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Online Qualitative Methods and Virtual Ethnography

Bojana Lobe

University of Ljubljana

Bojana Lobe is an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Ljubljana, where she teaches various methods courses, including Social Science Data Collection and Digital Technologies.

Her research interests include online qualitative research methods, integration of qualitative and quantitative methods online, qualitative comparative analysis, and researching children’s experiences online with mixed methods.

She is the author of the book Integration of Online Research Methods and of several chapters and articles on conducting online focus groups and interviews. She is a member of the research programme Social Science Methodology, Statistics and Informatics at the University of Ljubljana.

Since 2006, Bojana has been actively involved in researching the experiences of children and young people with internet and digital technologies through various projects:

Course Dates and Times

Monday 25 February – Friday 1 March, 14:00 – 17:30 (finishing slightly earlier on Friday)
15 hours over five days

Prerequisite Knowledge

None, though some general familiarity with qualitative and ethnographic methods would be useful.

Short Outline

Digital technologies have become essential for empirical research across many disciplines. This course deals with concrete ways of using digital technology for qualitative data collection. It is aimed at scholars who seek to apply qualitative online data collection methods in their studies. 

Online research methods are essentially facilitators of ‘traditional’ methods, modified for use in online contexts, such as email, chat rooms, web pages, various forms of instant messaging, and other internet applications.

The course starts by introducing basic characteristics of qualitative online research methods and their temporal structure. It provides an overview of advantages and disadvantages of online research methods in general.

We continue by examining different forms of online qualitative data collection, in particular online focus groups, online interviews and virtual ethnography, addressing methodological as well as practical considerations.

Finally, we look at how to combine various online data collection methods, and tackle some ethical research issues.

Tasks for ECTS Credits

2 credits (pass/fail grade). Attend at least 90% of the course. Participate fully in in-class activities. Carry out the necessary reading and/or other work prior to, and after, classes. Read the daily readings (see list below) in advance.

3 credits (to be graded) As above, plus: deliver the four daily assignments from Monday to Thursday, before the session starts the following day.

4 credits (to be graded). As above, plus: write up a thorough take-home research paper that will be evaluated by the Instructor. The format, focus, evaluation criteria, submission deadline etc. of the paper will be explained on Days 1 and 5 of the course. There is some flexibility in terms of focus (more details will be discussed on Day 5).

Long Course Outline

This course focuses on the use of digital technologies for qualitative data collection, from a conceptual and applied perspective.

Its goal is to acquaint you with the basics of online qualitative research methods, and to cover methodological and practical aspects of online focus groups, online in-depth interviews and virtual ethnography (online fieldwork).

We will examine in detail:

  • Pros and cons of online research in general and qualitative research in particular;
  • Temporal dimensions of online qualitative research (synchronous, asynchronous);
  • Qualitative methods (online focus groups, online interviews, online fieldwork – virtual ethnography)
  • Sampling strategies in online qualitative studies;
  • Principles of qualitative data collection with digital technologies;
  • Technological, ethical and methodological issues of online data collection methods.

After the course, you will be able to:

  • Understand concepts and assumptions of social science methodology using digital technologies;
  • Use digital technologies to collect qualitative data;
  • Collect, analyse and integrate (merge) data collected by digital technologies, using various online qualitative methods;
  • Solve technological, ethical social science research problems using digital technologies.

The course consists of lectures, hands-on exercises and daily assignments.

To facilitate discussion, I expect you to read selected texts about methodological issues, critically analyse online methods studies focusing on online research methods, and complete practical data collection exercises for each method covered (online interviews and virtual ethnography).

As a take-home assignment, I will ask you to compose a methodological plan for an online qualitative study. This could be your actual research project or an imaginary project envisaged only for educative purposes.  

This course is focused on data collection; it does not cover data analysis methods, because they do not differ from those used for qualitative data collected offline. The course does not cover automated online data collection methods.

Day Topic Details
3 Online In-depth Interviews
  • Fundamentals of in-depth interviews
  • How to design online in-depth interviews
  • How to prepare online interview questions
  • During the online interview: rapport, interaction, trust issues online
  • Hands-on exercise: conducting online qualitative interview
2 Online focus groups
  • Fundamentals of the focus group method
  • How to design an online focus group (selection, recruitment, etc.)
  • How to write online focus group questions
  • Moderation of online focus groups, number of participants in online focus groups
  • Various forms of online focus groups
  • Hands-on exercise: conducting online focus groups

1 Overview and introduction: Digital technologies as social science data collection tool
  • Online social formations and  online qualitative research methods
  • Temporal dimensions of online qualitative research (synchronous, asynchronous)
  • Pros and cons of online qualitative research
4 Online Fieldwork (participant observation)
  • Fundamentals of fieldwork method
  • How to design a study with online fieldwork
  • In the field (choosing sites, temporal dimensions of online fields, documenting online, asking questions online)
  • Covert/overt issues in online fieldwork
  • Hands-on exercise: conducting online fieldwork
5 Combination of online qualitative methods with web surveys etc., ‘FOMM’ (Flexible Online Mixed Methods) Concluding discussion: technological, ethical and methodological issues of online methods

Software Requirements


Hardware Requirements

Each participant should bring a laptop – no particular technical requirements.


Hewson, Claire, Vogle, Carl, Laurent, Dianna (2016) Internet Research Methods Second Edition. Sage Publications

Fielding, N., Lee, R.M., Blank, G. (ur.) (2016) The Sage Handbook of Online Research Methods Second Edition. Los Angeles, CA: Sage

Hesse-Biber, Sharlene Janice (Eds.). (2011) The Handbook of Emergent Technologies in Social Research New York: Oxford University Press

Lobe, B. (2008) Integration of Online Research Methods Ljubljana: FDV

Additional Information


This course description may be subject to subsequent adaptations (e.g. taking into account new developments in the field, participant demands, group size, etc). Registered participants will be informed in due time.

Note from the Academic Conveners

By registering for this course, you confirm that you possess the knowledge required to follow it. The instructor will not teach these prerequisite items. If in doubt, contact the instructor before registering.