Collecting Data in the Information Age: Exploring Web-Based Survey Methods in Educational Research

Article excerpt

As the use of the Internet expands, Web-based survey methods are increasingly being used to collect data for commercial and academic surveys. The Recognition of ICT Skills of Staff project is a JISC-funded scoping study of the ICT skills of staff in UK universities and colleges. The tRISSt project is conducting a number of wide-ranging surveys using electronic methods to gather data from staff in all universities and colleges and so has had to face the related problems of how to acquire and then analyse a very large data set. This article describes how Web-based methods have been used in the project, explores the rationale for the use of such methods and discusses the effects on the running of the project within the context of existing research into the use of Web-based surveys.

Key words CASIC, Web-based, Surveys, HE/FE, ICT, Skills, Staff.

The tRISSt project is a major UK, cross-institutional scoping study of the ICT skills of staff in higher and further education institutions, funded by the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC). The tRISSt project is set against a background of recent UK government education policy initiatives and the technological imperative of globalisation, both of which have created a need for all levels and categories of staff to possess a high level of ICT skills. The tRISSt project has three main objectives:

1 To examine the contrasting ICT needs of various categories of staff in HE and FE institutions through an HE/FE sector-wide needs analysis of professional development in ICT.

2 To determine what already exists across the HE and FE sectors regarding ICT training provision and accreditation.

3 To review emerging effects and changes within the institutions and the staff in the institutions and to discover what form, or forms, of accreditation would best meet the current and future needs of institutions and staff in order to allow recommendations of best practice to be made.

To meet these objectives, we have used a number of surveys to gather institutional and individual information and perspectives across institutions in the HE and FE sectors. Given the very large data set we were attempting to assemble, we necessarily made use of computer-assisted survey information collection (CASIC) methods, specifically the use of electronic mail and Web-based surveys. One aspect of this work that we focus on in this article is the opportunity it offers to contribute to the growing research in the use of such methods within education research.

In this article we begin by reflecting on computer-assisted survey information collection methods, summarising some of the perceived strengths and weaknesses in the process of collecting research data. In this analysis a number of issues are examined, including those associated with distribution, design, usability and interactivity. The article then presents a discussion of the methods used in the tRISSt project, outlining the rationale for the methods and evaluating their effectiveness. Following a brief presentation of findings, the article finishes with an evaluation of Web-based methods within the project, identifying some of the benefits alongside a range of potential drawbacks and offering a critical appraisal of the future of Web-based surveys in education research.

Computer-assisted survey information collection methods: a short history

The initial impetus for Web surveys came from the software industry rather than from the academic research community. In the early days of the World Wide Web, pages were largely static and allowed only one-way communication, from the Web site to the user. There was a realisation that the ability to receive and process information from users would greatly enhance the power of the Web. To meet this need, Web programming techniques were developed that enabled users to enter information that would be captured and stored on the Web server for subsequent processing, significantly hastening the development of the interactivity and power of the Web and facilitating the e-commerce systems that we now take for granted. …