Without a doubt, the COVID-19 pandemic changed the lives of those with academic careers. Researchers were forced to adapt in-person study methodologies to a remote format, and professors found themselves lecturing to a Brady Bunch conglomeration of Zoom thumbnails as opposed to a room full of students. Although many academics have experienced similar setbacks and benefits to doing life via online platforms, everyone’s experience has been a little bit different. In March 2021, I sat down (via Zoom) with the current Div. 3 president, Stephen Ceci, PhD, of Cornell University. During our conversation, I learned about his experience as an academic during COVID-19 (and that of fellow developmental psychologists) and got his take on what he believes life as an academic might be like in a post-COVID era.
Q: What have your experiences been this past year with research limitations due to COVID-19?
A: I don’t have any special wisdom in terms of the pandemic–we’re all going through the same thing. My colleagues and I had to move all of our experiments online. We can’t get children and families to come into the lab. We are not allowed to go into schools and test kids, so all of our experiments were moved online, and this presented a challenge. [The iAT is] a part of one of the experiments that we do, [and] we had to learn how to integrate that into Qualtrics. The subjects in the experiment have to be able to go back and forth between the different components and we didn’t know how to do that. We’re still not totally confident that we’re doing it correctly. But it forced my lab and other labs in the same situation to seek out national experts on CloudArmy and other platforms that know how to do this integration.
One of my grad students, Amy Su, did a national survey of people who were doing child interview studies online and she asked them “What did we learn from this experience in the past year? What are the remaining challenges? What are the good things about moving experiments online?” Amy has a short paper describing her survey–I think that she had 30 [developmental psychology] lab directors across the US who responded. They pointed to some good things that the pandemic has resulted in–they went through a couple things that I would not have thought of. But for the most part, they were negative things. I just mention this because it’s much broader than just my lab–people across the country are saying “Yes, we had to move everything online; yes, there are some positive aspects to having done that; but for the most part they are negative aspects.”
You can imagine that you have a three-year-old [participant], and the parent has to curate the whole experiment. The parent has to be there, the parent has to…[operate] the track pad and [instruct] the child on what they have to do next. A preschooler can’t do these things. And we [researchers], because we’re at the other end of the camera, can’t really do it either. So, it makes it kind of a group project to test one child. A lot of parents say, “Sorry, I don’t have the time.” In the past, they would just drop the kid off at the lab and run the experiment. It was interesting (but not surprising) to see [lab directors] across the country saying the same thing: Their participation rates had gone down because of that. [You also] have concerns about the integrity of the data when parents are actually kind of shepherding their child through the experiment–[you hope] that they’re not sort of suggesting answers to the child.
Q: What are positives and negatives that you have encountered with your work in the last year?
A: I’ll read some of the ones that Amy culled from her 30 respondents. First, [as for positives,] flexible time and space: home-based online research relaxes experimenters and experimentees because it overcomes hurdles [such as] traffic difficulties, getting there on time, energy, [and] the expense of driving to the lab. [Second,] smart tools: video-conferencing technology provides practical tools for researchers. Embedded recording substantially decreases participants’ social desirability because the recording signals (like blinking red dots on cameras) are less noticeable than on a traditional audio-video recorder between or around the talkers. Live closed captioning facilitates conversation by displaying simultaneous visual language cues, [and] researchers report [that this also] significantly expedites the post-experiment transcription process. For paired (e.g., mother/child) and group tasks, the break-out rooms allow uninterrupted discussions outside the perception of other participants, which is something I hadn’t thought of because I don’t use the breakout rooms in my experiments, but a lot of other people apparently do, and I can see where that can be a really nice feature. The final advantage [was] fair ecological validity: home-based environments enable researchers to easily observe natural intrafamilial interactions and can better capture unaffected family dynamics. So, there are some of the positives people around the country [mentioned].
[As for some of the negatives,] lack of controlled environment: Physical surroundings (such as background noise and distractors) vary across families and might interrupt participants’ perception of researchers’ instructions and research materials (for example, the to-be-remembered videos). Such intrusions may be more common in certain sociodemographic groups, thus posing potential interpretive challenges. Also, researchers reported that non-invited family members (such as siblings, parents, or pets) occasionally interrupt the conversation and can be distracting. Child participants’ attention spans are shortened during online sessions. Developmental researchers need to reduce the length of sessions with a recommendation of no more than 30 minutes and intersperse game-like elements in research materials to keep children interested. Another negative is overreliance on parents, which I mentioned. Unlike traditional laboratory research, at-home developmental research sessions heavily rely on parents’ active involvement in order to engage children in the focal task (e.g., operating the computer and the internet). Thus, it’s almost impossible to prevent parents from implicitly and sometimes explicitly influencing their children’s behavior throughout the research process.
[An additional negative] is Zoom fatigue: The exhaustion and stress caused by overusing virtual forms of communication is a real threat for children, especially those who are very young, and likewise those who are very old. Fatigue causes participants to require more breaks during an online experiment than is the case during an in-person experiment. According to some respondents, this phenomenon also depletes experimenters’ cognitive capacities, because most research teams arrange multiple sessions within a relatively short period. [This] might be acceptable in an in-person setting but is energy-taxing in an online scenario. The last one is recruitment competition. While participants can conveniently get access to multiple online developmental projects at the same time, they tend to attend to those that offer the most attractive compensation. Thus, the global competition we have for child participants has forced researchers to increase incentives compared to in-person versions of the same experiment. For instance, one research group gave children stickers for an in-person interview, however they offered $10 online giftcards for the same study during the pandemic. This is something else that we have seen in my lab – that we have had to sort of up the ante because we’re competing for the same children.
[Overall,] I think [researchers] across the country who are doing experiments with young children are seeing a combination of positive and negative (but mostly negative) effects [of using online platforms]. I’m hearing from my colleagues that their labs [and] their grad students are surviving [and] functioning but their productivity is down because they’re spending so much time figuring out the technicalities of [online platforms like] Cloud Army and Qualtrics.
Q: Do you think that online platforms (e.g., Qualtrics, CloudArmy) were prepared for the influx of academic research studies?
A: Because our research focuses on young children, it’s not an ideal format. It requires parents to type in answers or to click on boxes. I guess it’s too early to assess whether the data we’re getting from these online studies is comparable to what we get in en vivo lab testing because we’ve only been doing this for a few months. Down the road there may be a replicability crisis in developmental science because these online testings may not, in fact, replicate what we’re doing in the lab. Socio-demographically, [recruiting child participants whose] parents have a computer with a high speed internet connection excludes some of the poorest families. In the past, we had those children because we would go to those schools and we had a testing room where we could test all the kids. Now, it’s only those parents who are home with their kids ([who] tend to be more professional parents working online). There could be a problem down the road with not having comparable data.
Q: Going forward into a post-COVID era, what changes to your research do you think you will keep?
A: We study participants across a really wide age range–all the way from preschool to the elderly. When and if the pandemic ever ends, I can imagine that there will be a new normal where we retain some of the online testing, but [it] will be with older kids and adults ([not] with preschoolers). I think everybody, at least from my lab and in [Amy’s] national sample, feels that with young kids, this online [format] is not going to be retained. But I think going forward in the new normal online advising is one of the things that we have convinced ourselves…works as well as having [students] sit in a chair in [our] office. We could be in the same room but 90% plus of our communication, I think, can [be] capture[d] in an online session. [There are also] a lot of things to do with testing that we have all now become accustomed to. Just this week I had a student in one my classes [that] couldn’t take a test that’s scheduled this coming week. I shot an email to my TA team, and it was very easy to come up with an asynchronous recording of our class and have a function where she could take the test. So those kinds of things, I think, are good things that have resulted from the pandemic. Going forward, even when we’re back to in-person teaching, these kinds of fixes for things like testing conflicts will effortlessly default to doing it in some online fashion.
I [have done] all my lab meetings online for a year now, and I’m not convinced that’s as good as in-person. I sit there and I look at these thumbnail photos of my students in the lab going around the screen. They might use the “raise hand” gesture or something, but all the spontaneity, all the give and take, I don’t sense that I get that with the graduate students. The undergrad classes that I teach are somewhat better because they’re mostly lecture. I have enough colleagues who like online teaching, so that when we are no longer required to do it online, they still want to do it online. I’m not one of them. I would prefer to be there in person.
Q:Are there any big lessons that academics could take away from this year?
A: This isn’t specific to psychology or academic psychology, but we need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that because we’ve been doing something a certain way for 100 years, it’s the best or only way to do it. That’s simply not the case. I have colleagues that are clinical psychologists, and a client comes to their office, sits in a chair, and they talk for 45 minutes and [the clinician bills] the insurance company for that. Prior to the pandemic, insurance companies would not pay for telemedicine or clinical services, but they’ve come to have to do it. And my friends who are clinicians say, “You know what, it’s no different than having the person sitting in my office talking about how their week went, what their upsets were,” and so on. I think that just because someone, in this case clinicians, has been doing something a certain way since Freud that that’s not the only way or best way. I think that’s also true for we academicians.
I have a doctoral student and she’s going to be defending her dissertation this summer. We’ve been talking about different dates for her to do it. In the pre-pandemic, these things were very rigidly regulated by universities. You couldn’t do it in the summer [because] the faculty were on nine-month contracts [and] everybody had to be there physically at the same time. Now that’s totally gone out the window. I think that it’s good that it’s gone out the window. It adds a great deal more flexibility. So I think that’s one take-home that again. Simply because something was the standard operating procedure for a long time, [does not mean] it’s the best or only way to do it. Post-pandemic we’ll have a lot more flexibility to meet our students’ needs.