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Is Online Research Controllable?

I was recently speaking with someone about performing an evaluation of a music education program for young children. Given the relatively small number of children enrolled in the program (approximately 100), we discussed the possibility of collaborating with other similar programs and combining samples across sites. This would of course afford us a much larger sample, conferring all the benefits associated with increased statistical power.

This conversation prompted me to think about the promises and perils of conducting research online. It would be fairly straightforward to ask a parent to fill out a simple demographic questionnaire using an internet survey tool. But what about a measure of a child’s behavior, one that was meant to present stimuli (e.g., images) in a predetermined order for a specific amount of time, and then record the child’s responses? Even if a sufficient degree of control could be exerted over the presentation of stimuli, the measure could not administer itself. Someone would have to introduce the measure to the child, and ensure that they understood the instructions regarding how to complete it. Moreover, the way in which this was done would have to be consistent across study sites.

Clearly, using online tools to administer measures cannot be done haphazardly, even if the technical challenges involved can be reduced to the point of triviality. However, the promise offered by such an approach-enhanced precision and the opportunity to observe increasingly subtle effects- certainly seems worth the added effort.

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