5.3 Observation (face to face and online)

Traditionally, observation has entailed a researcher observing people within a 'live' setting, either as part of that setting (participant-observation) or as a more remote observer. However, as technology has advanced, observation methods have also included the use of video data and the 'observation' of virtual environments and synchronous and asynchronous communication. Detailed here are a number of different types of observation, as well as the benefits and problems of using observation as a method.

Different types of observation and their adavantages

(Participant) observation of face to face settings
In its most traditional sense, observation has involved the researcher observing participants within a particular setting. The role the researcher takes in the observation is particularly important and this can vary between observation and participant-observation.

As a participant observer you are likely to be directly involved within the educational setting you are observing, perhaps within your own tutor group. As an observer you are more likely to be watching what is happening without taking part, perhaps when observing another tutor's tutorial or at a residential school.

Most observation of face to face settings in the past would have involved the researcher being physically present, and it is likely that most small-scale practitoner research observations are still done in this way. More recently, however, video has been increasingly used, either to replace the physical presence of the researcher or as an adjunct (participant) observation. Video has done much to make the process of observation easier as the researcher can focus in on or replay particular events. In particular, it allows you, as the practitioner researcher, to observe your own practice as well as student learning and so can be particularly useful as a stimulus to reflection.

One of the first decisions you will need to make, whether you are in situ or watching video footage, is whether to make a detailed description of everything you observe or decide to focus in on particular aspects of behaviour or activity. This depends on the purpose of your research and also any overlap with other research methods. You may, for example, already know from interviews, that a key issue in your teaching practice is how students respond to interventions from other students and so this is what you decide to focus on. On the other hand you may be in a position of knowing very little and so you opt to observe everything. This has the advantage of ensuring nothing gets missed, but can also produce a lot of potenatially irrelevant data.

Another decision is the what other elements of the research setting do you include in your observation. Are you interested purely in what people say and do, or are you also interested in the physical nature of the learning environment, the role of technology or the passage of time? These decisions may well have an impact on the focus of your observation and also how you record it.

Finally, you need to make is how to record your observation. If you are a participant observer, you may only be able to make quick notes on what is happening and then write them up later in a similar way to fieldwork, mentioned below. If you are an observer, and have a particular focus for your observation, then you can draw up a simple table with each element of the observation running side by side, such as what the tutor says, what the tutor does, what the students say, what the students do and the time that this occurs. Links to examples of observation templates can be found below.

Fieldwork and fieldnotes
Fieldwork is probably most often associated with anthropological research, bringing to mind researchers "going native" in far flung places. However, it has been included here because it is a particular form of participant observation and can be an excellent way of recording what is going on in any situation and provide a rich source of data and interpretation.

Closely associated with fieldwork is the production of fieldnotes, which have two key phases: scratch notes and fieldnotes.

Scratch notes refer to the rough notes made by the researcher 'in the field' when copious note-taking or detailed observation of participants is not possible. Fieldnotes are produced as soon as possible after the scratch notes and are a much more descritpive account of what the researcher has observed. This requires some degree of stepping back from the research setting and so, to some extent therfore, fieldnotes form part of the first stages of analysis of the data.

In some cases, where the researcher has established a good relationship with the participant(s), fieldnotes can be taken in situ. As such, they may contain more detail than the scratch notes, such as direct quotations from participants and first hand descriptions of activity. In this sense they cross over the boundary between observation and interview.

Finally, some researchers also use fieldnotes as a place to record initial responses to the data. Here, the distinction between fieldnotes and personal research diaries becomes slightly blurred.

Observing learning online
Students are increasingly using online methods to support their learning and all can be a rich source of 'observational data'. It is still quite rare as a method of teaching and so any issues which arise are as likely to be caused by the technology as they are by its use as a research method.

Perhaps the closest electronic version of participant observation comes in the form of virtual worlds, such as SecondLife, where the role of the practitioner researcher is very similar to what it would be in a face to face setting.

Synchronous learning environments, such as Elluminate, also provide a rich source of observational data. Here the practitioner researcher can record tutorials, as well as observe, through file sharing, what the students are doing. More well-established is research into and using asynchronous communication, such as discussion forums. In this case, however, the 'observation' is primarily of entries to the forum and so is more similar to discourse analysis than it is to traditional observation.

Students can also now record or be recorded whilst learning online. Screen capture software, such as Jing, can create short videos to enable students to record their respones to particular parts of their learning experience, such as feedback on assignments or a website page. Webcams can also be used to record what students are doing and saying during their learning experience, although here it may be more difficult to capture what is happening on screen.

Jennie Lee Research Laboratories (User lab)
A particular benefit for Open University staff are the Jennie Lee research laboratories, ofen known as the User lab, which is situated in IET at Walton Hall.

The lab enables researchers to observe and record students as they engage with module materials and software. faculties allow the researcher to sit outside the lab and observe the student while she/he works through open University materials or uses a particular piece of software while providing commentary on it.

Although not exactly naturalistic, evidence from the CETLs suggests that students fast get used to the experience and researchers are quickly able to identify problems with understanding. As such, it is also a valuable tool for developmental testing.

A particularly valuable method of data collection in the Userlab has been the use of 'talk aloud', whereby students talk through their responses to a learning activity, their rationale, etc, can be very helful in obtaining rich data on student learning.

More details on how to use the Userlab, as well as examples of good practice, can be found here:

Disadvantages of observation

One of the key issues to be aware of in any form of observation is the 'observer paradox', whereby your presence as a researcher has an impact on how the people being observed behave. This impact may well appear to be greater in a face to face setting where it will be ovbvious you are new or doing different things to normal. However, the requirements of informed consent mean that students learning or communicating online also need to be told of your presence and the purpose of your research. As such, they will know that they are being watched and may also behave differently.

This may seem a difficult problem to overcome, but there are a number of ways of reducing the 'observer paradox'. Firstly, it is helpful if you are already known to students. As such, although you may be taking on a slightly different role to normal, your presence within that particular context or within their overall learning experience is already accepted. Secondly, although students may initially respond differently when being observed, if they are actively involved in an activity they can quite quickly overcome any inhibitions or embarrassment and start to behave reasonably naturally. Thirdly, the effect of the observer paradox can reduce over time and so the more often you observe students the less likely they are to notice your presence.

As with other forms of qualitative data, it is worth considering the complexity of preparing and analysing observational data, and the time required to do so. More information on analysis can be found in the next section.

Guidance on using observation as a research method

Barbara Kawulich has written a useful article, Participant Observation as a Data Collection Method, which outlines the benefits and issues raised by participant observation. It is availiable from FQS Forum:Qualitative Social Research, Volume 6, No. 2, Art. 43 - May 2005 and online at: 

The article by Matthew Williams, Avatar watching: participant observation in
graphical online environments
, in the journal Qualitative Research examines the use of participant observation online environments, such as SecondLife

The Open University module, DD206, contains a number of sections on using observations, particularly in relation to ICT.

Observation templates
Ohio University has produced an extensive range of observation templates, as part of an initiative to support the professional learning of school teachers. 

Examples of research which has used observation

Isobel Shelton, a PILS consultant conducted a small-scale practitoner research project using participant observation to explore the identity of students as geographers:

A Userlab observation, was by conducted COLMSCT Fellows, Barbara Brockbank and Sally Jordan. The purpose was to investigate the use of short free-text questions in online interactive assessment. A copy of the report, availiable from the Open CETL website (http://www8.open.ac.uk/opencetl/about-open-cetl) can be found here:

 Observation of students in the IET userlab

Last modified: Tuesday, 4 Mar 2014, 16:35