Inside IES Research

Notes from NCER & NCSER

How Remote Data Collection Enhanced One Grantee’s Classroom Research During COVID-19

Under an IES grant, Michigan State University, in collaboration with the Michigan Department of Education, the Michigan Center for Educational Performance and Information, and the University of Michigan, is assessing the implementation, impact, and cost of the Michigan “Read by Grade 3” law intended to increase early literacy outcomes for Michigan students. In this guest blog, Dr. Tanya Wright and Lori Bruner discuss how they were able to quickly pivot to a remote data collection plan when COVID-19 disrupted their initial research plan.  

The COVID-19 pandemic began while we were planning a study of early literacy coaching for the 2020-2021 academic year. It soon became abundantly clear that restrictions to in-person research would pose a major hurdle for our research team. We had planned to enter classrooms and record videos of literacy instruction in the fall. As such, we found ourselves faced with a difficult choice: we could pause our study until it became safer to visit classrooms and miss the opportunity to learn about literacy coaching and in-person classroom instruction during the pandemic, or we could quickly pivot to a remote data collection plan.

Our team chose the second option. We found that there are multiple technologies available to carry out remote data collection. We chose one of them (a device known as the Swivl) that included a robotic mount, where a tablet or smartphone can be placed to take the video, with a 360-degree rotating platform that works in tandem with a handheld or wearable tracker and an app that allows videos to be instantly uploaded to a cloud-based storage system for easy access.

Over the course of the school year, we captured over 100 hours of elementary literacy instruction in 26 classrooms throughout our state. While remote data collection looks and feels very different from visiting a classroom to record video, we learned that it offers many benefits to both researchers and educators alike. We also learned a few important lessons along the way.

First, we learned remote data collection provides greater flexibility for both researchers and educators. In our original study design, we planned to hire data collectors to visit classrooms, which restricted our recruitment of schools to a reasonable driving distance from Michigan State University (MSU). However, recording devices allow us to capture video anywhere, including rural areas of our state that are often excluded from classroom research due to their remote location. Furthermore, we found that the cost of purchasing and shipping equipment to schools is significantly less than paying for travel and people’s time to visit classrooms. In addition, using devices in place of data collectors allowed us to easily adapt to last-minute schedule changes and offer teachers the option to record video over multiple days to accommodate shifts in instruction due to COVID-19.

Second, we discovered that we could capture more classroom talk than when using a typical video camera. After some trial and error, we settled on a device with three external wireless microphones: one for the teacher and two additional microphones to place around the classroom. Not only did the extra microphones record audio beyond what the teacher was saying, but we learned that we can also isolate each microphone during data analysis to hear what is happening in specific areas of the classroom (even when the teacher and children were wearing masks). We also purchased an additional wide-angle lens, which clipped over the camera on our tablet and allowed us to capture a wider video angle.  

Third, we found remote data collection to be less intrusive than sending a research team into schools. The device is compact and can be placed on any flat surface in the classroom or be mounted on a basic tripod. The teacher has the option to wear the microphone on a lanyard to serve as a hands-free tracker that signals the device to rotate to follow the teacher’s movements automatically. At the end of the lesson, the video uploads to a password-protected storage cloud with one touch of a button, making it easy for teachers to share videos with our research team. We then download the videos to the MSU server and delete them from our cloud account. This set-up allowed us to collect data with minimal disruption, especially when compared to sending a person with a video camera to spend time in the classroom.

As with most remote work this year, we ran into a few unexpected hurdles during our first round of data collection. After gathering feedback from teachers and members of our research team, we were able to make adjustments that led to a better experience during the second round of data collection this spring. We hope the following suggestions might help others who are considering such a device to collect classroom data in the future:

  1. Consider providing teachers with a brief informational video or offering after-school training sessions to help answer questions and address concerns ahead of your data collection period. We initially provided teachers with a detailed user guide, but we found that the extra support was key to ensuring teachers had a positive experience with the device. You might also consider appointing a member of your research team to serve as a contact person to answer questions about the remote data collection during data collection periods.
  2. As a research team, it is important to remember that team members will not be collecting the data, so it is critical to provide teachers with clear directions ahead of time: what exactly do you want them to record? Our team found it helpful to send teachers a brief two-minute video outlining our goals and then follow up with a printable checklist they could use on the day they recorded instruction. 
  3. Finally, we found it beneficial to scan the videos for content at the end of each day. By doing so, we were able to spot a few problems, such as missing audio or a device that stopped rotating during a lesson. While these instances were rare, it was helpful to catch them right away, while teachers still had the device in their schools so that they could record missing parts the next day.

Although restrictions to in-person research are beginning to lift, we plan to continue using remote data collection for the remaining three years of our project. Conducting classroom research during the COVID-19 pandemic has proven challenging at every turn, but as we adapted to remote video data collection, we were pleased to find unanticipated benefits for our research team and for our study participants.


This blog is part of a series focusing on conducting education research during COVID-19. For other blog posts related to this topic, please see here.

Tanya S. Wright is an Associate Professor of Language and Literacy in the Department of Teacher Education at Michigan State University.

Lori Bruner is a doctoral candidate in the Curriculum, Instruction, and Teacher Education program at Michigan State University.