for school-based research team

Monday, November 30, 2020

KU researcher Mark Buckman and elementary school children

Human subjects research, by definition, relies on human interaction. Traditionally, this means that at some point in most studies, investigators and research subjects meet face-to-face. That type of contact came to a grinding halt in March when the coronavirus initially surged in the United States. But many human subjects researchers at KU have found creative ways to continue their work — altering methods to protect the health and safety of research teams and participants while continuing to advance their projects and discoveries.

In collaboration with KU’s Human Research Protection Program, investigators have redesigned and reactivated 20 studies originally proposed with in-person interactions. Eight studies involving low-risk in-person research with robust safety plans have been approved. Twelve other studies have developed contactless methods of interacting, usually asynchronously, to achieve research goals.

A research team supporting schools across the country as they work to optimize students’ academic, behavioral and social performance falls into the latter camp. Mark Buckman, a doctoral student in the Department of Special Education who helps lead the project, explained in an interview how the team leveraged technology to shift its research protocols to fully remote means.

“By and large the transition to remote work has been about as seamless as one could hope for,” Buckman said. “There was some learning curve in trying to figure out how we should translate some of our work habits and procedures to a remote environment; however, at this point, everything is working pretty smoothly."

What is your major research question and what methods were you using to answer it prior to the implementation of COVID-19 restrictions and safeguards? Please also address potential societal impacts of your work.

Our research team supports educators in schools implementing comprehensive, integrated, three-tiered (Ci3T) models of prevention. Ci3T is a framework built by schools to address students’ academic, behavioral, and social development through (a) evidence-based prevention and intervention programming, (b) data-informed decision-making to connect students to interventions when needed, and (c) data-informed professional learning to support educators in implementing Ci3T practices. Because this work is complex and requires multiple competencies, our research team is seeking to identify areas in which educators require professional learning, build professional learning modules to support these needs, and evaluate the effectiveness of these modules. The societal impact of this work rests on supporting educators in creating positive, productive classrooms to prevent and respond to learning and behavioral difficulties. 

Have you found a way to conduct your research since restrictions and safeguards were implemented? Have you had to delay or change any research aims that could not be achieved as originally planned?

We have translated our research protocols to be fully remote (i.e., all research activities conducted without face-to-face contact). Although we have somewhat shifted the content of our work, such as refocusing to build professional learning materials aimed at supporting educators providing remote instruction, we have largely been able to continue with originally planned studies.

Please describe your experience with moving to remote methods, such as phone or video conferencing, asynchronous exchange, or text-based communication (email, online surveys or interfaces.)

Our team has relied heavily on use of Zoom and Microsoft Teams to collaborate synchronously and asynchronously. For example, instead of working in the office, we have regular hours carried out on Zoom. We meet as needed, then work in breakout rooms throughout the day. This allows for quick check-ins as well as in-depth collaboration through screen-sharing and cloud-based software (e.g., Microsoft Teams). We also use Zoom to communicate and work with research participants (e.g., educators and school leaders). This allows us to carry out our previously planned professional learning series — which used to be face-to-face experiences — to allow for ongoing social distancing. Everyone can attend and participate from the comfort of their own home or classroom.

Are there any new technologies you have discovered that have made it possible to conduct research activities remotely?

As I mentioned, Zoom has been instrumental. Microsoft Teams has also been helpful. Teams allows for easy sharing of files, communication, and collaborative document editing. We have research partners from all over the country and as far away as Hawaii, so we have always relied on these tools to some extent. However, we have really leaned in to these tools as a way to keep our work moving forward. 

How have you accommodated the need for social distancing, enhanced cleanliness, and limited duration (for in-person)?

Our team has made such good use of the technology at our disposal (Zoom, Teams) that there is no real reason to go back to in-person work at this time. This has allowed everyone on our team to feel safe by maintaining social distancing, but also productive.

Is there anything that worked better than you anticipated? A method that you might choose to use instead of certain in-person meetings going forward?

I have been surprised at how well remote meetings with our research participants have gone. Traditionally, we held in-person professional learning sessions for anywhere between 50-150 people. These sessions involved some “sit-and-get” presentations, but also a lot of team time during which school teams worked together to plan aspects of their Ci3T implementation efforts. Interestingly, many people feel doing these sessions on Zoom works better. Teams get their own breakout rooms, which means they don’t have to compete with ambient noise, distractions, etc. Many teams feel like this time is more focused and offers a good platform for planning and collaborating. As a coach in these rooms, it has been much easier for me to feel plugged in to what they are working on. In a weird way, it’s almost more personable. You can clearly see and hear everyone, people take turns talking while everyone listens, there is less side chatter — it really works quite well!

Photo: Elementary school children and Mark Buckman, doctoral student in KU's Department of Special Education and part of the Ci3T leadership team.