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Online surveys are easy to set up, especially with the software that is available for this purpose. Many researchers are tempted to do much of their data collection online, but it is not always a good idea. Online surveys have an array of advantages and disadvantages. Whether a researcher uses an online survey should depend on the type of study she is doing, as online survey results can differ from those collected using more traditional methods.
Advantage: Instant Feedback
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Online surveys provide instant feedback to researchers. Data collection is instantaneous as the results are automatically sorted out. This technology saves researchers considerable time and money. Researchers can quickly view the results of the survey and go directly to the data analysis portion of the study.
Advantage: Inexpensive to Distribute
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Costs can be prohibitive to researchers who have a large sample size. Online surveys all but eliminate the cost of distributing a survey. The cost of paper, postage and labor is eliminated. Research firms can put their dollars into study design and analysis, rather than distribution.
Disadvantage: Inaccurate Demographic Data
Unlike a study in which the researcher is interviewing a subject, online surveys depend on people to be honest about basic demographic information such as age, gender and race. Since people are not always honest, this can create inaccuracy in the data. Surveys that are sent to individuals who have been prescreened will not suffer from the same degree of inaccuracy.
Disadvantage: Technical Problems
Occasionally, technical problems can affect the user experience, and subsequently the quality, of online surveys. Pages can time out and servers can become overloaded. Surveys can have technical glitches that are not apparent until significant errors begin to show up in the data. Individuals may be able to submit surveys twice, leading to errors in the data. (See Reference 1) People who take surveys may also have a differing degree of technical knowledge, leading to user error in some cases, such as selecting the “back” button in the browser, which may reset the survey.
Disadvantage: Do Not Use a Random Sample
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Online surveys that are not sent to specific individuals selected as part of a sample pool do not have a random sample. Rather, they are targeted toward individuals fitting a specific demographic who will self-select depending on their interest in the product or topic. Online surveys, by their very nature, exclude individuals who are not literate in English. (See Reference 2) Surveys of this sort cannot be considered scientific as a random sample cannot be obtained.
Elise Wile has been a writer since 2003. Holding a master's degree in curriculum and Instruction, she has written training materials for three school districts. Her expertise includes mentoring, serving at-risk students and corporate training.