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Editor’s Note
: Omur takes us on a short journey that emphasizes the importance of literature research to avoid “reinventing the wheel”!

Conducting Qualitative Research in Online Courses: Experiences of a Novice Researcher

Omur Akdemir


Online courses are very popular nowadays New skills are needed to teach online courses and different skills are needed to conduct qualitative studies in online courses. This article provides experiences of a novice researcher to conduct a qualitative research in online courses. Problems and challenges encountered while conducting a qualitative study in online courses are explained.

Keywords: Online courses, qualitative research method


“The qualitative research approach demands that the world be examined with the assumption that nothing is trivial, that everything has the potential of being a clue that might unlock a more comprehensive understanding of what is being studied” (Bogdan & Biklen, 1998, p. 6). Being able to conduct a qualitative research is a necessary skill for researchers in social science. To understand the methods and techniques associated with qualitative research, lots of researchers complete qualitative research courses. As part of qualitative research course requirements, many researchers are asked to conduct at least one research in an area of their expertise.

This article describes the experiences of a researcher who completed the first qualitative research experience with faculty members teaching online courses. Relatively well-defined procedures have already been determined and used for years to conduct research in traditional settings. However given the history of online education and nature of the Internet-based delivery environment, less is known about conducting qualitative research in online courses. This paper presents issues that the researcher encountered while conducting a qualitative research for online courses.

Qualitative versus Quantitative

Numbers and calculations have important place in our lives. Probably it is because many individuals have to use them in their daily life often. Many people have an initial belief that a research can be objective only if everyone interprets data in the same manner. At the beginning, it seems impossible to achieve objectivity without using numbers. However after conducting several interviews and observation for the qualitative research project, the initial perception of the researcher about conducting qualitative research with online course professor has changed. It is essential not to categorize responses of individual to understand the phenomenon deeply. Schwandt (1999) states that the phenomenon of understanding lies at the heart of the qualitative inquiry enterprise. Bogdan & Biklen (1998) describes the data collected for qualitative research as soft, which is rich in description and not easily handled by statistical procedures. After the first interview with the faculty member, the researcher realized that faculty members had more to tell rather than answering researcher’s predefined interview questions. Learning stories of online faculty members and concerns could not be achieved even with predefined interview questions or well-defined quantitative research questions. Having collecting more information about the research question, the researcher realized that researchers could be objective even they have to investigate the phenomenon in all their complexity.  Bogdan & Biklen (1998) describes this effort by saying that what qualitative researchers attempt to do is to objectively study the subjective states of their subjects (p. 33). Qualitative research method has strengths over quantitative research method when researchers are interested in understanding the phenomenon deeply. However it is a challenge for qualitative researchers to be objective when studying the subjective states of their subjects.

Where to Start

The researcher was intimidated at the beginning of the qualitative research because the researcher had not completed any qualitative work before the course. The researcher had no clue where to start, what to study and what to do. After searching on the web to find at least one or two sample qualitative research studies and completing course reading, the researcher developed an initial idea about the research topic. However the researcher was still worried about whether the selected topic is too broad to complete the research on time. Bogdan & Biklen (1998) urge the novice to pick a study that seems reasonable in size and complexity so that it can be completed with the time and resources available (p. 51). How would researchers make sure that their research is reasonable? The researcher realized that it was not that much important what question researchers have at the beginning of the research but it is important what research question researchers can generate while the study progresses.

Although Bogdan & Biklen (1998) recommend novice researchers to pick places where they are more or less strangers, the researcher did not follow this advice and thought that knowing people and setting would provide the researcher several benefits such as easy to access information and people. After all, it was true that the researcher was able to reach faculty members teaching online courses to conduct interviews despite of faculty members’ busy schedule. However the researcher then realized that there were also disadvantages of knowing faulty members too, which was realized after starting to conduct interviews. The major disadvantage of knowing participants from whom data were collected was that participants did not think it is necessary to explain all details to the researcher.

Conducting Interviews

Although qualitative research books urge novice researchers that qualitative studies are labor-intensive, the researcher did not realize at the beginning how much time a researcher would spend to conduct interviews and observations. All interviews that the researcher conducted took thirty minutes each. Initially it was interesting for the researcher to ask more questions and gather more information about the research question but the researcher at the end realized the difficulty of transcribing them after sitting in front of the computer to transcribe the first interview. It took five hours to finish transcribe the first interview for the researcher. It is difficult to estimate how long transcribing takes (Bogdan & Biklen, 1998, p. 130). While the interview progresses, participating faculty members started to realize more think about the issue and wanted to talk more about them rather than directly answering the researcher’s questions.

The researcher had several concerns when preparing to conduct interviews. Probably the major one was trying to create a pattern by asking specific questions. The researcher assumed that it would be much easier to do coding of data if specific questions were asked. However, the researcher realized that faculty members had more to say rather than answering predefined questions. Their stories made interviews and the research even more interesting. After reviewing several qualitative research articles, the researcher realized that there were other researchers defining interview question before interviews too. Riessman (2002) states same issue by saying that “subsequently I realized that participants were resisting our efforts to fragment their experiences into thematic (codable) categories our attempts, in effect, to control meaning.” After the first interview experience, the researcher changed interview questions when the new issues emerged.  Bogdan & Biklen (1998) address this issue by saying that even when an interview guide is employed, qualitative interviews offer the interviewer considerable latitude to pursue a range of topics and offer the subject a chance to shape the content of the interview (p. 94).

How to Observe an Online Course

Emerson, et al (2001) defines the fieldnotes as a means of providing descriptive accounts of people, scenes and dialogue, as well as personal experiences and reactions, that is, accounts that minimize explicit theorizing and interpretation (p. 35). In addition to conducting interviews, observation is also required to be done. The researcher investigated faculty members’ experiences in online courses. Thus the researcher was not certain about how to do observation in online courses. Due to the short history of online courses, there was not any guide or suggestion to do observation in online courses. After talking with faculty members, the researcher decided to attend chat sessions of online courses. The researcher was not expecting to find something that might contribute the research but it was interesting to observe that studied faculty members act differently in online courses and many other topics emerged after observing the chat sessions.


It is important for researchers to understand the nature of their study. Each method either qualitative or quantitative has strengths and weaknesses. Specifying what purposes the research findings are going to be used and knowing the nature of the phenomena would help researchers to choose the right research method. Experience is important for qualitative researchers. The most important thing for novice researchers to remember is to keep the advice of experienced researchers. Learning from mistakes is important but being aware of possible mistakes and preventing yourself from doing those mistakes is much more important, so from the first experience of the researcher, it is suggested that reading existing literature and learning more about the method is probably the most important competency that researchers should have before starting to conduct qualitative studies in setting that they are not familiar.


Bogdan, R.C., & Biklen, S.K. (1998). Qualitative research for education: An introduction to theory and methods. Needham Heights, MA: Ally & Bacon.

Schwantdt, T.A. (1999). On understanding understanding. Qualitative Inquiry, 5, 451-464.

Riessman, C.K. (2002). Analysis of personal narratives. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Emerson, R.M., Fretz, R.I., & Shaw, L. L.  (2001). Participant observation and fieldnotes. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

About the Author

Omur Akdemir, Ph.D. is a Research Assistant at Zonguldak Karaelmas University. Eregli, Zonguldak Turkey.


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