7th Biennial ACSPRI Social Science Methodology Conference

Erica Smith

Erica Smith is Professor of Vocational Education and Training (VET) at Federation University. She has managed a large number of national research projects, including four grants funded by the Australian Research Council, and also international research projects. Her research interests span apprenticeships, VET policy and curriculum, training in industry, the school to work transition, and adult learning. She is convenor of the research group Researching in Adult and Vocational Education at Federation.


Researching about a pandemic during a pandemic

This paper reports on a research project, ‘Learning to be Safer’, about how Australian adults learned about aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic during the early months of the crisis’? The paper explores the project methodology, and specifically how responses were affected by the growing seriousness of the topic, and by the timing of the data collection. The survey method was similar to a 2019 Federation University project, ‘Learning to be Greener’, which was about adults’ learning about recycling and plastic bag use (Smith, 2019). The on-line survey link was distributed to staff from a university with campuses mainly in Victoria. Staff were invited to forward the link to family and friends aged 18 and over. Ethics approval was gained, and care was taken in all communications to acknowledge the difficult and stressful environment at the time and to underline that participation was voluntary. The survey covered four topics: the crisis: health information, restrictions and closures, the progress of the pandemic nationally and internationally, and financial provisions. For each section, potential sources of information were divided into ‘Media’ and ‘Non-media’ sources. These two lists were slightly adapted from lists used for the previous research project (Smith, 2019), which were themselves developed from items in a survey on adults’ learning about the Scottish referendum (Crowther, Boeren & Mackie, 2018). For each topic, respondents were asked to reflect on their awareness, and understanding of, the topics at two different reference dates, and then to indicate which of a large number of listed sources they learned from. There were also brief demographic questions and questions about people’s life satisfaction and optimism, based on a European Union survey (Eurofound, 2020), and about additional stressors respondents might be experiencing that could affect their experience of the pandemic.
The survey was carried out from 22nd June until 2nd August 2020. At the time the survey went into the field, the worst of the pandemic seemed to be over in Australia, and the survey questions were predicated on that assumption, with respondents being asked to answer about a number of matters as of late March when the lockdowns had begun, and then in late June/July, which was intended to capture the tail end of the pandemic’s effects. But Coronavirus cases soon rose quickly in Victoria, where most of the respondents were located, leading to severe lockdown measures. We delayed a reminder notice to avoid causing extra distress, and did not pursue other follow-up measures. As we conducted the survey, we noticed several things compared with the earlier ‘Learning to be Greener’ survey. Firstly, response rates were lower, even though the earlier survey had restricted responses only to employees of the university. Secondly, there were fewer lengthy qualitative responses. Thirdly, the data showed a different pattern of sources of information, with government sources predominating.

Co-author: Morgan Wise, Federation University Australia