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Conducting school-based online survey during the COVID-19 pandemic: Fieldwork practices and ethical dilemmas

Authors: Veronika Kalmus, Signe Opermann, Mari-Liis Tikerperi

Please cite as: Kalmus, V., Opermann, S. & Tikerperi, M. (2022): Conducting school-based online survey during the COVID-19 pandemic: Fieldwork practices and ethical dilemmas. In S. Kotilainen (Ed.), Methods in practice: Studying children and youth online (chapter 13). Retrieved DD Month YYYY, from, doi:

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Online surveys provide a time- and cost-efficient solution for data collection with digital devices (Vehovar & Lozar Manfreda, 2017) and in various modes of participation. Besides advantages, online research brings along challenges related to access and literacies (Granello & Wheaton, 2004), participants’ privacy and confidentiality, sampling procedures and consent obtaining (franzke et al., 2020), and data quality (Rasmussen, 2017). Concerns, furthermore, revolve around the design and structure of the questionnaire, measurement of performance and response, and participants’ engagement with the survey.

This chapter discusses a practical experience of conducting a school-based online survey in Spring 2021, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Within the international project ySKILLS, aiming to study online experiences and digital skills of 12–17 years old students in six European countries, we conducted a self-administered online survey in nine Estonian schools. By adapting to the distance and hybrid learning situations, the research team of seven people held 80 survey sessions in three different synchronous modes. Most sessions (57) took place via Zoom, Teams, or Google Meet, involving students, teachers, and researchers; 15 sessions were held in hybrid classrooms, with students and teachers participating on-site and researchers via online meeting platforms; 8 sessions took place in physical classroom settings.

Table 1. Overview of the school-based online survey participation among Estonian students across three survey modes in 2021

Survey modes

Students in schools



Questionnaire completed



Average time




Fully online




























Table 1 shows that the in-classroom and hybrid modes increased focusing on the questionnaire (evidenced by shorter completion times). The participation rate proved to be the highest in the in-classroom sessions. However, the participation rate varied between the schools within all modes. The crucial factors were school principals’ support, teachers’ and educational technologists’ assistance, and parents’ willingness to consent to their child’s participation.

The main strengths of online surveys are related to increasing the flexibility of space and time, thus facilitating the logistics for schools and researchers. Conducting the survey in digital environments was the only way to surpass the pandemic-related restrictions. The fully online and hybrid mode enabled us, furthermore, to broaden the geographical coverage of the sample and expand the time limits of one school lesson (by letting the students to finish the survey afterwards). These affordances increased the chances for full participation of students with special needs and/or less skills, thus decreasing sample bias and improving data quality.

One of the challenges was obtaining parental consent via online means under the pandemic-induced conditions of digital school-home communication, and information overload and fatigue. Our attempt of getting active written consent from parents through school-home communication platforms resulted in a very low response rate (26% in one school). Sticking to active parental consent would have meant being limited to a small and biased sample or exerting further pressure on schools to contact parents repeatedly. After weighing methodological and ethical arguments, we decided to let schools have a voice in the process and followed their advice to switch to passive parental consent. Parents received a message with the information and consent sheet and convenient instructions for expressing non-consent. About 5% of parents declined.

Unexpectedly, obtaining parental consent via online channels sometimes excluded the child from the teacher-parent communication on this matter. A few children, unaware of their parent’s refusal, turned up in online survey sessions, willing to participate. This raised an ethical dilemma about respecting the child’s rights and dignity versus parental will. We tried to solve those cases discreetly (e.g., letting the child fill in the survey and deleting the data later).

Another ethical dilemma was related to instructing the students to switch their web camera on/ off during the online survey session. Switching the camera off provided the child with complete privacy with respect to the researcher, the teacher, and the classmates, while opening the possibility of privacy intrusion and interference by family members. As neither option had obvious advantages, we respected the conventions each school and teacher had established for online classes. In the hybrid mode, remotely participating researchers were occasionally unable to hinder a teacher from seeing students’ answers while s/he was trying to help them with technical problems.

Lessons learned

To summarise the lessons learned from conducting the school-based online survey in various modes, we stress the three Cs of Communication, Consent, and Classroom.

  • Thorough communication between the researchers and the key school staff members is essential to fieldwork success. Detailed guidelines for action provided by the researchers help to even out the variety of school cultures that otherwise have a substantial influence on research. 

  • Researchers should apply a context-sensitive ethical approach in dealing with the active versus passive parental consent dilemma and respect children’s rights and agency. 

  • Compared to the online and hybrid survey modes, the in-classroom mode increases participation rate, reduces the mediating role of school and the influence of school culture, and mitigates ethical challenges related to children’s online privacy.


This research was supported by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Programme Grant Agreement IDs 870612 and 871018.

Download the full handbook here: PDF.

  1. Franzke, a. s., Bechmann, A., Zimmer, M., Ess, C., & the Association of Internet Researchers (2020). Internet Research: Ethical Guidelines 3.0.

  2. Granello, D. H., & Wheaton, J. E. (2004) Online Data Collection: Strategies for Research. Journal of Counseling and Development, 82(4), 387-394.

  3. Rasmussen, K. B. (2017). Data Quality in Online Environments. In N. G. Fielding, R. M. Lee, & G. Blank (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Online Research Methods (2. ed., pp. 38-54). SAGE Publications.

  4. Vehovar, V., & Lozar Manfreda, K. (2017). Overview: Online Surveys. In N. G. Fielding, R. M. Lee, & G. Blank (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Online Research Methods (2. ed., pp. 143-161). SAGE Publications.

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