Last year I received a LEAP student grant to study the development of socio-emotional skills through interactive English training classes in Quang Nam, Vietnam. The grant has allowed me to have firsthand experience in managing data collection from the field while collaborating with a local NGO, Teach for Vietnam (TFV). In this blog piece, I share some thoughts I had during this rewarding and formative experience, also in light of the COVID-19 situation.
Preparation is essential
Preparations begin way in advance of the data collection start date – they include RA recruitment, survey design, obtaining necessary authorization and clearances from the local authorities and ethics committees.
With the uncertainty of COVID-19, it is important to make sure that local policies are in line with the needs of the institutions involved in the project such as travel restrictions, or the allowed degree of in-person interactions. When possible, in order to keep track of the situation and verify the activities in the field, official documents from the local authorities about the suspension or opening of local activities (e.g. school openness) are important to have.
Ensure effective communication with field research assistants (RAs)
RAs are your arm in the field, step in their shoes and engage them to make this a rewarding experience on both sides. Some of the RAs may not think of research as their long-term career plan, it could even be their first experience ever with research. However, they could be interested in the project because of its social impact, or they are interested in learning new skills (e.g. working with data, or coding). Passionate and responsible RAs go a long way. While rolling out one of the subsequent surveys, the region was affected by bad weather. To avoid the delay in the timing of the survey, one of the RAs in my team volunteered to assist a teaching fellow to distribute and collect the surveys throughout the week when it rained heavily from morning to night (and heavy rain in Vietnam is no joke).
The RAs are often eager to see the initial results of the project. Therefore, starting to share with them the findings as soon as the data comes in can be valuable. Additionally, discussing with the RAs how the data is processed or how other works have been done in this field helps to paint a clearer picture of the project impact and helps the RAs gaining some practical knowledge or data skills.
Things change quickly
When running a data collection in the field, flexibility is key. For example, during COVID-19, local activities change on a daily basis. For this reason, local news is very important to follow the changing situation. Like many other countries, the number of COVID-19 infection cases receives a lot of attention in Vietnam, therefore, when there are new cases, different news outlets will cover them with the description of the situation and responses from the local authority. Read widely. Some news outlets may focus on some occurrences only.
Local responses may be even more local than expected. In Vietnam, the decision of postponing exams or delaying teaching activities comes from the sub-regional authority. On top of that, new cases from a specific neighbourhood can halt some activities in one school, while the others in the same region are not affected.
This is an additional reason to keep close contacts with the RAs and the NGO on the field. While the RAs can quickly report changes in school activities, the NGO can give a heads-up on how the school might respond. For instance, TFV always keeps me up to date on any local development, which gives me more time to prepare contingency plans.
Surveying in the local languages
In different parts of Vietnam, and many other countries in the world, the same object can be described with different words, depending on the local context. Navigating this linguistic ambiguity is important, especially when the respondents are young children. For instance, “bố” and “ba” both mean father in Vietnamese, however, the first is more commonly used in the north, while the latter is more used in the central part of the country. In the first trial of the survey, when first encountered the use of “bố”, some students were confused about which family member the question referred to, leading to a substantially longer time for the students to complete the survey.
When the survey includes questions relating to the effect of COVID-19 on young participants, the uses of language should be taken with extra care. Like all of us, the experience with COVID-19 among young children is unprecedented. Different from us, at a young age, children may not have a clear understanding of the circumstance. This could mean that certain scientific words are very unfamiliar to them, or certain emotions are vague for them to imagine and thus to give a response.
If the budget and timing allow, always run a pilot-of-pilot of the survey to get a sense of how the respondents interpret the questions. Otherwise, have some local friends, or in my case, one of the RAs coming from the same region, read through the survey. Make sure to go through every question to clarify even the slightest ambiguity. Additionally, concrete examples that are close to the daily activities of the respondents can help them better grasp the meaning of the questions, and therefore, better answer them.
Embrace the learning opportunity!
Running a field data collection, especially during a pandemic, is a bit like being regularly on pins and needles. Uncertainty is unavoidable, problems come in at unexpected times, and they are different each time. Nevertheless, the experience is totally worth the cost. Every challenge requires creativity and careful understanding of the local context. Problem solving is rewarding and informative. In my case, having the opportunity to work closely with a local NGO helps me learn a lot about the educational system in Vietnam, both at the national level and at a more granular local level.