Educational research has long been conducted at a distance; both mail and telephone have successfully been used in survey research. The development of the Internet, specifically, electronic mail, offers yet another medium over which research can be conducted. This study discusses the use of electronic mail as a vehicle for conducting educational research. It focuses particularly on the way in which electronic mail can be used to engage in reflective dialogues, which yield deep, qualitative data. The research methodology is presented along with examples of the dialogue that emerged from the semi-structured interview protocol that was used.
For many faculty at higher education institutions, research productivity is viewed as one of the deciding factors for tenure and merit. Traditionally, this research has been conducted in a variety of ways: mail or phone surveys, interviews, and observation. Often these methods have been limited by geographical concerns, cost, time, and availability and willingness of participants. The development of the Internet and electronic mail (e-mail) has added a new dimension to data collection. Geographical boundaries are almost non-existent, mailing and phone costs have been defrayed, and time spent mailing and waiting for replies has been shortened. The purpose of this study was to use e-mail to collect interview data of a reflective nature while examining e-mail as a viable method for collecting this type of data. This article emphasizes the methodology of the study including the process of finding participants, gathering sufficiently detailed data from the participants, the problems encountered, and possible solu tions.
ONLINE DATA COLLECTION
The Internet has been used to collect data in a variety of ways for many years. In 1978, Hiltz and Turoff discussed the possible use of computer-mediated communication as an opinion research tool, especially using predictive data gathering techniques such as Delphi. Honey and McMillan (1994) used online technology to interview subjects who had participated in an earlier national telecommunications survey (Honey & Henriquez ,1993); all but two participants completed open-ended questionnaires using the Internet. James, Wotring, and Forrest (1993) found that online surveys are "fast, relatively inexpensive and allow users to request feedback that can clarify misunderstandings about the instrument" (p. 52). Thach (1995) analyzed the use of e-mail to conduct survey research and found it to be cheaper, easier to edit, faster to administer, simpler to invite participants, a higher response rate, more candid answers, and a potentially quicker response time with a wider area of coverage. The speed of electronic trans mission allows messages to be transmitted worldwide in a matter of minutes as opposed to traditional mail which may take months to reach a country outside the US. One advantage of this is that data can be collected from a variety of populations, which might otherwise not be utilized. One limitation of using the Internet, however, is that even though the Internet population includes people from all over the world (Eaton, 1997), this population is limited to individuals having access to the Internet. This access is not randomly distributed (Edmondson, 1997; Watt, 1998), although several researchers maintain that the Internet population may be becoming more representative of the overall U.S. population (Bruzzone, 1999; Edmondson, 1997; Kehoe & Pitkow, 1996).
Many of the problems associated with traditional data collection methods also affect online data collection. These include difficulty in contacting potential participants (i.e., finding e-mail addresses, finding street addresses, unlisted phone numbers); noncommunication by those contacted (throw away mailed surveys, delete e-mails, screen calls or hang up); and having a representative sample (all methods have nonrespondents). However, the Internet has the advantages over traditional methods of being faster, less expensive, providing the ability to contact wider geographical areas, and allowing participants time to reflect on their answers.
The asynchronous and text-based characteristics of e-mail make e-mail a mode of communications that lends itself to exchanges that are timely and thoughtful. E-mail is particularly well suited as a vehicle for conducting personal interviews when space and time do not connect the researcher and subject. Personal interviews are the most effective interview method for obtaining the cooperation of the interviewee, and allow for the most flexibility in asking questions, probing for answers, and building rapport (Katz, 1993). E-mail interviews can be viewed as a dialogue between individuals that can easily and inexpensively be transformed into highly usable data, making them a highly valuable tool for conducting research (Thach, …