I’m writing this month’s blog to accompany the publication of an article that has just appeared in ELT Journal. The full text of the advance access version of the paper is available at http://eltj.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/reprint/ccu045?ijkey=u7svXbp4n4j0WIz&keytype=ref (this link takes you to a pdf of the paper – if you are taken to a subscribers-only page, check that the link is not broken).
The research the article draws on was carried out for a project commissioned by the British Council and which was motivated by one key question: what are the benefits to teachers of attending international ELT conferences? Although attending conferences is generally seen to be a positive developmental activity for teachers, published empirical analyses supporting this assumption are scarce; I was in fact not able to identify any existing studies of relevance. As I note in the article, it is not difficult to find claims about the benefits of attending conferences, but what I was asked to do for this project was to collect evidence that might (or might not) back up such claims. As you will see from the article, the project was positive in its conclusions, highlighting a wide range of ways in which teachers felt they benefited from conference attendance. However, the study also makes recommendations for extending these benefits further through systematic support before and after conferences, especially for those with less experience of large international ELT events. The need for more, larger-scale research of this kind is also noted.
Methodologically, the study was an exciting challenge; the whole project had to be completed in two months but the time allocated to the project during this period was actually the equivalent of 10 days’ full-time work. This included designing the study, drafting, piloting and finalizing the questionnaire, defining the population, administering the questionnaire, identifying interviewees, conducting the interviews, analysing all the data, and writing the report. It is difficult to capture in a written report (which is necessarily neat and linear) the dynamic and complex manner in which the project unfolded, but logistically there were many challenges, not least scheduling appointments for interviews across different time zones. Securing a reasonable response rate to the questionnaire was also a challenge given the tight schedule and here reminder/thank you e-mails before the first and last deadline more than doubled the number of responses received when the questionnaire was first sent out. More than two reminders probably starts to feel like harassment, but well-timed and appropriately written (e.g. not sounding desperate or overly-forceful) reminders can have a major impact on the response rate to on-line surveys. And because it is not normally possible to send reminders only to those who have not responded, these reminders should always thank those who have already replied.
This project was also a good example of the facilitative role that technology can play in our work as researchers. The questionnaire was administered via the web-based SurveyMonkey service (other similar services are available – e.g. zoomerang, surveygizmo), while the interviews were conducted using Skype phone calls (I used Skype and to call interviewees on their mobile phones). Connections were generally clear, the costs were very reasonable (just under £60 for just over six hours of calls from Europe to mobile phones in the Gulf– roughly 17p a minute) and the calls could also (with permission of course) be recorded (for which I used the add-on called MP3 Skype recorder). Given the geographically-dispersed nature of respondents, without the support of the technology it would not have been feasible in the time available to access so many participants. Of course, technology can also exclude participants; for example, those who did not check their e-mails regularly or who were not comfortable with on-line surveys or telephone interviews were less likely to contribute; however, on balance, the context studied was one where technology was sufficiently well-embedded to justify technology-mediated research methods. The relative merits of on-line and paper-based surveys has been widely discussed and Nulty’s 2008 article provides a good introduction to this topic.
Please do read the article using the link above – I’d be interested in your reactions. If you have attended conferences, do you relate to some of the conclusions the study reaches about the benefits of such events to teachers? Are there additional benefits you’ve experienced but which did not emerge here? And would it be naïve to ignore that sometimes the main attraction of an international ELT event is overseas travel and a few days away from work? Let me know what you think.